So, is religion dying out or not? How you answer this question depends on where you look. Have a peek in your local Anglican church on any day, especially a Sunday, and you’ll see almost the physical embodiment of decline, dusty buildings unpeopled and often unloved, a general sense of irrelevance.Linda Woodhead
Professor Linda Woodhead

The statistics tell us that Church of England attendance is rapidly dwindling, parishes are being consolidated – I’ve heard of one priest who has to do five services on a Sunday – and church buildings sold off. Yet on my commute into work I pass at least half a dozen new churches, though these are not Anglican and are housed in former shops and warehouses. They are churches of unfamiliar provenance like the Worldwide Family of God and the Fraternity Spiritist Church of Brazil. Religious schools are proliferating, burqas are everywhere. This year’s Greenbelt Festival, an annual gathering of right-on Christians, saw its largest ever crowds, more than 20,000. The secularisation thesis, which has been the dominant sociological way of thinking about religion for a century, holds that as societies become more modern, more developed, they become less religious. Modernity breeds secularity and, implicitly, religion will become residual, if not die out completely. This seems completely right if you’re looking at Anglicanism, but is utterly contradicted by all these other signs. What’s going on?

Linda Woodhead is Professor in the Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University and directs the Religion and Society Research programme, a £12 million project funded by the government through the research councils ESRC and AHRC, involving more than 250 academics across 36 different disciplines, which for the past five years has been researching all aspects of religion. If anyone can make sense of my church conundrum you would hope she can.

Earlier this year she edited Religion and Change in Modern Britain (with Rebecca Cato), which details the findings from some of the social scientific research projects funded by the programme. This ranges from case studies of specific faiths and churches – the formation of the United Reform Church, post-war Sikhism, the loss of the Christian monopoly – to analysis of the relationship between religions and public institutions – social care, the media, the law, popular music – to research into the rise of new forms of faith, including “alternative spiritualities” and new kinds of ritual. It all goes to show, as Woodhead argues in her introduction that “religion in Britain is not what it used to be”.

When we met, I asked her where these findings leave the poor old secularisation thesis: is it a busted flush? “It has been the dominant paradigm for so long, but now I think we do need to replace it. It’s not wrong so much as incomplete and partial. It’s absolutely true that church attendance, of the old form, is in steep decline. Regular attendance at church has halved since 1979 and is down to 6.3 per cent of the population, and still falling. Of these less than a third go to Anglican churches.” (Catholic churches fare just as badly, with under a third, and the rest are all those new voluntaristic, independent, charismatic Pentecostal ones I pass on the way to work.)

How did the great proponents of the thesis – Weber and Durkheim, and in the contemporary period sociologist Steve Bruce – get it so wrong? By mistaking a very contingent form of religion for religion as a whole. “What the early sociologists saw,” says Woodhead, “was that the sort of religion that they knew in Europe was going to wither, and it has. But it was a very specific form, one which had developed side by side with the modern nation state. Our church and our nation state created each other in their own image.”

This is the religion we all know and (don’t) love, the one that worked in tandem with the state to control the entire lives – civic and psychological, cradle to grave – of its subjects. The advent of the welfare state in the UK, Woodhead says, struck a big blow to the power of established religious institutions, and accelerated the wholesale secularisation of public services and the decline in the power and authority of the churches. But to read this as some kind of inevitable progression into enlightenment, a cleansing of irrationality and a dawning of a more rational world is, Woodhead argues, to mistake a part for the whole.

It misses two critical factors. First, the impact of non-European forms of religion that have arrived in Europe because of immigration; and second, the dispersal of religious sentiment – the way that religious feelings and behaviours have seeped into everyday life and reconstructed themselves outside the confines of the church, and away from the purview of the religious authorities who had “stripped religion of its magic”, established a masculine authoritarian hierarchy and suppressed dissent. Religion, she argues, has been democratised, individualised and taken back by the people, in ways that both reflect new structures of feeling and recover ways of thinking stamped out by the rise of the authoritarian post-Reformation behemoths. “It’s the end of that type of Reformation religion having a cultural monopoly.” She’s coined a term for this: de-Reformation.

This might sound good for rationalists and secularists, but you might want to buckle up for this next bit. Because while this kind of religion is in decline, the underlying faith, beliefs and practices that, for Woodhead at least, constitute religion are livelier than ever. You just have to look in different places. Alongside her figures about the decline of organised religions she likes to quote surveys that show that more people now believe in “God as Spirit or Lifeforce” than in a “personal God”, and more people identify themselves as “spiritual” than as “religious”. What this adds up to for Woodhead is that “Britain is getting less religious but more spiritual”.

What she is talking about here is all those practices that go under the ragtag banner of New Age, where shamanistic rituals cross-pollinate with self-help nostrums, pagan practices interbreed with self-actualisation affirmations, and everybody has a yoga mat and a dreamcatcher. Research that Woodhead undertook with Professor Paul Hellas in 2002, which focused on the non-traditional spiritual practices in one particular town, Kendal in Cumbria, revealed that almost unnoticed many of the townsfolk, especially the women, were involved in spiritual forms of practice that combined an eclectic mix of these beliefs with a pragmatic therapeutic aim: “The whole holistic paradigm assumes that the underlying substrate of everything is spirit, and that if you are in a bad relation with the spiritual life force that is the root of your problems. It’s highly pragmatic. It’s about everyday concerns, about coping with death, illness, fate, destiny, loss, disappointment. It’s absolutely about enhancing your life.”

