The ‘postsecular turn’ in contemporary British historiography

In global scholarship generally, the term ‘postsecular’ is having a bit of a moment: you can find it in history, in literary theory, in legal studies, in theology, in sociology, in postcolonial anthropology, in all kinds of places. But the term has many meanings, most of which are mutually incompatible (Beckford, 2012).

This post takes ‘postsecular’ in a particular way: it uses the term to mean scholarship that historicizes the categories “religion” and “secular”, rather than taking them at face value, as secular scholarship does. If we’re prepared to embrace this turn, an exciting new ‘postsecular’ theory of secularization emerges, which can be used to rewrite the moral history of twentieth-century Britain quite fundamentally.

I’ve now published this material at greater length in the Journal of British Studies: this post provides an informal overview.

So first, some context.

The secular view of secularization

The secular view of secularization entered Western common-sense in the 1960s, and has remained there ever since. It consists of the following assumptions:

  • There exists a global thing called ‘religion’, which has existed everywhere since the dawn of history.
  • In Modern Times, however, ‘religion’ has declined.
  • This is a New Thing: it is not a return to a pre-religious past, before they had ‘religion’, because this era does not exist.
  • This is also, essentially, a Permanent Thing. On the macro level, once a society has secularized, it cannot return to the thorough-going embrace of ‘religion’.
  • This decline of ‘religion’ (or, more accurately, ‘the social significance of religion’) in Recent Times is sensibly referred to as ‘secularization’.

Pretty much all post-1960 studies of British ‘secularization’ have been written within this framework: they just disagree about the timing and speed of the transition from The Religious Era to The Secular Era. Steve Bruce prefers a gradualist model that stretches from the early modern period to today; Simon Green prefers a gradualist model that starts in about 1920 and culminates in about 1960; Callum Brown favours an abrupt model that starts in 1963.

But if this framework is widely accepted, what’s wrong with it?

Problematizing ‘religion’

The problem is with the idea of ‘religion’ – this concept is part of our Western common-sense, so we’re bred to accept it, but when you look at it closely, it just doesn’t hold water (Cavanaugh, 2009, chs.1-2).

So let’s look at it more closely: if ‘religion’ includes every single human culture from 10,000 BC to about 1500 AD (10,000 BC being an arbitrary date to symbolise the beginning of human history), plus about 84% per cent of the world’s current population (84% figure from the Pew foundation report, 2012) – what does this vast category of people have in common, such that we can profitably generalize about them?

People have made valiant attempts to answer this question, but not to anybody’s satisfaction. Most Western definitions of ‘religion’ are just badly-disguised versions of Christianity. All the criteria that readily occur to Westerners (belief in God, belief in the supernatural, even using belief as the central criterion) come to grief in some or many non-Western contexts.

Is Communism a ‘religion’, for example? Serious people have argued that it is (Riegel, 2005). But if Communism is a ‘religion’, then the map of twentieth-century secularization looks a bit different, to put it mildly. Is Confucianism a religion? Again, serious people have argued that it’s not (see the debates reported in Chen, 2013; Sun, 2013). But if Confucianism is not a ‘religion’, then the concept of ‘secularization’ being modern begins to fall apart. So we’ve got a situation where Western culture makes quite firm decisions about which cultures are ‘religious’, and which are not, but these intuitions are extremely difficult to justify, especially because they involve Western people imposing their categories onto non-Western people. Western scholars often end up just insisting that they ‘know religion when they see it’ (Cavanaugh, 2009, ch. 1). But this seems pretty intellectually dodgy. Indeed, it’s difficult to escape the suspicion that secular secularization theory only succeeds by defining all the older moralities as ‘religious’ and all the newer ones as ‘secular’.

And, of course, there is an ideological element in all these questions of definition. Is postmodern progressivism a ‘religion’? Rightists often argue that it is; but the people involved usually insist that it isn’t. When we categorize specific human cultures as ‘religious’ or ‘not religious’, we’re making normative statements about which cultures are comparable, and which are not: and this is ideological.

In short: whilst the decline of Christianity is possible to measure (though this too has its issues), the decline of religion – understood as humanity’s primordial cultural condition, which has existed everywhere since the dawn of time – seems impossible to assess. For we cannot define what ‘religion’ actually is, without making ideological decisions about which cultures count as ‘religious’.

Postsecular critiques of secular scholarship

At this point postsecular theory steps in, and says there is no definable essence of ‘religion’ (Asad, 1993). Across human history, people have defined ‘religion’ in all kinds of ways, and for all kinds of ideological reasons, and we are being ideological as soon as we insist on a definition, or even as soon as we start generalizing about it – even if being ideological in this way seems second-nature to us.

