Scotland’s churchgoers fail to keep pace with changing views on same-sex marriage

Sorry, I’ve actually got another party that day. Scottish Government/flickr, CC BY-NC

As same-sex marriage legislation begins to come into force in Scotland, many are celebrating what is indeed a huge step forward for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

And public opinion surveys suggest that there is now a broad consensus in favour of same-sex marriage. Even some groups who had initially been relatively reluctant to the idea are finally embracing, or at least accepting it. One group continues to resist though. Our latest findings suggest that Scots who regularly attend religious services are not budging, even though other religious people who don’t regularly attend services are have shifted in their views.

At regular intervals, the Scottish Social Attitudes survey has asked respondents to what extent they agree or disagree with the statement that: “Gay or lesbian couples should have the right to marry one another if they want to”.

Churchgoers left behind

Given the vocal objection of some religious groups to the introduction of same-sex marriage legislation, and especially the Catholic Church, we might expect those who identify with a religion to oppose gay marriage.

Our data suggests though that a majority of people who identify as Christian support same-sex marriage. In 2014 Catholics, Protestants and other Christians had very similar views to one another with 60%, 59% and 58% respectively agreeing with the statement.

However, when we look at religious attendance, a different picture emerges. Of those who attend church or other place of worship at least once a month, only 38% support same-sex marriage. This is the lowest level of support amongst any identifiable demographic group in Scotland.

And there is no evidence that the views of this group have become more liberal in recent years. Support has barely changed since 2010 when it stood at 40%. Even those who attend religious services on a less regular basis (more than twice a year but less than once a month) are vastly more likely to be in favour, with 67% agreeing with the right of same sex couples to marry.

Those who regularly attend a religious service tend to be older and since older people have consistently been less supportive of gay marriage, this helps explain some of these differences. But the fact that this is the only demographic group that does not appear to have changed their views at all suggests that regular attenders at places of worship are becoming increasingly isolated on this issue as the rest of the country adopts a more inclusive view of what marriage can be.

Changing views

The latest survey of public opinion on this issue, from fieldwork which took place between May and August 2014, shows that 68% of people agreed with the idea of same-sex marriage. This is an increase on 2010 figures, in which 61% agreed.

Going to need a bigger guest list! Gerry Penny, EPA

Scots have not always had such an inclusive view of marriage. We first asked about support for same-sex marriage in 2002, before civil partnerships had been introduced and when the issue of full marriage equality was even not on the mainstream political agenda. At that time only 41% of people agreed with the statement.

There has been a shift in favour of equal marriage in nearly every demographic group. But some of the biggest shifts have occurred among groups that had previously been relatively opposed to the idea – such as older people.

In 2010 only 29% of those aged 65 and over agreed that same-sex people should have the right to marry. Now this figure has risen to 44%. That’s of course still a minority, but it represents an above average increase in support. In contrast, while 81% of 18-24 year olds already agreed with the statement in 2010, the figure has only edged up slightly to 83%.

Those with no formal educational qualifications – a group who have also been more socially conservative with respect to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights – have also moved further since 2010 than those with educational qualifications. Whereas only 43% of those with no formal qualifications agreed with same-sex marriage in 2010, this has now increased to 56%.

In contrast, the level of support among those with further or higher education – already more likely to agree with gay marriage – has increased by just 3 percentage points during the past four years. A caveat here, though, is that as a result of the general increase in educational attainment over the past few decades, those with no formal qualifications tend to be older. As we have already seen, older people are also less in favour of same-sex marriage, accounting for at least some of the difference education seems to make to these attitudes.

It appears that same-sex marriage is now supported by a wide spread of the population. If today’s young people maintain their favourable attitudes towards same-sex marriage as they get older, this trend towards greater tolerance is one we can probably expect to continue – whether or not regular church goers come to accept this change.

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