Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Secularization of Victorian Religion

"The moment of secularisation was not the fracturing of an already-desiccated Victorianism in the 1960s; it was somewhere around the time that evangelical ethics became second nature to the British, not requiring the exogenous relief of the salvation economy because nine-tenths of salvation was now conduct. As the Congregationalist, R.W. Dale, perceived, the impulse to live without God could grow within the religious culture. When he warned in 1880 of the danger of cultivating ‘religious sentiment of a kind which makes God unnecessary’ he touched a raw nerve in Victorian Christianity – and one that has scarcely registered with historians. It was the secularisation of the Christian culture itself, rather than society at large, that was the crucial development. My contention is that the process was driven less by ‘high’ theology than the implicit theology that came to equate sin with certain kinds of pleasure and salvation with avoiding them. This mutation of religion into ethics took place right under the eyes of some of the most conservative Christian leaders; indeed it was welcomed as evidence of realism, practicality and engagement. Yet it was a process as subversive of the salvation economy as any external challenge. It proclaimed the most unevangelical message that an ability to resist a known set of ‘temptations’ was the greater part of godliness. Victorian religion was all about combating such temptations, employing manliness, self-control and ‘safe’ alternatives such as sport. In the long run, the cure proved as deadly as the disease, and evangelicals felt it most. The salvation industry could not live on a diet of temperance, recreation and stiffened wills, and it faltered. Evangelicals had protested louder than any at the eighteenth-century equation of Christianity with mere moralism, they had reminded the British that Christianity is, in Weber’s phrase, ‘salvation religion’, but they had manufactured something comparably ‘this-worldly’ by the late nineteenth century.

"...some ecclesiastical strategies were ‘a form of secularisation’ not because they broke the pristine rules of one denomination but because they established mechanisms of salvation that were increasingly independent of supernatural belief and sustenance. Slowly but perceptibly the tone and mentality of Christian organisations changed as the Christian walk was redefined as an essentially earthly agon. The process was subtle but, over a period of time, decisive.” Dominic Edozain, The Problem of Pleasure: Sport, Recreation and the Crisis of Victorian Religion, p. 6-7 & 13.
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