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.