Quote of the Day: Anne Fenwick in Religion

This was a pretty spot on quote concerning defining religion in a UK-centric context when discussing whether religiosity has dropped in the UK. There are some difficulties in defining the word “religion” as has been discussed here. Anne clears up a few issues resulting from such conversations. This is in reply to Spiritual Anthropologist who stated:

I do not look at just British society. In fact, a lot of my work is based on Shinto and its syncretic forms in Japan.

Being an “open self-described atheist” doesn’t mean you’re not religious. That’s part of the problem. There is a tendency to equate atheism with being non-religious.

> Meanwhile, with respect to ‘religiosity’ and church going – my aunt used to go to church regularly because she enjoyed flower arranging, the pretty language of traditional CofE services, and the even prettier young vicar.

So what you’re saying is that church attendance is not a good measure of religiosity.

Anne replied:

I feel I need to draw it to your attention that you’re not the only person around here who has studied religion formally. Secondly, as a fellow academic, Í wish you wouldn’t use a nice big word like ‘religiosity’ to obfuscate rather than elucidate in non-specialist public discussions. Thirdly, a specialist in a particular culture, you’ll already know that there’s absolutely no point dragging in terms that are applicable in, say, Japan, to a discussion of the British Isles. We have a hard enough time even defining ‘religion’ in a waterproof manner.

So now, as far as Britain is concerned, I’m not sure if your Japan-centered definition of ‘religiosity’ is even applicable to the activities of the Church of England over the last century or so. Let’s just accept that we’re dealing with completely separate worlds. British people who are asked about their religious beliefs are likely to interpret it in one of two ways, depending how they’re asked:

Way 1 is, does the long history of Christianity in Britain mean enough to you that you consider it a part of your identity? Or have you moved on so significantly that you wouldn’t choose to say that?

Way 2 is, do you believe in any kind of supernatural entity or essence such as a God or gods, souls, life after death, etc… or are you, in fact, a naturalist? Note that if you push me, I’ll agree that its theoretically possible to be a ‘dictionary’ atheist (not believing in God) and believe in, say, fairies? Or Gaia? Or the consciousness of the universe? Reincarnation? But in practice, people with such beliefs in Britain would very rarely or never describe themselves as atheists.

So you are right that church attendance is no indication of religiosity at all in Britain, although the fact that it has dropped so precipitously that churches several centuries old can’t stay open is a definite indicator of something related. Meanwhile, as a British person, I can’t imagine what you mean by saying that an ‘open self-described atheist’ can also be religious. I don’t doubt this may mean something in Japan, although it rather calls into question whether Shinto and Christianity can both meet a single definition of religion in the first place. Either way, it isn’t a thing in Britain.

Whilst SA picks a few points apart here in reply, I think the main point of Anne’s is really quite robust: that British people, when faced with a number of different questions concerning their understanding of what religion is, have shown that their answers have changed over generations. People’s understanding of religion hasn’t really changed, unless SA can show otherwise. Whatever it is that people, general lay people, understand by religion, we think we have it less now than with each previous generation.

I think this really tells us something useful.

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