James A Beckford


The sociology of religion in the UK has been dominated for thirty years at least by the secularization debate. It continues to shape discussion because it is virtually unique in offering a fairly economical overview of development in religion and non-religion. No other ‘master idea’ commands nearly as much attention. The best non-technical evocation of the idea is Kenneth Minogue’s (1992: 152) claim that ‘Christianity in Britain (and in many place elsewhere) is a largely abandoned building given over the political squatters’. But this definitely does not mean that the idea is accepted uncritically. In fact, the critics seem to be more vociferous that the defenders, judging by the tone of contributions to Steve Bruce’s (1992) recent collection entitled Religion and Modernization. Nevertheless, it is no exaggeration to claim that secularization theory has approached the status of a paradigm.

My aim will be to ask how far this ruling paradigm can help us to understand the patterns of religious belief, sentiment and practice in the UK. Even when explicit agreement with ideas of secularization is relatively rare, the paradigm can still serve as a useful expedient. At worst, it serves the function of an Aunt Sally. At best, it identifies the kind of questions that we should be asking ourselves.

Most of my remarks will concern the mainstream Christian churches, but it is essential to establish the growing significance of religious minorities in both the Christian and non-Christian spheres.


Sociology of religion; United Kingdom; Secularization debate; Kenneth Minogue; Steve Bruce; Mainstream Christian churches

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