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What does ‘Honest to God’ tell us about Britain’s “secular revolution”?

On 17 March 1963, John Robinson, the Anglican bishop of Woolwich, wrote an article for the Observer entitled “Our Image of God Must Go.” He was writing to advertise his new book, Honest to God, which made a deeply controversial argument: that modern Christians would eventually find it necessary to reject classical theism. God Himself, Robinson argued, was causing a radical revolution in human life, in which human nature was being altered, so that “modern men” [sic] were no longer “religious” but “secular”. In the face of this divine process of “secularization”, the Christian churches had no option but to abandon “religion”, and to embrace a radical new “religionless Christianity”, which would question almost all the tenets of conventional theology, and focus instead on building a glorious new secular social order. These ideas were part of the 1960s global explosion in radical Christianity, which deeply shaped the World Council of Churches, the World Student Christian Federation, and Vatican II.

In Britain, the reaction was intense and immediate: the Church Times wrote angry editorials, the Sunday Telegraph’s reviewer regretted that Robinson could not be defrocked, and the archbishop of Canterbury censured him on television. Nonetheless, Honest to God went on to sell over a million copies, not including its translations into seventeen languages. It was, in the undisputed judgement of its publisher, the fastest-selling new work of serious theology of all time.

But what should historians make of all this? Was Robinson right or wrong, misguided or prophetic? What, if anything, does Honest to God tell us about Britain’s “secular revolution”? The answer depends on what wider view we take of Britain’s Sixties.

According to the orthodox interpretation, which reached its height in the 1990s and early 2000s, Britain’s Sixties was massive and popular: it witnessed a large-scale revolution in attitudes and behaviour. On this view, whatever one thinks of Robinson’s theology, his sociology was essentially correct: it was the case that long-term social processes were causing large numbers of postwar Britons to reject religion and become secular. Robinson was correctly observing contemporary trends, and thinking imaginatively about how to react to them.

In the last fifteen years, however, revisionist historians such as Trevor Harris, Monia O’Brien Castro, and Dominic Sandbrook have contradicted the orthodox account, by arguing that this popular revolution is a myth. Although a minority of cultural radicals were being innovative, the revisionists argue, the central story of the 1960s is modest social change, because mass social change did not occur until the 1970s and 1980s. This perspective implies that Robinson was still correct to identify a systemic process of secularization, even if this process was much more gradual and uneven than his talk of revolution implied.

In the last five years, however, postsecular scholarship has placed postwar secularization debates in their proper historical context, thereby radically challenging these earlier interpretations. In the 1940s and early 1950s, British conventional wisdom had routinely portrayed the Second World War and the early Cold War as spiritual conflicts, which pitted Britain’s “Christian civilization” against Nazi “paganism” and Soviet atheism. This older framework assumed that all societies need a religion or a religion-substitute, such that the decline of British Christianity would inevitably lead to the worship of ersatz-messiahs like Hitler or Stalin. On this view, there could be no permanent “secularization”: the spiritual vacuum left by Christian decline would always be filled by something else. Indeed, it seemed to many commentators, including Clement Attlee, nations which passionately believed in their creeds enjoyed a competitive advantage over those which did not; the quasi-religious fanaticism of the Nazis and the Stalinists was precisely what had made them so effective.

What Robinson was doing, then, was not simply reacting to religious trends: rather, he was helping to transform the entire framework in which they were interpreted. Whereas 1950s conventional wisdom had interpreted church decline as evidence of Britain’s increasing vulnerability to a totalitarian ersatz-religion, Robinson was arguing that church decline was evidence of the rise of a new post-ideological society, and it was this latter view that dominated subsequent British sociology. Whilst Robinson by no means effected this transformation single-handedly, he did write Britain’s best-selling book on secularization. In a society that still regarded itself as Christian, Robinson’s status as a bishop was important in legitimizing what was still a very controversial view.

The first irony, however, which Robinson could not have foreseen, was that during the 1960s these newly authoritative prophecies of permanent “secularization” became importantly self-fulfilling. By reimagining secularity as modern rather than totalitarian, the secularization metanarrative made it possible for large numbers of Britons to reimagine both themselves and their society as “secular”, thus unleashing the postwar “secular revolution”, which decisively reshaped British moral culture and legislation in the 1960s, and British social patterns for the rest of the century. In particular, the exodus from the British churches became dramatic rather than gradual, and the percentages of Britons self-defining as “non-religious” has been steadily increasing ever since.

The second irony is that the terms “religion”, “secular”, and “secularization” are all essentially Christian categories, and that their ubiquity in subsequent historiography demonstrates how profoundly radical Christian thinkers such as Robinson influenced wider secularization debates, and through them the way we think about secularization today. It is only in the 21st century that we can achieve sufficient distance from the Sixties to start historicizing its master-metanarrative of secularization, and to discover that its causes might be radically different from what we first thought.

Featured image by Diana Vargas on Unsplash

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