Exploring how and why religion has survived into the 21st century

Friday, 19 January 2018

Exploring 21st century religion

Research by Professor David Nash from the School of History, Philosophy and Culture at Oxford Brookes University aims to move us on from discussions around the decline of religion, to instead show a different side to the story.

During the 20th century it was widely observed that religion in the West was in decline and was likely to disappear completely. Instead, however, it has survived beyond expectation amidst periodic upsurges in religious interest.  

Professor Nash has been seeking to provide an answer to this conundrum by thinking about how religion has a specific ‘use’ for people in the circumstances of various 20th-century lives. This means the religious and the secular are not so much beliefs, but tools that people pick up to make sense of situations, events and happenings.  

In a previous book Christian Ideals in British Culture: Stories of Belief in the Twentieth Century (2013, Palgrave Publishing) Professor Nash challenged conventional histories of secularisation.  

The long term aim of this project is to get us away from increasingly fruitless discussions of when religion declined, discussions that often fragment into pieces when you look closely at some evidence.

Professor David Nash, Oxford Brookes University

He explored how Christianity in Britain used stories of pilgrimage, remembrance, sickness and death, the ‘just’ war and salvation to make sense of existence and people’s place in this.

These stories had been invested with importance and meaning by both religious individuals and organisations as well as secular ones. Ultimately, people in the 20th century primarily wanted explanations, comfort and meaning, irrespective of whether they were religious or not. This therefore makes the idea, popular with many historians, of religion waning in favour of the secular not only untrue but moreimportantly irrelevant.

Professor Nash is currently working to further this research with a new book entitled Secular Stories–Irreligious and  Religious Responses in the Secular Twentieth Century (contracted to Palgrave Publishers) and due for publication in 2019.  

Through this book he is looking at secular stories and how both the secular and the religious have used these in similar ways to make sense of the world and civilisation.  

These stories include the individual turning their back on religion, the power of science as explanation, stories of material progress and welfare, the quest for freedom of expression, human sexual freedoms and morality and lastly the disestablishment of religion within the state.  

Professor Nash comments: “As in my first book both the religious and secular have grasped hold of and made use of these stories and such actions have left an imprint upon 20th century cultural history.  

“Again they do not follow any pattern related to the secular triumphing over the religious. Indeed a central point of this second book is that religion did not sit idly by and let these narratives be identified as secular. In a more organic process they came to be used by the religious to find accommodation with a secular world.  

“The long term aim of this project is to get us away from increasingly fruitless discussions of when religion declined, discussions that often fragment into pieces when you look closely at some evidence. Instead recognising the strength of religious and secular stories can help us produce an alternative history of people interacting with religion rather than being seen as passive shoppers and consumers for pre-packaged belief systems.”

Sunday 21 January is World Religion Day, a day to reflect on inter-faith values, to celebrate difference and embrace similarities between religions and belief systems.  

Professor David Nash is one of the recipients of the University’s Research  Excellence Awards 2017/18, part of Oxford Brookes’ commitment to supporting research-active academics.

The funding is providing him with the time out to write several chapters of his  book and further develop this area of research.