MacIntyre — Secularization and Moral Change, I

In a previous post, I offered a longer excerpt from what is surely the best-known work of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, his 1981  After Virtue. I have also made some brief comments on After Virtue in this post. A good academic biography of MacIntyre can be found at the IEP. Here, I’d like to look at one of his earlier works, the 1964 Riddell Memorial Lectures, published in 1967 as Secularization and Moral Change. A good introduction to the social context of the book can be found on Peter Webster’s post on it; Webster rightly notes that “little of MacIntyre’s little book will surprise the modern reader in matters of fact”, and suggests that MacIntyre’s use of Marxist class analysis may strike the modern reader as “quaint”. (In all honesty, I should recommend you to Webster for the superior summary and analysis.) The ever-excellent Adam DeVille argues that “The Benedict Option” of Rod Dreher, which took its title from the final page of MacIntyre’s After Virtue, is incompatible with what MacIntyre actually writes here in Secularization and Moral Change. DeVille writes about this also here. A reviewer “Caleb” over at Goodreads suggests the same.


Secularization and Moral Change is three lectures; over the course of these three lectures, MacIntyre sought “to raise three questions and to find answers to them”. [7] Those questions were:

1) “[W]hy [has] secularization […] not progressed any further than it has done, especially among the working class”, [7]

2) “[W]hether religious decline is a, or the, cause of moral decline”, [7] and

3) “[W]hat effect secularization has had upon English Christianity”.

By secularization MacIntyre simply means “the transition from beliefs and activities and institutions [8] presupposing beliefs of a traditional Christian kind to beliefs and activities and institutions of an atheistic kind.” [7-8]

The three lectures tackle these three questions in order. Here, we deal with question one.


The question MacIntyre addresses in the first lecture is “[W]hy [has] secularization […] not progressed any further than it has done, especially among the working class”? [7]

MacIntyre opens with two quotes by Friedrich Engels, in which Engels observes that the English middle class was very religious before “the Exhibition of 1851“, but that exposure to international currents introduced a “continental skepticism” that was thereafter “very nearly on a par as far as respectability goes with Baptism and decidedly ranks above the Salvation Army.” [9] Engels expected the working class also to abandon a creed that has simply made them subservient to “the vampire property[-]holding class.” [10] MacIntyre notes, simply, that

Engels’ prediction of further and indeed of total secularization has not come true. [10]

The English working class was “not strikingly more secularized” in the 1960’s than it was a century earlier. Why was it not? Engels’ prediction was, after all, “plausible” [11] when it was made, for several reasons.

Urbanization was one such reason — “the transfer of population from the countryside to the towns” resulted in “the unchurching of a large part of the population”. [11] This transfer predated the Industrial Revolution. Comparing the population in Sheffield in 1736, for instance, with the number of seats available in places of worship, it “follows that many people must rarely, if ever, have gone to church.” [11]

The Industrial Revolution is another reason, as it kicks this trend into overdrive. “[T]he larger the population of a city[,] the [12] smaller the proportion of church members in that population” [11-12], because it means the destruction of older forms of community. What is lost?

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 […] is always at least an expression of a society’s moral unity, and it lends to that unity a cosmic and universal significance and justification. [12]

It is easy to exaggerate the homogeneity of pre-industrial life, but it is impossible to exaggerate the social effects of industrialization. In the 1600’s, one could make “a common appeal to moral and religious standards” [13] even across social divisions. Shortly after, the author Daniel Defoe (see Robinson Crusoe) “can already present Christianity as impotent when confronted with the autonomous motives of trade and of the pursuit of wealth.” [13] Between the 17th & 18th centuries, people became aware of this “emerging autonomy of secular life”, which was strengthened by the way that “economic growth” fostered “new kinds of class division” and “splitting” in society. [14] This division generated conflict between classes and their interests. People tried to appeal to the older, authoritative shared norms that the entire community once shared, but it became clear that these were no longer the norms of the whole community, and so these norms appeared man-made. Any such appeals to the older shared norms presented as the interests of one class against another. In sum:

when the working [15] class were gathered from the countryside into the industrial cities, they were finally torn from a form of community in which it could be intelligibly and credibly claimed that the norms which govern social life had universal and cosmic significance, and were God-given. They were planted instead in a form of community in which the officially endorsed norms so clearly are of utility only to certain partial and partisan human interests that it is impossible to clothe them with universal and cosmic significance. [14-15]

The religious lives of the classes are different “after 1800” (making a unified national English religious history after this point merely a fiction). The bishops, like the judges and the military officers, were drawn from one particular social class; all of these conferred social capital appropriate to that class. This class sends their children to “public schools” (in the US we call them “private schools”), which still had significant training in denominational Christianity as part of the curriculum.

