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Hard evidence: is Christianity dying in Britain?

George Carey outside the parish Church in Dagenham where he was baptised. Kirsty Wigglesworth/PA Archive

Like an Old Testament prophet telling the Israelites that they were doomed, Lord Carey has been warning Anglicans for years of their possible annihilation. The Church is “one generation away from extinction,” he declares. The reality is less dramatic, but the story is not altogether wrong.

Young adults in Britain are far less likely than their parents and grandparents to have a religious identity. The Church of England in particular has been squeezed hard by the trend away from religion. This is well illustrated by the graphic below which shows religious affiliation by year of birth. In the oldest group polled, one in two identified as members of the Church of England – among the youngest that figure falls to one in 20.

Source: British Social Attitudes survey 1983-2010, pooled. Based on work by Siobhan McAndrew for British Religion in Numbers,

We tend to suppose that people become more religious with age, perhaps when they start families or become widowed. If so, today’s party-goer might be tomorrow’s church-goer. A significant number of adults do become more observant, but they are balanced by others who move away from religion. If people belong in their 20s, they will probably stay for the rest of their lives – but if they don’t, it will be hard to bring them in. Taken as a whole, each generation is less religious than the one before. Change is between, not within, generations.

Source: British Social Attitudes survey 1983-2011. Notes: Excludes non-white respondents. Graph shows three-survey moving average.

The picture for religious practice is similar: not only are young people much less likely than their parents to call themselves Anglicans (or Methodists or Presbyterians), they are also less likely to go to church. The large decline in attendance at religious services has not happened because many adults have stopped going to church: it has happened because more and more adults never start attending in the first place.

Believing without belonging?

There is general agreement that young people increasingly do not regard themselves as belonging to a Christian religion, much less practise it. What is still debated is whether they are prone to “believing without belonging”, in the phrase popularised by the sociologist Grace Davie. Many other scholars echo the view that religiosity is being transformed, not eroded. They point to the persistence of supernatural belief and the relative popularity of “spirituality” (see for example Linda Woodhead’s comments):

Levels of atheism have not grown a great deal in the past 30 years, and stand at under 20% … people are just less likely to associate with, or relate to, a particular religion.

To some extent the issue is merely one of emphasis; the question is whether the religious glass is half empty or half full. There is no doubt that supernaturalism is still much in evidence. Nevertheless, the notion that belief has simply shifted from the conventional to the unconventional looks like a misinterpretation. It does not capture the main story, which again is one of decline.

Only one in five people born since 1975 believes in God, even with doubts. These levels are roughly half those found among people born before the end of World War II – and certainty of belief has collapsed. Belief in a “higher power” has indeed gone up, but this vague spirituality comes at the expense of more religious theism. Nearly half of younger adults in Britain qualify as atheists or agnostics, even if they would not use those terms themselves.

Belief in God among old and young (%) Source: British Social Attitudes survey 2008

Religion’s half-life

In short, religious belief, and the importance that people attach to those beliefs, has declined just as fast as attendance and affiliation. The counter-argument is that unorthodox belief – in everything from angels to zombies – seems to have held up quite nicely. For the most part, though, these “beliefs” are casual in the extreme: cultivated by popular culture and its delight in magic and Gothic romanticism, held in the most tentative and experimental way, with no connection to any meaningful spirituality.

Supernaturalism has certainly not disappeared, but for the white British (as for the populations of highly developed countries generally) it is becoming less and less salient. Immigration and geopolitical tensions have partially revived the social significance of religion, but there are few signs that spirituality or anything else has replaced its personal significance.

The contrast between Muslims and nominal Christians is instructive. Most Muslims go for an entire month each year without consuming food or drink during daylight hours; most are lifelong abstainers from alcohol. In addition, many Muslim women defy mainstream cultural convention by covering their heads. Some may feel community pressure to do these things, but many believe that God and scripture require their obedience. What are Christians willing to do for God? Not enough, perhaps, to keep the faith alive.

Two non-religious parents successfully transmit their lack of religion. Two religious parents in Britain have a roughly 50/50 chance of passing on the faith. The generation now in middle age has produced children who are only half as likely as they are to attend church, to identify themselves as belonging to a denomination, or to say that belief is important to them. Institutional religion in Britain has a half-life of one generation, to borrow the terminology of radioactive decay. The Church is nowhere near extinction, but Lord Carey is at least half right.

Hard Evidence is a series of articles in which academics use research evidence to tackle the trickiest public policy questions.

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