Interview: Steve Bruce

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Steve Bruce, Professor of Sociology at the University of Aberdeen, is perhaps the most prominent living proponent of secularisation theory. Steve is the author of God is Dead: Secularisation in the West, which sets out the complex contours of secularisation theory. 

How would you characterise the present debate or dialogue concerning religion and the public sphere?

First, I'm not persuaded that we live in a postsecular world. The notion of the postsecular in part seems to be an idea dreamt up by religious people who want to pretend that the people's of the West are more religious than they really are, or who want to find some justification for religion to have more influence than it merits on the basis of the number of religious people compared to the rest of us. I'm not at all impressed by Jurgen Habermas, a disappointed Marxist who spent his entire career trying to find a new fiancee since he was stood up by the working class. And he's now created a strange fiction of the notion of new radical social movements inspired by ancient religions. I just don't see an sign of this.

Second, I have trouble with the notion that we live in a post-political world. In Scotland we have just had a referendum with an 83% turn out. Membership in the Scottish National Party now stands at a remarkable 80,000. One in every five adults is a member of one political party. You have the Tory party in England being ravaged by UKIP and the serious possibility of a referendum in two years time that will take the UK out of Europe. I mean, this seems to me to be highly political and political in the old fashioned sense.

Another thing that strikes me is that the kinds of scholars who are popular these days, name checked in your research programme - Habermas, Zizek, Castells - they're not social scientists; they're all philosophers. They don't do empirical social research. Their notions can be dreamt up in a sealed room. Their world just doesn't look like my world. I certainly don't see any sign that religion is becoming increasingly influential in public policy debate. I mean I do think that religion is becoming more troublesome.

Between 1997 and 2011 we had two Christian parties that stood in elections and their performance was so poor that most people didn't even notice they existed. In London in the 2009 European Parliament elections, they managed to mobilise an anti-Muslim sentiment. They did quite well in London. Their best performance got 2.9% of the vote. Their average in the country as a whole was 1.5%. That is the lunatics and self-publicist territory. What these results repeatedly show is that there is no wish for religious leaders to have more political influence. Even church goers don't want religious leaders to have more political influence.

A lot of the debate about religion and public policy is almost designed to avoid a much simpler and more accurate designation of what's going on. Religion is in serious decline in the West. Even in the USA church attendance is now half of what it was 50 years ago. About 7% of the British population engages in active Christian worship and very few of them do anything else.

I've recently been looking at some new time diary studies which are very useful because, unlike surveys, in a diary you simply ask people to record what they're doing every ten minutes of the day. Because you're not asking them questions you don't have compliance effect; you don't have people thinking they ought to claim they're doing this or that. What the 2001 time diary study shows is that 93% of the population did not do anything lasting more than ten minutes that they would describe as religious in a typical week. So only about 7% of the population engaged in some kind of religious activity, the rest aren’t. So we're talking here about a pretty thoroughly secular society.

The only reason we're talking about religion and public policy is because some Muslims, perhaps 1% of the population, want to change our largely secular culture. That is, they're being troublesome, they're raising issues, they're raising arguments, they're raising problems. Recent governments have tried to divide Muslims into bad ones and good ones, and in order to keep good Muslims happy, recent governments have used all of their charm and a small amount of money. Those Muslims have been flattered. But when push comes to shove, any debate about religion in the public sphere will be resolved in a secular direction. I don't doubt that.

Take the example of the blasphemy laws. The British state had not approved a prosecution for blasphemy for over 70 years but rather than start a fight with the churches or argue with anybody, they simply instructed the law officers never to use those laws. And then Muslims come along and say ‘Hang on, you've got blasphemy laws to protect Christians. Why can't those be expanded to offer the same protection to Islam?’ So we think about it for a while and we offer Islam exactly the same protection as Christians by repealing the laws. When push comes to shove, any argument like that has to be settled in a secular direction.

For a long time the religiously indifferent majority has allowed believers in this country to claim privileges that their numbers have not justified. You know: why upset granny, why upset the Queen, leave the churches with heritage stuff because it doesn't matter. And then Muslims come along and start demanding that we take some of this stuff seriously. And then conservative Christian groups leap in with a series of grievances where they're being marginalised. The more that religion becomes troublesome, it seems to me, the more that the religiously indifferent majority will be persuaded to become active.

