Heelas and Woodhead, in The Spiritual Revolution, assume a decline of traditional religion in western societies. What is examined in this book is the growth of 'spirituality.' This term will be defined and its significance assessed. Finally, the decline of some forms of the sacred and the rise of others is examined as the "subjectivization thesis."
First, the "massive subjective turn of modern culture" (pg. 2) is tackled. The structured life lived in light of others' expectations (termed "life-as," referring to religion in its traditional sense) is pitted against living by one's own authority, hence, following one's inner path (coined "subjective-life," meaning holistic spirituality).
There is a weak to nonexistent explanation as to why Kendal in Northwest England was chosen to study "Patterns of the Sacred" over other spots. Perhaps the reasons have to do with access and convenience? The claim is that "face-to-face, associational religious and spiritual activity" could be explored in "a single relatively small locality" (pg. 8). Studies of religion in general show Europe, and England in particular, to be low on conventional attendance, however. This could be a confounding factor before the study ever began.
It seems as if, in an effort to make a stark point, the "congregational domain" (previously "life-as") is seen in its most extreme form—authoritative and domineering. The "holistic milieu," on the other hand (formerly referred to as "subjective-life") appears to be given every benefit of the doubt (many objective researchers would contend that if you look actively enough for anything, you will indeed find it). To be fair, the congregations are dissected, but there still appears to be bias against this more structured side of the faith setting.
The statistics presented early on lean heavily toward the holistic milieu. The congregational domain results are presented as an afterthought in parentheses, consisting of only one sentence. A more useful discussion would compare the two types head-to-head, and then engage in a fruitful illustration of how the percentages shake out.
It is no wonder that the "two worlds" do not overlap much. When people are fed spiritually in organized religion, they are not normally seeking other outlets. The same is true for those on the holistic end of the spectrum. They have chosen a less conventional path, and it does not lend itself to the intervention of "tradition."
Spiritual/holistic domains were measured in a highly restricted way. There are many groups associated with witchcraft that would have been missed by the techniques used here (stilt-walkers, for instance, would be hard to track using conventional measures). The authors used "mapping," but this would not catch "Wiccans" who appear in the woods only when the moon is full, for instance. These women (most are female, though warlocks are not unheard of) would contend that they are the most spiritual of all beings. They are, by choice, discreet, however. This is part of their "m.o.," making them nearly impossible to track.
The William Sims Bainbridge-type use of the Yellow Pages for historical counts is solid, though again, those purposely on the fringes would intentionally avoid such listings. Nevertheless, the 11.4% population increase notwithstanding, it is claimed that the holistic milieu grew by 300% during the 1990s. Still, there were five times as many involved in the conventional side of faith in Kendal in 2001, as there were in the holistic side. It is predicted that this will change (with spotty numbers) during the third decade of the third millennium.
Later there is a rapid shift in focus to the U.S. and a broader approach to the spiritual revolution presented via products, media, and educational/health care activities. However, the predictions for the U.S. are without strong backing. Yoga, for instance, or aromatherapy for that matter, are not perceived by many to be their single form of spirituality (if indeed connected with spirituality at all). Also, the perception that organized religious involvement is dropping in the U.S. is without merit, given the current rise in the Evangelical movement (this point is briefly acknowledged in a later section of the book).
Many of the products measured as holistic in nature are actually fairly secular (not everyone uses crystals in a spiritual way, they are often purchased for their beauty, certainly bath products at LUSH and The Body Shop are not commonly associated with holism, though they can be, and the list goes on and on).
It is indeed true that people rebel against being "preached at," and often leave their church. However, many search to find another organized place that better meets their needs (for harmonious music, inclusive homilies/ sermons, whatever is deemed missing). These churchgoers who show attrition are seldom going to wind up fulfilling themselves via Yoga classes, reflexology, or aromatherapy. Near the close of the book, it is recognized that the secularization trend is not being eclipsed by involvement in the holistic milieu to date. In light of this, the claim that "in 40 or so years time the congregational domain and holistic milieu of Britain will have become much the same size" (pg. 149) is optimistic, at best.
It would have been insightful to conduct a deeper investigation of the U.S./Western European differences in religiosity. In doing so, two important points should emerge: 1.) prosperity creates a sense of security that church might otherwise fill (hence, we can compare the continued diversity and large underclass of the churched U.S. versus the stability of a mostly Socialist and less religious Western Europe); 2.) discrimination (especially against U.S. Catholics) holds congregations together still today in the States—in a bond to hold up in the face of a Protestant majority. Since England, for instance, is mostly Anglican, there is little attention paid to the minuscule population of Catholics there.
Finally, there has been a fair amount written about the institutional versus charismatic tension in churches (meaning organized religion versus spirituality). The latter is moving, but is often perceived to have no real path (like a car without a steering wheel). The institutional side (organized religion), like it or not, has a guiding dimension to it, hence it is more likely to adjust and endure (see especially Rodney Stark's extensive work on secularization).