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Is Britain losing its religion? Well, it’s complicated…

Veronika Surovtseva, Getty

Veronika Surovtseva, Getty

September 11, 2017   3 mins

We’ve lost our religion, and there’s no point making room for religion in public life. That might be one way to interpret new British Social Attitudes data that was released last week by the independent social research agency, ‘NatCen’. It showed more adults in Britain identify as ‘No religion’ than those who identify with a religion1. At 53%, the ‘Nones’ outnumber all of the religions combined.

But it might be a blip.

It’s the first time the figure has been this high, although we’ve seen broadly half and half for the last few years. In 2009, the figure hit 51% but then from 2010 to 2015 we saw the figure settle between 46% and 50%, leading NatCen’s own analysis only a year ago to suggest that religious decline had halted.

Here are the No Religion figures for the last six years:

2010 – 50.3%
2011 – 46.1%
2012 – 47.7%
2013 – 50.6%
2014 – 49.2%
2015 – 48.6%

The plateau now appears to be over, but it’s too early to tell if it’s the start of a clear trend or a one-off.

Nonetheless, there are a couple of existing trends this data appears to confirm.

We describe ourselves differently now

In our qualitative work at ComRes, we often find that people today don’t default to a religious identity as they might have done a few years ago. It used to be that people in England, for example, would identify as Church of England without much deliberation. North of the border it would be Church of Scotland and that would be as much (and possibly more?) from national identity as religious conviction.

Now, however, Brits appear less likely to identify with religion as a cultural or inherited norm. It’s not unusual for people to say something like ‘Well I was born Catholic, but I don’t know. I don’t really think about it. Put me down as…’ and then they might choose Christian or No Religion.

21% of British adults who profess to no religion still believe in life after death. Credit: Yuri Arcurs, Getty

Generation gap – 72% of adults aged 18-24 do not identify with a religion

Also last week, UnHerd published ComRes data showing that, while 74% of those aged over 65 thought there should be MORE Christianity in the nation, 61% of 18-24s thought there should be LESS. Consistent with other surveys, this poll showed that attitudes to political and social issues, including religion, are polarised by age groups.

Similarly, when launching ComRes’ Faith Research Centre, our polling found that 31% of 18-24s in Britain think that this is a Christian country compared to 74% of those aged 65+.

Further reading – what are people saying about it?

  • In an article for The Daily Telegraph – “Traditional religion may be on the wane, but spirituality remains part of the human condition” – Rabbi Lord Sacks argued that our new ways of defining ourselves do not necessarily represent a completely secular approach, noting that many young adults pursue their own versions of spirituality. And we recently found that 21% of adults in Britain who do not identify with a religion do still believe in life after death. Just as, according to my Jewish friends, “where you find two Jews, there will be at least three opinions”, there is not one uniform way to pursue a life away from formal religion either. On the other hand, when Andrew Copson of Humanists UK and I discussed the findings on Sky News this week, Andrew was very clear that this represents a definite and intentional shift away from religious identity and that this should be reflected in how the nation publicly funds services like schools, and in our national governance. His points about faith schools are made here.
  • Danny Finkelstein suggested in The Times that religion no longer holds us together as a nation and wondered what might fill the vacuum. Would, he speculated, our collective moral code and motivations for political engagement instead be driven by other ideologies: “Extreme nationalism, for instance, might provide an alternative sense of belonging for many. It has been persuasively argued that fascism emerged as an alternative religion. And Bolshevism certainly had similarities.”
  • The Rev’d Giles Fraser in The Guardian outlines some of the implications of disestablishment. Never one to follow a party line if he doesn’t want to, this Anglican priest at first seems to be biting the hand that feeds him, until his argument develops into a radical call for loosening ties between church and state in order to free Christians to express unapologetically their worship of Jesus and their revolutionary message of justice.
  1.  From NatCen’s ‘Record number of Brits with no religion‘ press release: “The decline in religious affiliation is hitting the Church of England particularly hard. Just 15% of people in Britain consider themselves Anglican, half the proportion who said this in 2000. The proportion of people describing themselves as Catholic has remained relatively stable – at around 1 in 10 – over the past 30 years. Around 1 in 20 (6%) of people belong to non-Christian religions.”

Katie leads Faith Research Centre at ComRes, helping public, private, non-profit, academic and media clients to gather data and insights about religion and belief, and worships at Riverside Vineyard Church.


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