From a postsecular perspective, this means that ‘secular’ theory uses the term ‘religion’ in deeply ideological ways. First, by defining ‘religion’ as humanity’s primordial condition, and shared by 84% of the world today, ‘secular’ theory privileges secularity as historically unique. All non-secular people get lumped into the same category of ‘religion’: the very terminology of ‘religion’ implies that the ‘religious’ 84% of humanity are all essentially comparable, but that ‘secular’ people are unique and different. But this is just an othering strategy: it’s not obvious how this is different from the ancient Greeks putting non-Greeks into a single category called ‘barbarian’, whilst insisting that they themselves were unique and different. We do not generalize about non-Christians, non-Muslims, or non-Greeks – so why should we generalize about non-secular people?

But if ‘religion’ isn’t a stable category, but is in fact an Othering category, then the conventional secularization story needs to undergo a cultural turn. It can’t be about the decline of ‘religion’ any more: it has to be about people believing that they or their society has escaped humanity’s long millennia of ‘religion’. And the claim to have escaped all religion is an ideological assertion of historical uniqueness, and so historians must remain respectfully agnostic about it. To be fair, of course, all moral cultures claim historical uniqueness. It’s just that historians cannot accept or reject any of these claims without becoming ideologically partisan.

So here’s the first difference between secular and postsecular accounts of secularization:

  • Secular secularization theory is about how modern societies genuinely have departed from humanity’s primordial condition of ‘religion’.
  • Postsecular secularization theory is about people believing that they or their society have departed from humanity’s primordial condition of ‘religion’, and how this belief shapes their actions.

Postsecular critiques of secular teleologies

But the secular secularization thesis is doubly ideological: by linking secularization to modernization, it implies that secularity is the inevitable destiny of modern societies, rather than, say, Christianity, Hinduism, or Islam being modernity’s inevitable destiny. This implication is sometimes denied by secular secularisation theorists, but it is the inescapable implication of asserting that widespread secularisation is irreversible. (If the chance of something happening in a given timeframe is above 0, and it’s irreversible, then the chances of it happening eventually will inevitably tend towards 1).

But this vision of the future goes well beyond what a historian can sensibly claim: instead of resorting to biased teleology, historians should examine the local cultural factors that have pushed people and societies to become Christian, Islamic, secular, etc.

So here’s the second difference:

  • Secular theory presents secularity as the natural destiny of modern societies.
  • Postsecular theory presents secularity as an invented culture, which is no more natural than any other moral culture.

Postsecular explanations of secularization

So what are these local cultural factors that affect secularity’s success?

At a minimum, these involve (1) people hearing secularity’s basic message in the first place, and (2) people believing in secularity’s natural success.

The first point seems intuitive: you can’t define yourself or your society as having permanently escaped humanity’s many centuries of ‘religion’ if you haven’t got a concept of ‘religion’ (as most world cultures did not, prior to the advent of western colonialism). Nor can you do this if you don’t have a linear view of history (otherwise you can’t imagine something changing permanently). Nor if you think that ‘religion’ is humanity’s intrinsic condition, such that escaping ‘religion’ permanently is impossible. People need to accept that secularity is possible before they can define themselves or their society using its terms.

More than this, though, people usually need to be persuaded that an analytical framework is powerful and authoritative before they are willing to internalize it. For this reason, the proliferation of secularity is greatly helped if people believe that the spread of secularity is natural and ultimately inevitable – that is to say, when they accept the secularization metanarrative.

This is just like the spread of other cultures. If people accept the Christian metanarrative of Christ’s inevitable ultimate victory, they are much more likely to become Christians; if people accept the secular metanarrative of secularity’s inevitable ultimate ubiquity, they are much more likely to start identifying themselves or their society as ‘secular’. This is not the only factor, of course, but it is an important one.

So what does this mean for the historiography of modern Britain?

First off, it means that ‘Christian decline’ and ‘secularization’ are not the same thing, despite secular theory’s longstanding assertion to the contrary. If people become disenchanted with Christianity, there is no automatic reason why they should start identifying as ‘secular’, rather than, say, Buddhist – this step takes cultural work. Even if secularity presents itself as a default option, this claim is ideological, and it takes work to accept it.

In the British case, ‘Christian decline’ is relatively easy to chart: on most indices, it seems to have been happening gradually from about 1900 or thereabouts.

