Secularisation in Brno

Posted on December 26, 2010


My usual after-conference report has been somewhat delayed by a little thing called Christmas. The turkey, cake and other comestibles are now where they should be, however: So there is a chance to write a few words about the meeting in Brno. The conference’s title was almost as long as the conference itself – Twenty Years After: Secularization and Desecularization in Central And Eastern Europe – the 9th Meeting of the International Study of Religion in Central and Eastern Europe Association. The actual meeting only really ran over two days, with my talk on the first of those days. Because I was coming over from Vienna, I was a bit early so that I had time to take Ales, a friend of mine who was one of the organisers, out to dinner the night before the start of the conference. The actual meeting was started by a plenary talk by David Voas who explained the statistics of secularisation in western Europe. His talk was based on a recent paper of his entitled “The Rise and Fall of Fuzzy Fidelity in Europe”:

Two issues have been especially contentious in debates over religious change in Europe: the unity or diversity of the trends observed across the continent, and the significance of the large subpopulation that is neither religious nor completely unreligious. This article addresses these problems. An analysis of the first wave of the European Social Survey (ESS) shows that each generation in every country surveyed is less religious than the last. Although there are some minor differences in the speed of the decline (the most religious countries are changing more quickly than the least religious), the magnitude of the fall in religiosity during the last century has been remarkably constant across the continent. Despite these shifts in the prevalence of conventional Christian belief, practice and self-identification, residual involvement is considerable. Many people are neither regular churchgoers nor self-consciously non-religious. The term ‘fuzzy fidelity’ describes this casual loyalty to tradition. Religion usually plays only a minor role in the lives of such people. Religious change in European countries follows a common trajectory whereby fuzzy fidelity rises and then falls over a very extended period. The starting points are different across the continent, but the forces at work may be much the same.

This is a very surprising result, to say the least. It suggests that the process, once started, has a degree of independence that one would hardly expect. It feels akin to how once an apple breaks free of the branch it falls at a speed that takes into account nothing but the force of gravity. Social, cultural or economic considerations seem to be no more than the wind that might have shaken it free but which now cannot halt its descent. I expect that Voas’ paper is something that I will be coming back to, time after time.

The plenary talk after Voas’ was a big contrast. Where Voas supported his argument with masses of statistics, the talk that followed – by Monika Wohlrab-Sahr – used analysis of in-depth interviews. It was interesting to see the various methods used by people studying religion, with me having reservations about both Voas’ questionnaire-driven approach and Wohlrab-Sahr’s methodology. The important thing being, of course, whether the approaches are providing us with interesting and useful results. Even though the meeting was quite short, there were four concurrent sessions for its length. This would have been fine had the conference concerned a very broad topic. Focussed as it was already upon secularisation in Central and Eastern Europe, there was often very little to go on in terms of deciding which session to attend. Those who have been working in this area would know a lot better which sessions would be most interesting but, for me, it was mostly a case of fairly randomly choosing between very similar-looking abstracts. This was not true, of course, for the cognitive science of religion session which my talk was in.

The session, although only 90 minutes long, included four talks, unlike the two or three talks the other sessions had. This meant that all the speakers had a very limited amount of time to speak. Many of the faces in the group were familiar to me from the last time I had been in Brno, with all of the speakers except myself being from Ales’ group. It was good to see that, although the session was somewhat outside of the norm at this conference, it was extremely well attended. I think it is safe to say that many people working on religion have come to recognise that something very interesting is happening in terms of cognitive approaches to the topic.

My own talk – Secularisation and the Dual Inheritance Model of Religion – was simply an attempt to spell out some of the ways in which a dual inheritance account of religion can explain features of secularisation. The one aspect that I think many people found most interesting was that the appearance of new religions can be explained in terms of cultural drift that is the analogue of genetic drift and which could be the result of religion losing its prosocial function in modern societies. I think the talk was quite well received, with several people coming up to me subsequently to discuss various aspects of it. As always, the real meat of the meet was what happened in the evening over (cheap and good Czech) beers. I was particularly glad to finally meet and talk at length with Luther Martin, who is a cogsci of religion researcher whose work I had been aware of for some time. His forthright, no-nonsense approach to the discipline is, I felt, quite Australian in a way. The same unfortunately cannot be said for the cultural relativism that a couple of others (not Martin, of course!) evidenced at the meeting. I can hardly believe that silliness is still believed in. Perhaps someone should write an article on the cognitive science of cultural relativism. Every time I run across it I feel like I should be understanding and considerate but then fail to gather the necessary energy to be anything but offhand. ‘Bulldust’ is the term that comes to mind.