All change: Religion & Belief in Britain

All change: Religion & Belief in Britain

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Lecture date: Sun, 26th Apr, 2015
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Why does this matter?

We are in a fast changing environment where the knowledge and impressions about religion and belief that those of us who grew up in Britain in the latter part of the 20th century are no longer reliable. Britain is now a plural society and that will become increasingly apparent over time. If we think social cohesion is a good thing, we need to understand each other and work out how to live together, even where we disagree.


What’s going on?

As we look at the changes taking place, humanists and other atheists and agnostics need to bear in mind that religion is not all about belief. For many people it is as much about belonging, or behaviour, as about what they believe – the so-called “Three Bs”. As far as the statistics are concerned, the key question is how people identify themselves, irrespective of what they believe or how they behave.

The Census included an optional question on religion for the first time in 2001 and then again in 2011. Unfortunately it asked a leading question “What is your religion?” which pre-supposes that you have one – many non-religious people tick “Christian” in response. The annual British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey asks a better question “Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?” While the 2011 census suggests 25% of people have no religion, the BSA 2013 indicates around 50% of the population is non-religious, a figure supported by other sources[i]. More significantly, the BSA trend data over the past 30 years shows a massive change taking place:

Anglicanism is going through a major decline, from 40% in 1983 to 16% in 2013, with the non-religious increasing from just over 30% to 50% in the same period. That trend is likely to continue as non-believers tend to be younger[ii]. Overall the UK is now the 6th least religious country in the world[iii], after China/Hong Kong, Japan, Sweden, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands. On the other hand, Catholicism has remained relatively flat, with defections compensated by immigration. There has been a major increase in Islam, but still amounting to only 5% nationally. One in eight Londoners is a Muslims according to the 2011 Census. Just as significant has been the growth in non-denominational Christianity, notably black majority churches, now rapidly catching up with Anglicanism at 12%.

As Ruth Gledhill, the former Religious Correspondent for The Times (which no longer has a Religious Correspondent) has reported[iv] “the future of religion in Britain is in black majority churches and Islam”.


But it is incorrect to look at religion and belief in simple terms. The same cohort study[v] Ruth Gledhill was reporting shows that there is no simple believer/unbeliever split both in terms of belief in God and in an afterlife. More people definitely believe in an afterlife than definitely believe in God, for example. Overall, it appears that just under half the population believe there is probably or definitely an afterlife. Similarly, an analysis of 2008 BSA data by the British Religion in Numbers unit at Manchester University[vi] indicates that 40% of people who identify as Jewish are either uncertain or have no belief in God. Anglicans are not far behind. Even for Catholics and Muslims, the numbers are significant (over 15% and just under 10% respectively).

As far as Christianity is concerned, there is a long tradition of questioning the theological fundamentals, including the creation story, the Virgin Birth and even, to quote a letter in The Times from the Rev Dr Mervyn Willshaw[vii] “the moral inadequacy of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement”. But in practice the Church of England seems to be drifting away from such intellectual sophistication. A higher proportion of younger clergy are at the evangelical and charismatic ends of the spectrum than their older peers[viii], the evangelical Alpha Course is an Anglican initiative, and Archbishop Justin Welby has made clear his evangelical priorities – perhaps necessary to stem the decline

Meanwhile, the non-denominational churches which can be seen all over London are noisily fundamentalist, evangelical and often charismatic – healing, miracles and prophetic revelations are readily available.

This is a far cry from the cultural history with which many of us identify: ancient country churches with lists of incumbents dating back centuries, the wonder of our great cathedrals, and the art and music and culture that goes with them. Part of the great change that is taking place will perhaps require us all to accept more responsibility for maintaining the positive aspects of this important heritage.

The growth of Islam in the UK mirrors a global growth. According to a recent Pew Research study[ix], even taking into account switching between beliefs, Islam is forecast to increase from 23% of the world’s population in 2010 to 30% in 2050, while Christianity remains flat at around 31% and the unaffiliated decline from 16% to 13% as their increase in population is outstripped by that of the religious. In the UK Islam is expected to rise from 5% in 2010 to 11% in 2050.

