Religion & Urbanization

by Caleb Roberts

In both the United States and Britain there has been, and there still is, a significant relationship between the size of a given city and the church membership and attendance in that city.  In general the larger the population of a city the smaller the proportion of church members in that population.  Why?  An answer that at first sight must appear only to take us round in a circle is that the larger the city the higher tends to be the proportion of working-class population; but what I in fact want to suggest is that the distinctive forms of urban working-class life in the industrial city, as they came into being, and as they are to be contrasted with, for example, working-class life in the domestic industries of the eighteenth century or in the earlier and smaller commercial city, marked a distinct change so far as religion is concerned.  What the urbanization of the Industrial Revolution meant was the destruction of the older forms of community, in many cases rapidly, and in particular the destruction of those features of them to which religion had given symbolic expression.  There is first of all the loss of the background of a given and largely unalterable natural order within whose limits men of different social rank all have to live.  There is secondly the disappearance of the relative continuity and stability of social order, a stability which makes that order appear continuous with the order of nature.  There is thirdly an end to the existence of shared and established norms, common to all ranks in the community, in the light of which everyone stands either vindicated or convicted by their own conduct.  Religion, when it is the religion of a whole society, may have functions other than the expression of the natural and social order, but it is always ate least an expression of a society’s moral unity, and it lends to that unity a cosmic and universal significance and justification. (11-12)

Alasdair MacIntyre | Secularization and Moral Change