A spiritual revolution? Wicca and religious change in the 1960s
A spiritual revolution? Wicca and religious change in the 1960s

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A spiritual revolution? Wicca and religious change in the 1960s

1 Religious change in the 1960s

The Sixties were a time of transformative change in the social and cultural experience for many Western people. Their religious lives were no exception. The era has often been presented as one of significant religious crisis for the dominant tradition in the West: Christianity. In the case of Britain, for example, the eminent social historian Callum Brown spoke of the beginnings of a rapid demise of Christianity in the late 1950s, and a ‘free fall’ from about 1963 (Brown, 2001, p. 188). Brown argues that Christianity lost its grip on common assumptions about how life should be lived, particularly amongst women, who had traditionally tended to be more ‘pious’ than men.

In this course you are going to explore the Sixties as a period of religious ferment. In doing so, you will engage with elements of crisis – particularly for traditional Christianity – which Brown and others have addressed. During the Sixties era, many contemporary scholars – both historians and social scientists – argued that they were observing the disappearance of religion itself, through a process of secularisation. However, ‘crisis’ is not the only perspective on religion in the Sixties. Alongside the apparent crisis of traditional Christianity, a significant reconfiguration of religion was occurring, both inside and outside the churches, driven in part by a cultural shift towards notions of inner authenticity and subjective experience, a turn away from tradition and authority towards the ‘self’. The Canadian scholar Charles Taylor identifies a ‘massive subjective turn of modern culture, a new form of inwardness, in which we come to think of ourselves as creatures with inner depths’ (Taylor, 1991, p. 26). In the Sixties, this emphasis on individuality and expression – what we call here expressive individualism – has been widely evident. Where religion is concerned, Heelas and Woodhead (2005) argue there has been a ‘subjective turn’ – even a ‘spiritual revolution’.

Figure 1 Demolition of Brampton Congregational Church, Chesterfield, c.1968.
Figure 2 The Beatles and their wives at the Rishikesh in India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, March 1968.
Figure 3 Children of God, pictured with their Jesus Bus, spreading The Gospel in Brighton, 1971.

Activity 2

Timing: Allow approximately 25 minutes

How might Figures 1, 2 and 3 display three aspects of changes in religion during the Sixties?

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The first is of the demolition of a church building in Chesterfield, England, around 1968. The picture is evidence of a wider phenomenon: in England and Wales between 1951 and 1980 there was an 18 per cent reduction in places of worship (non-Anglican), with the greatest net losses between 1962 and 1972 (Field, 2017, p. 184). The Sixties are often seen as a period of decline for traditional Christianity; taking into account measurements such as the numbers of church attendance, buildings and clergy. The second picture shows global pop music icons the Beatles. In 1966, one of their songwriters, John Lennon, had famously said in an Evening Standard interview: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I'll be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first – rock 'n' roll or Christianity.” Whether Lennon was being critical of traditional Christianity, or simply noting a generational shift away from traditional religion and toward popular culture, he and his bandmates nevertheless seemed interested in alternative forms of ‘spirituality’, visiting the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India two years later. But was Christianity dying? The third image, the Children of God evangelising in Brighton, shows one of a number of new expressions of Christianity – with an emphasis on experience, authenticity and community – which were emerging during the Sixties. The rise of what is known as ‘charismatic Christianity’ suggests that traditional religion was also able to renew itself from within.

When thinking about religious change in the Sixties, what is it that’s changing? What do we mean by ‘religion’ in this context? You should now spend about 15 minutes thinking about what criteria you might use for measuring religiosity and changing patterns of religion in society.

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Very often, when we think about religion – perhaps in terms of the question ‘How religious a country are we?’ – we will tend to immediately turn to attendance, maybe attendance at a church, synagogue or mosque, as a measure. But there are a range of measures we might use. Three of the most common are:

  • ‘Belonging’: that is, membership of religious organisations; or how people self-identify on censuses.
  • ‘Behaving’: how people’s practices, both formal and informal, are shaped by religion – for example, attendance at places of worship; participation in different rites of passage (such as baptism); watching or listening to religious programmes in the media.
  • ‘Believing’: the extent to which religion informs various dimensions of belief – for example, belief in God or other supernatural beings, or in ideas about ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’, or in things like astrology, ‘superstitions’ or magic; views on moral questions, like divorce and abortion (the consensus on such matters might be reflected in the law).

The important thing is to understand that ‘religion’ or ‘religious’ can refer to different things, so there is no one measure of religious change. With that in mind, you will now read about some of the changes that were happening in different religions during the 1960s.


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