Religion, throughout history, has held a prominent yet curious place in western civilization. Though in constant flux, the institution of religion has consistently offered its followers solace in times of trouble, hope amid eminent failure, or, more generally, a sense of place and self in a large and seemingly indifferent world. It is the manner in which people have pursued their spirituality, however, that poses challenging questions of what religion means and where religion is heading in the twenty-first century. Offering an engaging look at the evolution of western religion from the early sixteenth century through the contemporary "New Age" cult, Steve Bruce argues that modernization, and the rise of individualism, have fundamentally altered the place and relevance of religious beliefs, practices, and organizations for both groups and individuals in Western society.
The people of the Middle Ages did what the Church told them God required. A small number of highly trained officials, acting on behalf of the state and the people, glorified God. They did so with a liturgy and with music that was far too complex for the active participation of lay people. Services were conducted not in the local language but in Latin, with ordinary people simply expected to behave morally, to attend church on the great feast days, and to finance the professionals who did the serious religious work. As Bruce shows, religion of this time was very straightforward: "Do God's will, or you'll go to Hell." It was a time when religion and superstition went hand in hand, as priests prayed for the salvation of the general public and saints offered powerful remedies for ailments. St. Wilgerfort, for example, could help wives be rid of their husbands, while other saints could protect men and cattle and visit plague on one's enemies.
It was not until the Reformation and the innovations of Martin Luther and John Calvin, Bruce points out, that religion was given back to the people. This period was marked by a focus on the individual, as local languages replaced Latin, hymns were sung to simple folk melodies, and a personal response to God was encouraged. More importantly, believing the right things took priority over performing the correct ritual. With this change came competing convictions and a newfound responsibility for one's own salvation, as well as a greater interest in finding a sect that most closely resembled one's particular lifestyle. Individualism now took on a new meaning: the right to do what we wanted provided it did not harm others. This consumer oriented mentality, coupled with the desire to avoid the church's less forgiving denominations, brought about a flowering of new religions and "New Age" innovations, from white witchcraft and goddess worship to doomsday cults. It is the cult, Bruce argues, with its emphasis on the freedom to do whatever one thinks is right, that will define religion in the twenty-first century.
Lively and accessible, Religion in the Modern World provides a comprehensive description of the changes in Western religion over the last 450 years, and an intriguing view of the direction religion is heading in the future. It is an invaluable resource for anyone with an interest in looking behind the headlines for the place of religion in today's society.