But secularization is quite a different thing: from a postsecular perspective, we would have to define ‘secularization’ positively, as people beginning to believe that their society has permanently departed from ‘religion’, and then thinking and acting on this basis.

In Britain, ‘secularization’ in this positive sense seems to have happened quite abruptly from the early 1960s (this conclusion is quite similar to Brown, 2001).

In the 1940s and early 1950s, ‘non-religion’ was considered a backward, pre-modern trait; it was stigmatized as ‘paganism’, and condemned by association with the Soviet Union. (This was, of course, the years of the early Cold War, which was widely framed as a religious conflict between the ‘Christian’ West and the ‘irreligious’ Soviet Union: cf. Kirby, 2018). Because most Britons operated within this paradigm, only very small percentages of people in Britain wished to be considered as belonging to ‘no religion’ (Brown, 2012), because being totally and militantly ‘irreligious’ was widely portrayed as a deeply unattractive trait. It was part of the dominant ‘common-sense’ that Britain was a Christian country, and that the decline of ‘religion’ was a step towards totalitarianism. So, from a postsecular perspective, British Christianity was declining, but Britain was not experiencing widespread ‘secularization’. Secularity’s take-off hadn’t happened yet.

The cultural revolution of the 1960s

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, however, there was an abrupt cultural paradigm-shift. In a rapid reversal, ‘non-religion’ was suddenly reimagined as ‘modern’ and progressive, and Christianity was re-imagined as pre-modern. In fact, all pre-secular cultures were redefined as ‘religious’ and ‘pre-modern’. This dramatic shift enabled the rapid invention of an avowedly ‘secular’ moral culture, which was a central development of Britain’s Sixties – with all kinds of important implications, for sexual culture, for radical politics, for much else. This newly dominant moral culture was then slowly and gradually enacted on the ground by increasing numbers of British people in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

But this radical paradigm shift could not have happened unless some people had introduced it. British secularity was invented, not natural. For, from a postsecular perspective, secularization is not an automatic process – it takes cultural work, just as Christianization does. In this case, it took quite a lot of cultural work: 1950s Britain demonized the Soviet Union for its secularity; 1960s Britain adopted secularity for itself. That’s quite a turn-around. From a postsecular perspective, Britain’s Sixties was not the culmination of a long modernization process, but a radical departure into a newly invented future.

What next?

This new ‘postsecular’ perspective raises all kinds of new questions. Who established this new ‘secular’ paradigm for understanding global history the first place, such that people began believing that Britain had now transcended humanity’s many millennia of ‘religion’? Why did they do it? And why were they successful? – so successful, in fact, that the next half-century of historiography implicitly accepted their assumptions, and operated within their framework?

We need to understand the great cultural revolution of the 1950s and 1960s much more closely than we currently do. We need to find out how and why it invented this new future; otherwise we cannot genuinely understand the new Britain that emerged in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. If secularity is an invented moral culture, then it needs proper analysis, with proper input from cultural anthropology and cultural sociology, just like all other human cultures do.

I attempt a very preliminary such analysis in my book.


Asad, Talal, ‘The Construction of Religion as an Anthropological Category,’ in his Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Johns Hopkins, 1993), pp. 27-54.

Beckford, James, ‘SSSR Presidential Address: Public Religions and the Postsecular: Critical Reflections’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51,1 (2012), pp. 1-19.

Brown, Callum, The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation, 1800-2000 (2001)

Brown, Callum, Religion and the Demographic Revolution: Women and Secularisation in Canada, Ireland, UK and USA since the 1960s (2012)

Cavanaugh, William, The myth of religious violence: secular ideology and the roots of modern conflict (Oxford, 2009)

Chen, Yong, Confucianism as Religion: Controversies and Consequences (Leiden, 2013)

Green, Simon, The Passing of Protestant England: Secularisation and Social Change, c. 1920-1960 (Cambridge, 2011)

Kirby, Dianne, ‘The Religious Cold War’ in Immerman and Goedde (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the Cold War (2013), 540-558.

Jones, Timothy, ‘Postsecular Sex? Secularisation and Religious Change in the History of Sexuality in Britain’, History Compass 11,11 (2013), pp. 918-930.

Pew Foundation, The Global Religious Landscape: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Major Religious Groups as of 2010 (2012).

Riegel, Klaus-Georg, ‘Marxism-Leninism as a political religion’, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions 6,1 (2005), pp. 97-126.

Sun, Anna, Confucianism as a World Religion: Contested histories and Contemporary Realities (Princeton, 2013).

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