Owing to changes in staffing, I have been teaching part of an A2 Sociology course since January. (For our American readers, this is equivalent to the final year in high school before students go on to college.) I was asked to teach this unit because it is about beliefs in society and my colleagues and superiors know that I am a Christian. We have covered a number of debates:

  • Different sociological approaches to the study of religion: substantivism, functionalism, interpretivism, Marxism, feminism
  • Religion and social change (e.g. the Black civil rights movement in the USA)
  • Secularisation in the USA and UK
  • Religious fundamentalism
  • Secular fundamentalism
  • Classification of religious organisations (church, denomination, cult, sect)
  • New Religious Movements (NRMs)
  • Open and closed belief systems: science and religion
  • Ideology

Looking at the statistics and interpretations, particularly in the secularisation debate, has reminded me (not that I needed much reminding) of the problem of evangelisation in the West. Most of my students are not particularly familiar with the details of Christianity, neither the doctrine nor the history of the Church. This is not surprising, but it does affect the teaching as time needs to be spent explaining certain things in order to provide proper context or to demonstrate how doctrine will motivate attitudes and actions.

An interesting case in point is the use of the terms “Catholic” and “Christian” in contemporary British society. I would hazard a guess that most people treat these terms as mutually exclusive. That has certainly been my experience with my students and people I have met in other contexts (“on the street”). This required me to explain to my students that this treatment of the words is the product of propaganda  wars of various kinds. Instead, I told them, they should treat Christian as a category and Catholic as a sub-category. All Catholics are Christians, but not all Christians are Catholics.

Discussing Catholicism is always difficult in school and college environments. In my experience, most people are hostile to it to some extent, and even those who come from Catholic backgrounds (“cultural Catholics” in many cases) do not seem to be in touch with their Church. As a Protestant, I can affirm the things on which we agree (not that I am there to preach to them) but on other matters I need to speak in a more distant matter where I am in conflict with Catholicism or where I simply do not have a settled opinion.

Most examples that we discuss come from Christianity, in part because I am most familiar with that religion, and in part because the secularisation debate tends to dominate the others and this debate centres on Europe and the USA. The textbook does not approach the matter from a spiritual mind-set; nevertheless, many of the comments it makes on both sides of the debate are ideas that I have personally considered and that have been discussed here at AATW in the past.

One of the striking features about secularisation is the cultural difference between the UK and the USA. Haddaway’s study based in Ashtabula County, Ohio suggested that stable church-going survey figures in the USA masked an actual decline in attendance. He and his team found that people said they were going to church when actually they were not. In other words, there was a numerical discrepancy between the figures from headcounts conducted at Sunday services and self-reporting figures obtained from surveys. This led many sociologists to conclude that Christianity is entrenched in American culture: it is seen as desirable or socially-expected to go to church. People would like to be seen as church-goers and experience guilt when they are absent. No doubt some of this is people who are experiencing a crisis of faith. But some of this also appears to be people who are not committed Christians (or not “born again” to follow Bosco’s application of Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus in John’s Gospel).

In the UK this pattern is almost absent. Going to church every Sunday is not seen as deviant by most people, but it is considered strange. “Religious” people are viewed in some quarters as excessively fervent, which sticks out in our reserved culture where people struggle to make eye-contact. Whenever I find myself talking at length about my faith and my relationship with God I feel as if I am making those around me uncomfortable, not because I am harsh, but because this is very counter-cultural now. We should not really be surprised at this: St. Paul said that we are the aroma of death to those who are perishing, and that in the last days perilous times would come when the surrounding culture would be at odds with the core principles of our faith.

No purely scientific narrative can address the issue of secularisation. The Enlightenment has been influential, but the empiricist project has always rested on a priori beliefs. Universals cannot be derived from experience, they are applied to the interpretation of experience by faith and by faith alone. Man, whether he likes it or not, is a spiritual creature; his concerns must be spiritually met. As Bosco reminds us, drawing on Jesus in John’s Gospel, if any man is to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, in other words, to find salvation, he must be born again. As the prophets say, he must have a new heart. It requires humility to ask God for a new heart. Humility is not dead in the USA or the UK, but it is very much under threat.