I think that we will soon see secularist groups challenging religious broadcasting on the BBC, for example. Public bodies such as local councils beginning their proceeding with prayers, faith schools being funded by the tax payer, national commemorations of the war dead being organised as religious services; these things all made sense when 50% of the population was religious.

They don't make a lot of sense when you're talking about 7% or less. And if you are going to be arguing about this, it seems to me that in a religiously diverse democracy where the proportion of religious people is so low, solutions can only be in one direction, and that is that we gradually tidy up anomalies and gradually become more like America. The US constitution it seems to me is the only viable solution to religiously diverse democracy: you permit anything in private and nothing in public. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion nor prohibit free expression. There shall be no state support for religion; equally well, no interference in religious conduct. What that amounts to is that religion should have no privilege in public policy. And if believers want to organise themselves as Christian parties or whatever, that's fine.

I think we're going to see an increasing number of secularist campaigns against the residues of religious influence. And that I think is my answer to your question. I have to say, religions have the advantage here because it takes a lot to mobilise the religiously indifferent because they have nothing in common except their religious indifference. That is not in itself a good basis for an effective social movement. I don't expect that the humanist society will suddenly become a great force. But that's the way it's going. And I have to say that the religious have done themselves no good in the last few years.

I am thinking here of the opposition to the 2001 Equality act and the Church of England tearing itself apart over whether it can ordain women as bishops. My mother was as right-wing as you can get -- she would be a UKIP member without a doubt where she still around – but by the 1980s I think she finally got two notions into her head. One was that there was nothing wrong with gay people and we ought to treat them as anybody else. The other was that women and men should be treated equally.

Someone like my mother can grasp those two things and all our surveys show that overwhelmingly the young people in Britain are quite baffled by anything other than the acceptance of gay rights and the acceptance of equality of women and yet we have Christian groups opposing the Equality Act. Women as bishops will be settled of course. In about five years time people may have forgotten about this.

How would you characterise the current debate around religion and the public sphere? I think what you're saying is that religion is kind of tolerated more than it possibly should be, but that in the next five to ten years, you can foresee a kind of situation where that tolerance will be stretched sufficiently in that people will start to react and try to ensure that religion does not have exception or legal rights.

I'd begin by saying I don't see a great deal of interest about religion in the public sphere or public policy. I think the vast majority of the population who are religiously indifferent give these things no thought whatsoever. And when they're forced to think about them, they think that the churches and religious groups in a number of small ways enjoy a degree of public influence which is undeserved by their current size. We ended the privileged position of the Church in running the state but when we look closely we discover that churches still enjoy some privileges. To its credit, the Church of England has been very good at extending some of those privileges to non-Christian groups. I'm thinking here for example of prison chaplains or hospital chaplains. It's often been the Church of England that has pressed to have non-Christian religions represented.

The religiously indifferent don’t notice this. The problem is that if religious groups insist on being troublesome, more and more people will notice and will start to think: ‘Why are my taxes being used to pay for religious officials to promote a religion I don't care about?’. The one about opening council meetings with prayers is strange.

I have been in council proceedings where 49 non-believers sit patiently while the representative Christian church calls for divine approval of the council proceeding. What is that about in this day and age? If religion is to be troublesome in any respect, and I think it has to be because it is fighting now. If it becomes troublesome people notice it and think: ‘Hang on, what is this?’. How quickly will that turn into organised secularist opposition? The religiously indifferent are slow to be mobilised about anything. The life of a secularist or a member of a humanist society must be very frustrating. They look at general survey figures and then see that's not translated into people coming along to their meetings.

I have been invited to speak at secularist society meetings and because of the tiny attendances, it's almost as sad as going to a rural Methodist chapel. The only difference is that gender. All Methodist chapel goers tend now to be women while humanist society meetings are mainly men. There is an interesting research problem there. Why are so few women involved in organised secularist groups? I don't know the answer.

In terms of follow-up questions, some of the terms or concepts you've used, I think you've been very clear that the sense in which you don't believe we've moved into a post-secular public space however one wants to define that term. This is open to a number of different interpretations. I suppose the question to ask you is whether you think that the notions of secularism and the secular have changed at all or not in the last fifty years. Is there a sense that the future of secularism is going to change at all?

