Posted by: aboutalbion | June 29, 2012

Anthropology and (alleged) European secularisation

A couple of days ago, I posted on Martin Southwold’s anthropological approach to religion.  I now think that his approach may begin to explain the disconnect between the population of Europe and the Christian churches of Europe, the so-called secularisation of Europe.

For many centuries, the Christian churches of Europe have witnessed to ‘a central concern with godlike beings’, which is one of the attributes that may (but not must) be present in Southwold’s approach to religion.  However, for many reasons, the population of Europe has increasingly voted with their feet to cease to support the Christian churches’ witness to ‘a central concern with godlike beings’.

Using Southwold’s approach, what strikes me is that the population of Europe might well be having religious experiences and engaging in religious behaviour without the need to be members of an organised religion that emphasises ‘a central concern with godlike beings’.

This train of thought began when I read that (in the spring of this year) a Tibetan Buddhist leader had visited the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford to take part in a seminar with the Principal Clinical Psychology Research Fellow.  The Research Fellow was there to report research that ‘mindfulness’ (aka ‘meditation’, aka Mindfulness-Based-Cognitive-Therapy, aka MBCT) had a contribution to make to improving the emotional health of people with depression.  There is MRI scan evidence that regular meditation can actually alter the physical structure of the brain [the insula, which is linked with a person’s sense of connectedness].  The Tibetan leader was there to explain the ancient Buddhist practice of ‘mindfulness’.

This train of thought continued this morning during a visit to the city centre of Oxford.  While there, I couldn’t help noticing that a raja yoga organisation has a bookshop selling resources for the practice of meditation – in this case, meditation based on a Hindu tradition.

And as I write this, I recall being present at a public meeting many years ago which was being addressed by one of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government ministers.  He stated quite openly that it was his practice to spend one hour every day alone in what he called “recollection”.

These are just three straws in the wind, but it seems to me that there is evidence here that the personal practice of meditation may be affirming the primacy of personal religious experience (and which is independent of ‘a central concern with godlike beings’).

The Christian churches may well create a narrative about secularisation to explain their declining membership base.  I sense that what some people misleadingly call ‘secular spirituality’ is alive and well in Europe.  And I think that something like Martin Southwold’s anthropological approach to religion (which does not demand ‘a central concern with godlike beings’) would suggest that religion is just as alive and well in Europe as it is in other places in the world.


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