Prologue: Toward a Sociology of Irreligion

  • Colin Campbell
Part of the New Perspectives in Sociology book series


It would be wrong to suppose that irreligion is a creation of the twentieth century. Although we are accustomed to hearing the age we live in described as the ‘secular age’ or the ‘age of doubt’, previous periods of history could justifiably be similarly labelled. To the Christians of the time, the last years of the Roman Empire must have seemed a time in which scepticism and heresy flourished, just as to the orthodox Christian of the eighteenth century the rise of Deism and the French Revolution indicated that he was living in an ‘age of infidelity’. Even the Middle Ages, frequently treated as the epitome or an era of faith, was seen by medieval writers as a time of spiritual crisis, in which witchcraft, heresy and paganism were constant threats to the faith. The principal reason why our perspective of history is such that we view our own time as characteristically irreligious and contrast it with what we believe to be the prevailing faith of all previous epochs is because we live in the shade of the late nineteenth century. And it is the religious activity of that period which we tend to use as the yardstick by which to measure our own lack of faith. But as Mayor has observed of England, the mid-Victorian era was a time of religious boom:

never in the memory of anyone living had so large a proportion of the population been in church and the religious leaders exercised so large an influence in the national life. If active participation in church life, and a sincere and earnest attempt to live by the teachings of the Church day by day, are marks of religious vitality, there has rarely in the modem world been a country so religious as late nineteenth-century England. The flourishing Protestantism of that age has so impressed its mark on English history, and even on the obscure but perfectly real corporate memory of the people, that the crowded churches and silent Sabbaths of three generations ago still seem to a great number of English men and women the normal, and the present social code either a temporary aberration or a welcome revolution, according to taste.1


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    S. Mayor, ‘The Churches and the Labour Movement’ (Independent Press, 1967) pp. 77–8.Google Scholar
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    J. M. Robertson, ‘A Short History of Freethought, Ancient and Modern’, 3rd ed. (Watts, 1915) ii 391.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    E. J. Hobsbawm, ‘Primitive Rebels’ (Manchester U.P., 1959) chap. viii. Hobsbawm’s discussion of the ‘labour sects’ is particularly relevant to this process of social change.Google Scholar
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© Colin Campbell 1971

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  • Colin Campbell

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