She links the (re)emergence of these more mystical forms of faith directly with the decline of churches: “I think that religion returns in forms which the Reformation mode of religion repressed – so you could call it more magical. I think it’s the return of normal religion. Religion has been deregulated and unpackaged. So before you had to take the whole package, and if you deviated from the orthodoxy you were a heretic. Now you can take what you want – take the Yoga stretches without the spirituality – or you can go deep into it. We all make our own packages. What doesn’t work is the idea that you have only one set of beliefs, one package, for one community and they were going to get everything from that.”

Woodhead’s particular contribution to the sociology of religion is to note the acceleration of the decline of organised religion: “Religion has changed dramatically since the 1980s and we haven’t even started to come to terms with just how big that change has been.” This she puts down to a combination a factors, chiefly the way in which religion (like the Tories) became a toxic brand. “The baby boomers are the generation who were most antagonistic toward religion. Religion became the totem for parental oppression, and they shunned religion for secularism and alternative spirituality.” Simultaneously the Anglican church, which in the 1970s had been socially progressive, in the 1980s became “entrenched and socially conservative”. “They have now come to stand for the old sexual morality whereas every other generation has moved on. Not even churchgoing Christians want to say they are religious because religion is conceived to be oppressive.”

Alongside this has come what Woodhead calls the re-ritualisation of life. She points to the contemporary practices of marking the sites of road deaths with flowers and ghost bikes, and the way every stage of life has become wrapped in a ritual that is distinct from the conventional religious rituals but has the same devotional, spiritual quality. “People are holding ceremonies around pregnancy – it’s quite common to have a cast made of your pregnant belly – people have shrines to goddesses, naming ceremonies, baby showers, high school Proms, engagement parties, divorce rituals.” In what way, I wondered, are these things, any more than the crystals, runes and reiki of the New Agers, really “religious”? I mean, it’s not much to do with God, is it?

“Well, it’s true no one really wants to talk about God, not even the Christians, but then again Christian belief in God is much overestimated. It’s a misconception that believing in God is the heart of religion.” OK, but surely she must recognise that for many of us a lot of New Age spirituality is, to quote some of the comments on one of her own articles for the Guardian’s website, “ridiculous superstition” and “wishy washy guff”. It is precisely this kind of attitude that she has recently criticised in an essay that argues that certain kinds of secularism, the anti-religion kind, are illiberal because they deny people basic religious freedom.

“I don’t like positions which want to dismiss what people are actually doing,” she replies. “This is not to say you can’t make judgements, but first try and understand what they are doing. People aren’t stupid, they have good reasons for doing what they are doing.” She tells a story to illustrate this: “I talked to a lady the other day. Her daughter was going for a job interview and she went out and bought a crystal for her to carry with her for good luck. The mother said she knows the crystal won’t get her daughter the job, but she wants to do everything she can – the crystal is a symbol of her care. It might help, it might not, but why not try?” What would she say to those who say that’s just irrational and we don’t need it in our society? “Most of our lives aren’t rational in that way. Is a football game rational? Is marriage rational?”

Not only does she refuse to choose sides between secular and religious, she thinks, increasingly, that the distinction doesn’t hold: “I wouldn’t want to draw a line between religious and secular any more – that’s the whole point. If you go and look at graves now, instead of angels and Jesus you are just as likely to see a Nike trainer or something that is specific to that person – everyday objects that are sacred. Are they religious or secular? That question doesn’t make any sense any more for most people.” Woodhead’s notion of “spiritual ritual” does appear quite capacious, wide enough to accommodate, for example, the rapid growth of humanist weddings, naming days and funerals too.

Her work can sometimes read like a defence, if not a celebration, of religion. There is a note of not-quite-triumphalism about the argument that spirituality is alive and well in a thousand different guises, which goes hand in hand with her critique of “illiberal secularism”. She says she is “deeply influenced by the Christian moral framework”, but disillusioned with her (Anglican) church. But she is absolutely clear that the non-decline of religiosity is a good thing: “I think it would be tragic if religion disappeared. It is endlessly fascinating. We are meaning-making creatures and we need to have ways of thinking about this, of coping with loss and grief, of thinking about our sinfulness, and how we can improve ourselves. I see religion as experiments in different ways of living. For example, my colleague studied the Hare Krishnas. They are an experiment in what life would be like if all you did was love people. It’s an impossible experiment, barmy. But I’m really glad someone is trying it out. Religions are social and ethical experiments, and in that way I see them as forms of change and social progress.”

No doubt we’ll be arguing about that one for years to come. What seems unarguable is that religion is transforming, and those of us who are uncomfortable about many aspects of religion, and wish to exercise our right to criticise, need to make sure we don’t get left behind, picketing an empty church.