But it would be wrong to consider UK Muslims as a monolithic block. In fact the British Muslim population is one of the most diverse in the world in terms of its ethnic origin, albeit with around 50% from Pakistan and Bangladesh[x]. There is also plenty of diversity among the Muslim sects represented by British mosques[xi], including the Ahmadiyyas (motto “Love for all, hatred for none”), who are discriminated against as non-Muslims by many Sunnis, Shias from Iraq and Iran, and the fundamentalist Salafis. The largest sect in terms of mosque capacity is the Deobandis, who tend to be conservative and wary of embracing non-Muslim culture.

Analysis of people’s stated religion or belief identity is not necessarily a guide to their practice – the “behaviour” element of the Three Bs. Private prayer is an interesting indicator of genuine religiosity. Data gathered by Westminster Faith Debates[xii] indicates that under 25% of Anglicans engage in private prayer, but over 40% of Catholics and over 50% of Muslims.

In an effort to make sense of this confusing picture, based on a cohort study of 8500 people born in the same week in 1970, David Voas[xiii] has identified a “religious typology” with seven categories:


His further analysis shows a major difference between the genders, with a higher proportion of women identifying as one of the religious types (types 5, 6 and 7). People with degree level or higher education tend to be either more definitely religious or more definitely non-religious.

The big growth among those who do not identify as religious – the so-called “nones” – over 50% of whom are also unbelievers in God or an afterlife, raises the question of how they (or we, as I am one of them) find a sense of belonging. For many their identities lie elsewhere. But at the same time non-religious identities and behaviours are evolving. Conway Hall Ethical Society is, of course, the grandfather here. The British Humanist Association is the major player nationally. Alongside its campaigning work, it has for many years had local groups and conducted humanist weddings, namings and funerals, and they are growing. Recently it has started a pastoral care initiative to support non-religious people in hospital and prisons, working alongside traditional religious chaplains. In January 2013 the comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans started the “Sunday Assembly”, billed as a “godless congregation”. There are now over 30 assemblies across the UK, Ireland, the US and Australia. Other players in the area include Alain de Botton’s (commercial) “School of Life” and “Skeptics in the Pub”, while the National Secular Society and Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain have a campaigning focus.

In summary, the future will see a majority with no religious identity and a religious minority in which the “stronger” forms of faith predominate: black majority and other non-denominational churches, evangelical/charismatic Anglicanism, Catholicism and Islam.


What are the challenges and what can we do about them?

The main challenge will be how to make this plurality work. A great enemy here is uninformed generalisation about “The Other” – especially a problem in terms of attitudes towards British Muslims. But there are real issues that have to be addressed, including religious privilege – notably state-funded faith schools and bishops in the House of Lords – and the false “Christian persecution” narrative. Two things are needed

Firstly Secularism. That means universal human rights (including the right to freedom of thought, belief and expression), one law for all, no religious privilege, and a state that is neutral in matters of religion and belief. Importantly, Secularism is not the same as Atheism. In fact Secularism guarantees religious freedom.

Secondly, we need “Humanisation” – seeing and engaging with people who are different from us as fellow human beings, avoiding generalisations and supporting those who share a liberal secular outlook, regardless of their religious identity. Dialogue, as opposed to debate, plays an important role here, helping to achieve mutual understanding, including understanding of differences. It does not solve every problem – there are “red lines” which can lead to conflict – but it is the surest way to get past prejudice.





Contemporary Ethical Issues, Thinking on Sunday

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Jeremy Rodell

Jeremy Rodell is co-founder and chair of SW London Humanists, a Trustee of the British Humanist Association and its volunteer Dialogue Officer. After a degree in chemistry at Oxford University, he had a career in international business. As well as his involvement with humanism, he is chair of trustees at…