“Religion is what other people do.”
In my studies, I have come across an illuminating article by sociologist Steve Bruce, “Late Secularisation and Religion as Alien” (2014, see here). He defines “late” secularisation as that state where a society is formally secular, with less than 10% active involvement in organised religion. Bruce argues that any reverse of the trend of decline in religion is very unlikely to occur for several reasons based on sociological predictions. Firstly, a declining stock of knowledge: there is no longer a common culture that shapes the questions to which religion provides an answer. His view (certainly shared by many) is, “If so many people can get by with little or no religion then being religious is clearly not part of the basic human condition.”
But the second reason he gives is, to me, most interesting. It concerns the role of social influence in conversion. There have been numerous studies undertaken on conversion. We know that conversion to Catholicism is rare – only 7.7% of current Catholics were not brought up Catholic (see report of the Benedict XVI Centre here).
Bruce cites research that shows how critical social influence and relationships are, laying foundations even for the possibility that a person might convert. He writes,
“Not surprisingly, it turned out that social influence and social relationships were vital in the spread of some new idea or action, even when the grounds for evaluating that innovation were patently rational and thus apparently above the realm of social influence.”
He explains this further by saying,
“… most of us, for most of our lives, rely on the principle of judging novelties by how well they accord with our existing preferences and with our current notion of who we are. We ask ‘Are the people presenting this new idea my sort of people but just a bit happier, more content or more successful than me?’… We have to be able to see ourselves in the people representing the innovation.”
I think we would, on the whole, agree that this matches our experience. And this is where the problem of decline looms enormous… Characteristic to late secularisation is precisely the huge perceived difference between those who practice religion and those who don’t. In earlier generations, this seeming abyss between the ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ was not so pronounced. Large swathes of the population would still have retained a familiarity with Christianity, even if they did not accept or practice it. But that is no longer the case.
Bruce identifies five populations of people that are known for their religiosity in Britain: elderly women; people of the rural peripheries (this may be less true now); Poles; West Africans; Muslims. He states, “…religion is now primarily carried by, and hence associated with, people who are demographically, ethnically and culturally distinctive”. In other words, “…religion is what other people do.” Of course, I think in cultural melting pots such as London and other big cities, it is far more likely that people would mix socially and be influenced by those with different ethnic backgrounds. But I would guess where is a lot of truth in Bruce’s conclusion:
“One could put this in terms of the probability of any British person who is not involved in organised religion developing positive social interaction with any believer: it is slight.”
What does this mean for evangelisation? Here are the two main issues all this raises for me:
- Evangelisation as a personal responsibility: Evangelising through friendships is clearly critical, and yet, the vast majority of Catholics I know are not confident in personal evangelisation. For some, it fills them with horror. If social influence is such a critical factor, it seems we need to do a lot more to train people in evangelisation… which is probably a lot more about people skills than knowing the finer details of theology.
- What is our image? Both as individuals, and as smaller communities, I think we have a duty to be as blended with the culture as possible, avoiding Catholic bubbles and ghettos. Would colleagues and friends think of us as “my sort of person” (in Bruce’s words) or as an “Abrasive Abner”?! If I brought my non-Christian friend to church, would they think, “these are my sort of people but just a bit happier, more content or more successful than me?”! And if not, why would they not think this way? It is an interesting question to ask ourselves honestly.
Certainly, this research shows we have much to do in lessening the gap between Catholics and “nones”… which is just one facet of the tremendous task of evangelisation.