BETWEEN THE LATER seventeenth and the late twentieth century, most Western societies have moved from being monolithically Christian (except for the small Jewish minority), to a situation in which a significant proportion of the population professes no religious belief and has little or no connection with any kind of church or synagogue. 1 An essential precondition for this change was the gradual emergence of religious toleration from the later seventeenth century onward. The pioneers were England, the Netherlands and some of the British colonies in North America. But gradually, in the course of the eighteenth century effective toleration spread to most other parts of Western Europe. The crucial significance of this development was that unorthodox religion, or irreligion, or simply religious non-practice, became legally permitted alternatives. It is hardly surprising that at least some people took advantage of these new opportunities. All three forms of religious dissent showed some growth in the eighteenth century. Most notably, deism, and later atheism, began to be popular in some intellectual circles from the later seventeenth century onward, and from that time there was a regular flow of publications questioning various aspects of Christian orthodoxy. As a result, what would previously have been perforce private speculations became generally available to the educated public, at least in those countries that did not have a rigorous censorship. In the eighteenth century religious practice was declining both at the upper and the lower end of the social hierarchy: at the upper end for the intellectual reasons just mentioned, and at the lower end for demographic reasons, notably the growth of poor suburbs with little religious provision in the major towns, and of isolated weaving and mining communities in the countryside. Unreformed established churches were ill-equipped to respond to challenges of the latter kind, and at this stage the state tended to give a low priority to support for religion. Indeed, 'enlightened' monarchs saw the church and popular religiosity as obstacles in the path of their modernizing programmes. On the other hand, the weaknesses of the established churches provided a stimulus, at least in Protestant countries, to evangelistic movements, often led predominantly by laymen, and appealing strongly to craftsmen and small farmers. So the eighteenth century saw important revival movements as well as strong secularizing tendencies.
In the political upheaval that followed the French Revolution of 1789 this tendency toward a polarization between the religious stances of different sections of the population became more marked. Revived religious interest was seen both on the part of the state and of many elite groups, which came to believe that