I think one needs to be clear what one means by secularism. I would describe our current cultural turn as secular. I reserve the word secularism for a deliberate promotion of secularity: the kind of thing that humanist and secular societies do. We actually have very little of that; again, the frustration of humanism. I'm sure that the decline of religion in the West owes almost nothing to organised secularism and the promotion of it. I don't think that the religious and the secular in terms of bodies of ideas are mirror images to each other.

That's why I try the pairing of religious and religiously indifferent. Religions share certain beliefs; the rest of us have a huge rag bag of beliefs which are so idiosyncratic they don't form the basis for movements or organisations. I think indifferent is exactly the right word. Most non-religious people give religion almost no thought. I think what we have is secularity; which is something with which most religiously indifferent people are perfectly happy.

But I think you're also saying that the concept of secular as a dualism with religion almost doesn't exist because the opposite to religion as you say is a rag bag of very different ideas and epistemologies.

Most of the non-religious people give simply no thought to this. When they do, they produce their odd, strange little ideas. I'm always interested for example in the way that people talk about death. Every family has to talk about death, and they tend to revert not just to religious images but to the most ghastly simplistic religious images such as angels or even worse becoming a sun beam. It seems to me that most non-religious people cannot even talk about the things that interest religious people. They have no habit of talking or shared ideas to talk about. They don't think about them.

Would you call that spirituality? Some of it?

Some of it may well be, but I would want to reserve ‘spirituality’ for something deliberate; something where people are giving thought to those questions and are producing reasonably coherent answers. I think one can define spirituality as a set of beliefs and identities predicated on the supernatural, where the supernatural is not an external Creator God but some kind of force which is often and largely within us already. That is, supernatural power is to be found within.

There are some spiritual people though not that many of them. In 2001 Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead studied Kendal trying to identify everybody involved in some kind of holistic spirituality in which they included a lot of health and well-being things. I think they came up with the figure of 1.9% of the population who were involved with the holistic spirituality milieu and of those, half said they were not doing it for spiritual reasons. They were doing it for physical and psychological well-being. So we're down to less than one per cent of the population. So it's a very small constituency.

It is hugely interesting because it raises a lot of questions about how people organise beliefs and relate to each other on the basis of them. One of the reasons why spirituality is considerably weaker than religion is that spiritual people tend to be unable to agree, except about the most general things. When they get to specifics they always disagree. They don't produce concerted action.

One of the things that always interested me -- I kept asking Paul Heelas about this – is, if New Agers are culturally alternative, where are the New Age schools, prisons, colleges? Where are their communities. They don't exist because New Agers are by and large incapable of joint action because of the principle that there is no authority higher than themselves. Each of us must accept only that which rings true to us. And if you start with that incredibly individualistic view, then you're almost making social action impossible. Spirituality is interesting but I don't see it as being in any sense an alternative to religion that is going to grow and fill the gap left by the decline of religion. I'm not holding my breath waiting for the spiritual.

I don't mean to get pessimistic. I'm not sure one needs to view either the human mind or a society as having a series of fixed compartments defined by certain characteristic functions so if one of those compartments becomes empty because what used to fill disappears, then something else is going to rise to fill that compartment.

I don't think one needs to view it like that. I think people just get on with their lives and find other things to do. It is often said that as people have become less religious, interest in other apparently similar things should increase to fill that gap. I don't think it has. I think that all this demonstrates is that we are quite capable of getting by without religion. When my auntie was very ill, she was regularly fed by a neighbour who brought her hot food. Thirty years ago that woman might have been a very religious person, seeing what she was doing as a Christian charity. But she was doing it because it was the right thing to do, and she continued without the theological background.

I certainly don't worry that secularisation will bring with it a whole load of bad things. Some theorists of secularisation have written some of the most depressing things I've ever read. Bryan Wilson, for example, wrote that, as the collective conscience -- the extent to which we share common religious beliefs -- declines, so there would be a corresponding rise in tyranny. External surveillance would be required to replace internal surveillance. I think he used the phrase thirty years ago when they were still rare, that the all-seeing eye of God would need to be replaced by the all-seeing eye of the CCTV camera. He was wrong. I don’t think we need to be pessimistic about a future without a shared religion.