MacIntyre suggests that middle class Anglican churchgoing dropped most significantly between 1901 and 1948 (in York, 1/7 ppl. vs. 1/21 ppl. attending Sunday services) [16], but that, by contrast, there is a relatively “high figure for participation” in rites such as baptism and marriage and funerals, which requires “further explanation”. [17] The high degree (~1/4th) to which English people had a “magical” view of the universe still in 1955 also requires explanation. English working-class people are not anti-clerical, to boot.

None of this seems to be in keeping with Engels’ prediction. [18] How to account for its failure? MacIntyre pegs

the lack of common norms consequent upon the new autonomy of industrial and of capitalist economic relations [18]

as the culprit.

Social differentiation (MacIntyre says ‘class division’) made the appeal to common norms impossible, and, when they were appealed to across classes, they were the norms of this-or-that class. Further, where working-class “religious forms […] did retain a hold, it was on a small, if influential, minority of working-class people, and the secular aims of their politics continually broke through the religious framework.” [20] To retain the religious framework as essential would have doomed these local movements to a merely local status. MacIntyre offers the example of Fr. Robert Dobson, who sought to aid the “vast unemployment” of those who lost their jobs after the transition from hand loom to power loom. Despite his best intentions, Dobson could only offer paternalist help after the event; the clergy “were powerless to stop the process of technological and economic change advancing and imposing new forms of oppressive life.” [21] The working class needed a proactive solution, though, not a reactive band-aid.

To a point, each class (the upper and upper-middle class, the purely middle class, and the working class ) built “up native forms of community, each with its own moral unity”. [21] Why did none of these “succeed[…] in building up a religion –or a secular substitute for religion– which could express the content of their own social life in symbolic terms”? [22]

The demands of industrialization and the marketplace eventually drive these “native forms of community” into secondary status; in “the decade of 1865-1875” norms of class co-operation developed that had their own virtues. The workers and the bosses were in the same boat, in terms of the international market: “the fortunes of the working class are tied to the fortunes of British Trade.” [24] There is “a moral change corresponding to these economic and social changes”, which MacIntyre calls “the secondary virtues”. These include

a pragmatic approach to problems, co-operativeness, fair-play, tolerance, a gift for compromise, and fairness. […] The secondary virtues do not assist us in identifying which ends we should pursue. […] The secondary virtues concern the way in which we should go about our projects; their cultivation will not assist us in discovering upon which projects we ought to be engaged. [24]

MacIntyre seems to think that these secondary virtues are pragmatic, and about mutual class survival in a capitalist world where it is nations –not necessarily classes– who are finally competing in a global market. I have compiled MacIntyre’s comments about the secondary virtues here. MacIntyre does say, however, that these “secondary virtues” render “the making of cosmic and universal claims for one’s own group, as against other groups […] no longer possible.” [25]

He takes three cases to illustrate this point: the rise and failure of “the Labour churches” [25-26], that “of organized Marxism in Britain” [26-27], and “an attempt to produce something that would be a genuine religious expression of the life of the whole English people, that was intended to have a supra-class character, [28] the work of T. H. Green.” [27-28] Green “tried to inaugurate a new concept of citizenship which would link men of different social classes […] based on the notion that there was a good common to members of all classes […].” [28] German Idealism was the means to showing this good. Green’s disciples could not unify the secular issues along the metaphysical lines, and ended up splitting and dividing “over the secular issues of the day” [28], so that the metaphysical unity disappeared. These three failures show that

questions of ends, of ultimate justification, questions about the relationship between the actual round of daily life and what one ought to be doing, are less and less often debated in English life. [29]

In sum,

The religion of English society prior to the Industrial Revolution provided a framework within which the metaphysical questions could be asked an answered, even if different and rival answers were [30] given. Who am I? Whence did I come? Whither shall I go? Is there a meaning to my life other than any meaning I choose to give it? What powers govern my fate?

