Some supporters of secularisation assume that there was previously an ‘age of faith’ or a ‘golden age’ of religion, when everyone was a believer and people’s lives were dominated by religion. However, the evidence is conflicting.
Read the points below that summarise some of the evidence.
Work as a group: take one piece of evidence each and explain it to the rest of the group. Then refer to questions 1 to 5 below and consider whether the idea of a ‘golden age’ of religion is correct.
A. Steve Bruce points out that in pre-modern societies religion was not a particularly personal matter. The professional clergy performed rituals for the people in general, not just for a group of committed members. People often paid for prayers to be said for them, rather than performing the prayers themselves. The rota of ritual services sung and spoken in the churches and cathedrals by the clergy met the need for the community to glorify God, though very few ordinary people attended all of these services, or understood much of what went on. Most church buildings were unheated and had no seating. The services were spoken in Latin by a priest who had his back to the congregation. However, despite the fact that services were often a ‘mystery’ to the ordinary people, many attended quite regularly and most attended the important services. (Adapted from S. Bruce, ‘Religion in Modern Britain’ 1995)
B. Our ancestors were superstitious. Saints and their shrines were thought to offer powerful remedies for ailments; discontented wives offered a bag of oats to a statue of St Wilgerfort in the hope of being rid of their husbands; pregnant women used holy relics to try to reduce labour pains; saints were believed to protect cattle and visit plagues on enemies. (adapted from S. Bruce, ‘Religion in Modern Britain’ 1995)
C. Evidence from paintings, sculpture, architecture, music, etc. before the 16th century shows these arts were almost exclusively religious in character.
D. Rodney Stark argues that historical records show widespread indifference to religion among the general population. In church, people jostled for pews, bought and sold goods, carried on with their knitting and called out comments to the priest.
E. The high point for British churches was between 1860 and 1910, when around 28% of the adult population were active members. The 1851 census showed that about 40% of the population attended church – much higher than today.
F. Many of this 40% of church-goers did not attend because they were particularly religious, but because their employers insisted on it. Servants had to attend with their masters, and children were often made to go to Sunday school twice every Sunday. David Martin argues that the high level of church attendance was a sign of middle-class respectability – many Victorians attended church on order to be seen rather than because of strong religious views.
G. Once large populations had gathered in the new industrial cities, such as Manchester and Leeds, the proportion of poverty-stricken workers who attended church regularly was probably very small. In other words, the working class have never been regular church-goers.
Questions to discuss:
- Did people attend church more in the past?
- If they did, does this mean they were more religious?
- Is the evidence from paintings, architecture etc. about religion or about power?
- Did people see religion differently in the past to the way we see it now?
- In summary – has religion declined from a ‘golden age’ in the past?