Look for the religion section of almost any bookshop in Britain, and you’ll find it’s been subsumed under “Mind, body and spirit”. The reason is simple: what we call religion has changed – dramatically – in just the past 30 years.
I think the change is so significant we can call it a “de-reformation” of religion. In other words, the main features that have characterised religion in Britain since the Reformation of the 16th century have given way. For most people, religion has ceased to be a matter of belonging to a clerically led community, affirming unchanging dogma, participating in prescribed rituals, and holding conservative social attitudes. It’s transformed into something else.
Let’s start with rituals, both national and personal. From the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 onwards, the church has gradually ceded control. It still has a role to play, but by the time of Diana’s death in 1997, that role had become secondary to popular practices and innovations. Similarly, the churches’ hold over birth, marriage, and death has weakened dramatically.
The effect is to let religious and secular extremes get away with it – get away with telling us that only dogmatic, conservative, totalising religion is real religion. It isn’t, and it’s time to stop dwelling on minority extremes at the expense of the middle ground majority – which is to say, most of us.