What was the 1960s ‘Secular Revolution’?

The phrase ‘secular revolution’, in the context of the Western Sixties, was, to the best of my knowledge, coined by Callum Brown, in his Religion and the Demographic Revolution (Brown, 2012). It is also a phrase I use in my work. But there are at least two potential meanings of this term: a ‘social’ usage, which I think is wrong, and a ‘cultural’ usage, which I think is right.

The Social Usage

The social usage implies that there was a dramatic shift in the religious behaviour or attitudes of the mass of the people in the 1960s: in this usage, many or even most people stopped going to church, or stopped identifying as Christians. If we’re using the term ‘secular revolution’ in this social sense, we mean that there was some major observable social shift.

This usage, for example, is how Clive Field takes the term: he analyses data from the broad mass of the population, and (rightly) concludes that there was no dramatic behavioural or attitudinal shift in the mass of the population in the long 1960s: ergo, he argues, Brown is wrong; there was no ‘secular revolution’ in the 1960s. (Field, 2017).

The first half of Field’s analysis is correct: it doesn’t make sense to speak of a society-wide ‘secular revolution’ in the 1960s. There is now, in fact, a whole ‘revisionist’ school of Sixties historiography which reveals that British society didn’t actually change that much in the 1960s (Mills, 2016) – it changed a bit, but not enough to justify the term ‘revolution’.

The Cultural Usage

But this apparent rebuttal of Brown does not take account of the cultural usage of the term ‘secular revolution’. In the cultural usage, there was a transformation of cultural presuppositions in the 1960s – if not amongst the mass of the people, then certainly amongst Britain’s cultural elites. In this understanding, if you look at British national discussion during the 1960s, you’ll see radical new framing narratives rising to cultural dominance – you’ll see Britain’s most influential voices started operating within a different cultural framework. It was only afterwards, as this new paradigm slowly entered the mass of the population’s common-sense, that most people’s behaviour gradually began to adapt to the new cultural paradigm, over the course of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

On this culturally-orientated model, historians looking for a transformation of social behaviour in the 1960s are looking in the wrong place: the place to look for a revolution is in public discourse.

The Sixties cultural revolution

In the sphere of morality, the first and most obvious level was at the level of national identity. In the 1940s and 1950s, at the height of the early Cold War, the dominant consensus said that Britain was a Christian country. Consequently, if you were a Christian in 1950s Britain, that was considered ‘normal’; if you were not a Christian, that was considered ‘different’. In the 1960s, by contrast, the dominant elite consensus (not unchallenged, of course), suddenly said that Britain was a secular society (Brewitt-Taylor, 2013). Consequently, if you were ‘secular’ in the 1960s, that was considered ‘normal’, and if you were a Christian, that was increasingly considered ‘different’.

So, apart from the difference in publicly articulated national identity, the whole framework for understanding what was a ‘normal’ moral standpoint had quite fundamentally changed. And it seems reasonable to hypothesise that, over the course of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, this had important impacts on the trajectory of British social and religious behaviour.

Secondly, though, these assumptions about Britain’s moral identity were both embedded in specific narratives of world history; and appreciating the transformation at the deeper level of metanarrative underlines quite how revolutionary this shift was. For it involved a complete reorientation of British assumptions about what counts as ‘modern’.

In the 1940s and 1950s, British public discussion routinely employed the trope of ‘Christian civilization’: indeed, the defence of ‘Christian civilization’ was regularly cited as Britain’s chief aim in fighting the Second World War and the early Cold War (McLeod, 2007). This narrative held that Europeans had originally been barbarian and uncivilized, but had then become civilized, first due to the Greeks and Romans, but more importantly due to the arrival of Christianity. On this narrative, ‘secularization’, or the decline of ‘religion’, was a regressive step, which would send European societies backwards to their dark age, pre-Christian past. Regimes which had rejected Christianity included, in British eyes, Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union: and British discussion routinely labelled these regimes ‘barbarian’ and ‘pagan’, with a view to emphasising their backwardness compared to Christian Britain. In this framework, Christianity was modern, and non-religion was pre-modern.

In the 1960s, by contrast, the dominant metanarrative was totally different – indeed, it pretty much inverted the previous one. In the new ‘modern secularization’ framework, ‘religion’ was humanity’s primordial condition – Europeans had never needed to be taught religion, they had always had it – and so ‘non-religion’ was considered specifically modern. Secularization, on this view, was a progressivemodernizing development, not a regressive one. So instead of telling stories about Europe’s progress from non-religion to religion, Britons started telling stories about Europe’s progress from religion to non-religion.

As a result, Britain’s entire dominant framework for thinking about morality changed. (‘Dominant’ is an important word here, because there were important intellectual minorities that challenged the dominant framework both before the revolution and afterwards). In the early 1960s, Christian morality suddenly lost the legitimacy of being considered ‘modern’; secular morality equally suddenly acquired it. This had all kinds of massive social consequences. But these social consequences only emerged gradually in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. If you’re looking for them in the 1960s, you will only see them in their embryonic stages.

It’s in this sense of a cultural paradigm-shift, as distinct from a social transformation, that we can and should speak of Britain’s 1960s ‘secular revolution’.

But this usage, of course, raises its own questions, which I address in my new book. If there was a dramatic paradigm-shift, who created it? And why in the late 1950s and early 1960s?

Bibliography

Brewitt-Taylor, Sam, ‘The Invention of a ‘Secular Society’? Christianity and the Sudden Appearance of Secularization Discourses in the British National Media, 1961–4’, Twentieth Century British History 24,3 (2013), 327-350.

Brown, Callum, Religion and the demographic revolution: women and secularisation in Canada, Ireland, UK and USA since the 1960s (Woodbridge, 2012)

Field, Clive, Secularization in the long 1960s: numerating religion in Britain (Oxford, 2017)

McLeod, Hugh, The Religious Crisis of the 1960s (Oxford, 2007)

Mills, Helena, ‘Using the personal to critique the popular: women’s memories of 1960s youth’, Contemporary British History, 30,4 (2016), pp.463-483.

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