The dissolution of the moral unity of English society and the rise of new class divisions lead to a situation where within different classes there appear different aspirations, and different attempts to express and to legitimate these in religious forms. But the compromises and abdications consequent upon the class co-operation of English life produced a situation where it was impossible for any one group plausibly to absolutize its own claims and invoke some kind of cosmic sanction for them […] [y]et it was equally impossible to establish or re-establish coherent social unity […]. The consequence of this is that there remains no framework within which the religious questions can be systematically asked. [29-30]

This is why secularization has not progressed any further among the working class: secular views cannot dominate when there is a “loss of a [common] framework”. [30]

MacIntyre also asks: if “urbanization and industrialization produce secularization” [31], why is the U.S. not more secularized? He gives three reasons, the third of which is that “the influence of religion on social, political, and economic attitudes is relatively independent of membership of social class” in the U.S. [31] Also, “American religion has survived in industrial society only at the cost of itself becoming secular […]” [32] Religion meets secular needs that are still active in U.S. society, but not in U.K. society — like assimilation. Also, “American Christianity came to consist of a set of explanations and sanctions for the native American values of equality and achieve[33]ment.” [32-33] So Eisenhower:

Our Government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply held religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. [33]

The U.S., however, is a unified moral society with egalitarian ideals that were in place before industrialization. Thus, many of the core claims of one class against another are not the claims of one moral community against another, but an appeal to a standard both share. [33] This common moral backdrop of American culture explains why religious communities can be moral communities across classes in the U.S. The U.S. is a moral community at a primary-virtue level; the English are only one at the secondary-virtue level. [34] Do economics or values better explain the fundamental shape of a society? Values are only the fundaments of explanation in a society where the class structure allows for a “homogeneity of values”. This is not the case in the U.K. [35]

So why did Engels’ prediction fail? –because the secondary virtues have been extended in a way that sets up the making of any fundamental claims to become an impossible task; “compromise” has been “institutionaliz[ed]”. There is a “vestigial Christian vocabulary of a muddled kind” around, but there are no alternatives, and, in an environment where means are sanctioned and agreed upon (the secondary virtues), but not ends, neither religious nor secular answers could possibly win for the whole of society, or even a class. [36]


Header image found here.

8 thoughts on “MacIntyre — Secularization and Moral Change, I

  1. Analysis of religious life through a lens of economic class struggle leaves me a bit uneasy. Insofar as religion is about transcendence of the material world, that world should not play a primary role in one’s spiritual sensibility. Although we are clearly affected profoundly by economic conditions, they are, in a sense, part of a different realm of experience. I would note also, parenthetically, that while the economic competition of nation-states has grown considerably over recent centuries, one of the most significant emerging conflicts is among mega-corporations that ultimately owe allegiance to no nation at all but rather only to themselves.


    • Very much “yes” to corporations having Trans-national self-loyalty, I should think, unless I’m missing something important.

      RE: MacIntyre’s argument about social forms and the plausibility of goals and comprehensive explanations/visions of the world is not insane. The Church is a society; her social form is to reflect the vision she champions, or else that vision simply has little or no traction in the world where one’s actual concerns are, and then the religion –or Marxism, or whatever comprehensive vision and explanation– becomes transcendent in a bad kind of way, Gnostically alien to the lived concerns of one’s milieu.


  2. Pingback: MacIntyre — Secularization and Moral Change, II | Into the Clarities

  3. Pingback: MacIntyre — Secularization and Moral Change, III | Into the Clarities

  4. Pingback: MacIntyre — Secularization and Moral Change, Summary | Into the Clarities

  5. Pingback: MacIntyre, Demant, and the Book of Sirach | Into the Clarities

  6. Pingback: MacIntyre — Secularization and Moral Change, Some Concluding Thoughts | Into the Clarities

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