Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Whither Christianity in Scotland? :: Scotsman

For a while in the 1980s, it looked like circling the wagons might keep the injuns at bay: the two extreme wings of Scottish Christianity - the conservative Catholic Church and the conservative Protestant sects - seemed to be holding up. But their support is now collapsing. With hindsight, we can see that their success was an accidental consequence of having larger-than-average families and being marginal to affluent, industrial, liberal society. Catholics were socially marginal; the Free Churches were geographically remote. The upward movement of Scots Catholics and the outward movement of Highlanders and Islanders has made both populations better integrated. When the social barriers came down, so did the distinctive piety.
The Kirk's loss of 60 per cent of attenders since 1960 is dramatic enough, but the full extent of secularization becomes clear if we take a longer time span. In 1851, about half of Scots regularly attended church, most had some formal Christian instruction, and basic Christian ideas were taken for granted. Now, only 10 per cent attend church and the proportion familiar with Christianity is barely larger. In 1900, being Christian was expected; in 2005, it is exceptional.
many surveys tell us that adult conversion is rare; if people are not socialised into a faith in childhood, they are very unlikely to acquire one later. We know a lot about family dynamics. When parents belong to the same church, their children have a one-in-two chance of acquiring the faith. When parents are not the same faith (even if both are churchly), the odds on successful transmission are halved again. And the Christian population in many parts of Scotland is getting close to being too small to reproduce itself. Young Christians can either not marry (and, hence, not produce the next generation) or marry out (and, hence, not produce the next generation).
People do not accidentally become religious. Being a Christian is not "natural"; it is an acquired characteristic. Like a language, it must be learned and, if it is not used in the home, in everyday conversation and in public life, it dies out. As the population that speaks a minority tongue shrinks, decline does not slow; it becomes faster. There is no natural obstacle to the death of a language. I do not see why the fate of a religion should be different.

• Steve Bruce is professor of sociology at the University of Aberdeen and author of God is Dead: Secularization in the West. [Follow the link to read the first few pages.]
Shouldn't the subtitle be Secularization in Western Europe? Click here.

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