Secularisation in Western Europe, 1848-1914

By Marsh, Peter T. | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2002 | Go to article overview

Secularisation in Western Europe, 1848-1914


Marsh, Peter T., The Catholic Historical Review


Secularisation in Western Europe, 1848-1914. By Hugh McLeod. (New York: St Martin's Press. 2000. Pp. xii, 387. $65.00 clothbound; $19.95 paperback.)

Finely nuanced yet bold in conclusion, this study shatters the widespread assumption in western Europe that secularization inevitably accompanies the emergence of modern industrial, urban society. Professor McLeod bases his comparative study not so much with reference to the United States, where organized religion remains conspicuously strong, as by concentrating on western Europe itself, in particular on France, on the German Empire as defined in 1871, and on England, excluding the religiously distinct fringes of the United Kingdom. Temporally he concentrates on the years during which secularization is supposed to have become ascendant, between the middle of the nineteenth century, when by McLeod's own account, "going to church on Sunday or to communion at Easter were things taken for granted by the majority of the population," and the outbreak of World War I, when such practices "were the exception rather than the rule" (p. 178).

There has long been plenty of evidence that religious belief and practice remained and grew only stronger in the country where industrial revolution began, in England. As McLeod points out,"The period from the 1850s to the 1880s was one of exceptional prosperity in the history of the English churches, in which every social class and political faction was to some degree reached by one of the many religious denominations and levels of involvement were high" (p. 48). The political movements of liberalism, radicalism, and socialism that had strongly secularizing affinities in France and Germany continued to take religious forms in England. But before the reader can conclude that England must have followed its own Sonderweg in religion, McLeod points out the crosscurrents everywhere. Among Protestants in Germany, for example, the decline in religious practice began long before the onset of industrialization; on the other hand, the"[a]rtisans and shopkeepers, who in Germany were often regarded as the most devout section of the urban population in the second half of the nineteenth century, were in France regarded as the group most prone to militant anti-clericalism" (p. 132).

The highlighting of national differences in a comparative study is not surprising. More remarkable is the common "key to the religious situation in later nineteenth-century Europe"that McLeod finds in pluralism. His argument in this regard, the central thesis of the book, merits quotation in full: "trends towards secularisation have to be seen in the context of intense religious competition, whether between rival branches of Christianity or between religious and secular views of the world. …

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