Sam Reimer, professor of sociology and author of Caught in the Current, explores how authority, belief and behaviour have changed over the years and the impact this has had on faith

As recently as the 1950s, Western culture supported Christian orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right behaviour). It was conventional to go to church each Sunday. Now only about five per cent of Britons attend weekly. 

Most people believed in God and considered themselves Christians. Now, Westerners are disaffiliating from religion in droves, becoming “nonverts” or “religious nones”. 75 years ago, church leaders would speak, and the people and the state would take them seriously. 

The Church used to stand in judgement of society, like an Old Testament prophet pointing his finger at the king, saying: “Thus sayeth the Lord….” Not so anymore. Now society stands in judgement of the Church. What has changed? 


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The inward turn

Religious authority has changed. The “inward turn” – the glacial shift from deference to religious authorities to deference to the dictates of one’s own heart – may be the most important religious change this century in the West. Eminent philosopher Charles Taylor calls it a “massive subjective turn of modern culture”. 

British sociologists Heelas and Woodhead argue that “the subjective turn has become the defining cultural development of modern Western culture”. I call this inward turn the move from an external locus of authority to an internal locus of authority. 

Prior to the baby boomers (born 1946-64) and the turbulent 1960s, deference to external authority was typical. Citizens did what the government told them to do, even going to war. And while there are rebellious youth in every generation, it was generally expected that teachers and parents were to be believed and obeyed. Affiliates of religions assumed that their religious leaders were correct in their doctrinal pronouncements. Previous generations usually did what their bosses at work told them to do, even when they didn’t want to, because they usually saw their leaders’ authority as legitimate. 

However, since at least the 1960s, external authority has become increasingly suspect. Not only have scandals tarnished the reputations of leaders, but postmodernity and critical theory have spotlighted the problems of authority in society, namely oppression and inequality. So moderns wonder: “If we can no longer trust the powers-that-be, how are we to know what is right and true?” The answer: “We need to trust ourselves. We need to be guided by our own internal sense of morality. We are to be true to ourselves and follow our heart.” 

Western culture no longer supports deference to external authorities, including religious authorities. Rather, each person must decide for themselves what they believe and value; indeed, each person must decide who they are. No one else should tell you what to believe or do. You need to find yourself, and then live according to what your heart tells you. Inner authority is replacing external authority. 

Changes in society and churches

You may be thinking, “Well, this is good! We are finally thinking for ourselves and breaking free from the control of the powers in society!” Maybe not. My point is that society itself has gradually changed. Society now supports the legitimacy of internal authority, not the external authority of the Church, or state, or school. So, we are conforming to societal expectations if we question external authority and follow our own inner compass. We are all still caught in the current of society; it is just the current has changed directions. It now pulls us toward individualism and self-directed, inner spiritual quests. It no longer pulls us toward institutional religion. 

How widespread was this deference to internal authority? The toughest test, I reasoned, would be to find evidence of internal authority among those who were actively participating in churches, since they are regularly exposed to messages from external religious authorities like a pastor or priest. Further, one would expect it to be hardest to find among committed evangelicals – those who resist the influences of the world, and are known for their deference to the external authority of the Bible. 

I completed 124 in-depth interviews among evangelical clergy and committed laity in some 65 different churches across England and Canada. In each church, I asked the lead pastor/priest to recommend a few active members of their congregation that I could interview, so I completed interviews with 60 lay evangelicals. What I found was that evangelical clergy were well aware orthodoxy was slipping, that congregants were taking moral positions that were contrary to the teachings of their church, and that it is hard to get people to read their Bibles or come to church. Clergy knew their flock were not always following the shepherd, but were finding their own way. In the lay interviews, I found that the majority showed signs of inner authority or self-spirituality. 

The best evidence of inward authority among lay members was their rejection of the official positions of their church or denomination in favour of their own personal views. This was common, particularly on sexual issues. An educated, middle age man attending a Vineyard church in England had this to say in response to my question about his views on premarital sex: “It is better if there was a stable marriage between a couple…in the interest of that, a trial-run isn’t such a bad idea. I understand that that’s heresy and it’s outside of the views of the Church.” 

Others emphasised the importance of personal choice. A young man from an evangelical Anglican church said: “In general, I would say it’s up to them [whether they cohabit before marriage or marry a same-sex partner].” 

A young woman, also from a Vineyard church, stated that a person’s decision to cohabit was “one of those things that has to come out of personal choice rather than being shamed or forced into it.” Such decisions, she averred, have to come from “personal conviction”. 


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Belief and behaviour

Of course, inner authority was not just evident in ethical positions, but also in doctrinal and behavioural decisions. In society, the exclusive beliefs held by some conservative Protestants –like the belief that Jesus is the only way to heaven and that nonbelievers are going to hell – are not popular in increasingly diverse Western societies. Evangelical clergy and laity would downplay or soften such beliefs to avoid appearing intolerant. 

Active church members did not feel like they needed to read their Bible every day or attend church every week. Instead, scheduling one’s life is based on “what works for me”, since one should avoid feeling guilty if devotional practices were irregular. The direction the cultural current was pulling them was obvious. 

The relationship between the Church and Western culture goes in both directions; each one influences the other. The Church, throughout much of history, had had a defining influence on society, including government, schools and homes. The broader culture also shaped religion, and the two were often mutually supportive. Our culture is much less supportive now. Institutional religions have less authority over the government, schools and homes. 

Spirituality is less likely to be centred around an institutional church, and more likely to be a private, personal quest. The broader culture is pulling people away from orthodoxy and orthopraxy as defined by institutional religion. 


Sam Reimer is professor of sociology at Crandall University and the author of Caught in the Current: British and Canadian Evangelicals in an age of self-spirituality.