Losing their religion and the backbone of the church: conference keynotes

 

In the grand tradition of oral history, the three keynote speakers at this year’s annual conference will be focusing on those whose voices are rarely heard in studies of religion, belief and faith – and, crucially, the lack of it.

Abby Day, professor of sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, will be talking about her studies of lay women in the Church of England. These women, born in the 1920s and 30s, were the backbone of their local churches with their roles including opening up the church, cleaning and preparing the altar.

“This generation has been left alone and are mute. In my work I try to get to know them and find out their stories,” she says. “The younger and later generation of women didn’t continue in their footsteps,” she says.

These “invisible and neglected” women have been crucial to the day-to-day running of the Church of England, says Day. During her ethnographic study of these laywomen she immersed herself in their world and observed how, as well as performing vital domestic type-work they offered a quasi-social work service, opening up the church to those who needed sanctuary. She published a book on the subject earlier this year, The Religious Lives of Older Laywomen: The Last Active Anglican Generation.

“They kept the church open and kept it vibrant. When they die off their services will die off. Churches will become a lot more closed,” she says.

But while these stalwarts of church life may be noted for their crucial behind-the-scenes work there is a spiritual aspect to their lives, says Day.

“I heard stories of women feeling close to God. They felt they were being called and some had experiences that were spiritual,” she says.

Callum Brown, professor of late modern European history at the University of Glasgow and Tina Block, associate professor in the department of history at Thompson Rivers University in Canada will both focus on the oral histories of those who have lost their faith.

Brown says he is unusual as a historian of religion in that he has no faith and recently “came out” as humanist. He has been working on a project since 2009 investigating how the 1960s generation lost their religion, as secularisation became a more dominant force in Western cultures.

“No one has really looked at this before. A number of US scholars have looked at people who lose religion and find it again but no one had looked at people who lost religion,” he says.

“The classic pattern which affected probably two thirds of my interviewees was that they lost their religion any time between the ages of seven and 18 and then were indifferent to religion, often until later life. They wouldn’t use the term atheist or humanist, some would describe themselves as agnostic,” he says.

The term “atheist” carries negative connotations, says Brown, hence the reluctance of many interviewees to describe themselves as such. In the 1950s, particularly in the United States, atheists  was seen as Communists and traitors.

Humanism is an important part of the journey to losing faith, says Brown, who has recently published a book on the subject, Becoming Atheist: Humanism and the Secular West.

“I tell the story of how among the 85 people I interviewed there was a strong humanist end product to their journey from faith. People said to me ‘I discovered I was a humanist but I didn’t know there was a word to describe it,’” he says.

There was a strong element of “emotional equanimity” to the stories of losing faith, says Brown, and for some the “whole process of coming out as an atheist or humanist is a source of quiet satisfaction and in some cases joy.” However, for others, particularly women, the process of losing faith was more traumatic. Women recounted feeling oppressed by the church, particularly the Catholic church, and by the expectations of family. “One woman told how she was at the funeral of her daughter where the priest was talking about her daughter being in heaven and they would be reunited. She said, ‘I didn’t believe a word of it.’”

Tina Block’s research also focuses on those who lost their faith – she interviewed 94 people in four cities in Canada, the vast majority of whom were of white European descent, raised in nominally Christian households. A lot of interviewees talked about instances of hypocrisy in churches or among religious people in their lives.

“For a lot of women that patriarchy of organised religion was a problem. And people also talked of how as children and young people they had a lot of questions about religion and Christianity that weren’t answered,” she said.

However, she added that it was sometimes hard to grasp the journey to losing faith.

“I’m interested in this journey to unbelief. People can talk quite clearly about why they rejected the church but when it came to why they became unbelievers it tended to be a longer journey. For many it was a rejection of the church and then a longer period of not thinking about religion and not coming to an immediate atheist identity,” she says.

Block is interested in how ordinary people view their belief, or lack of it.

“Social and cultural history foregrounds the stories of ordinary people. As a social historian my focus is on ordinary unbelievers,” she says.

“How did unbelief figure in every day life, did it shape their family life, did it affect the raising of their children?” she says.

At the conference Block will also talk about the methodological challenges in studying something which she describes as nebulous. Some people who call themselves unbelievers talk about it in terms of rejecting organised religion but describe themselves as spiritual. However, the word spiritual is difficult to define, says Block.

However, she adds that her interviewees were keen to share their stories of losing their faith.

“They want people to know that atheism and non-believers are here and that they should be more vocal about their presence. There’s definitely that sense of wanting to share their stories,” she adds.

  • Remembering Beliefs – The Shifting Worlds of Religion and Faith in Secular Society takes place at Leeds Trinity University on July 14 and 15. For more information click here.

This guide is for people who record oral history interviews, and organisations and individuals who keep collections of oral history recordings in the four nations of the United Kingdom. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland comprise the UK and amongst them have three legal systems. However so far as the law is referred to in this document it is safe to assume that all come within the wider context of UK and European law. The Oral History Society promotes the use of oral history techniques to record the memories of those whose life stories would otherwise be lost to future generations, and encourages researchers and teachers to make use of oral history in their work.

It is essential that interviewees should have confidence and trust in interviewers, and that recordings should be available for research and other use within a legal and ethical framework which protects the interests of interviewees. The following information and guidelines are aimed at ensuring that these objectives are achieved.

Anyone involved with the creation and preservation of oral history interviews should take steps to safeguard their reputation for trustworthiness. This means ensuring that what they do is within the various UK and European laws that apply to oral history and that they have not been acting illegally. Oral historians generally speaking have a good reputation in this respect. This guidance is therefore offered as reassurance and advice to both interviewers and interviewees.

The Oral History Society believes that, while oral history work must comply with the law, legal requirements alone do not provide an adequate framework for good practice. No UK law was designed specifically to regulate oral history work; in fact no law even mentions it. Beyond legal considerations we have long held the view that oral historians should abide by a voluntary set of ethical guidelines.

For these reasons this guide covers responsibilities and obligations beyond legal requirements. Members of the Oral History Society, including those who are custodians, archivists and librarians, have agreed to abide by these guidelines.

The guidance reflects the workflow of a typical oral history interview. Much of the legal and technical detail is available not within the main guidance text but via hypertext links so that the key steps and terms can be understood and followed. There are also links to sample documents and resources.