17 July 2019, The Tablet

Britain relentlessly becoming land of secularists and atheists

The shift has been towards non-affiliation with more than half the public now saying they do not regard themselves as belonging to any religion

Britain relentlessly becoming land of secularists and atheists

File photo, church interior
Con Tanasiuk/Zuma Press/PA Images

A “dramatic decline” in Christian belief and practice, along with a “substantial increase in atheism”, are recorded in the latest findings on religion from the British Social Attitudes survey.

“Over time, there has been a dramatic decline in the proportion of people who identify with Christianity along with a substantial increase in those with no religious affiliation, and a steady increase in those belonging to non-Christian faiths,” the report says.

The percentage identifying as Church of England or Anglican fell from 40 in 1983 through 22 per cent in 2008 to 12 per cent last year. Catholicism, however, fared better, with equivalent percentages falling from 10 to just 9 and then 7 per cent last year. One increase over the period was among non-denominational Christians, up from 3 per cent in 1983 to 10 per cent in 1998 and 13 per cent last year – a higher proportion of the population than Anglicans.

The 36th British Social Attitudes report comes after two decades of international conflict involving religion and domestic religious organisations often at odds with fast-changing social values.

Against this backdrop, the report says: “We find a dramatic decline in identification with Christian denominations, particularly the Church of England; a substantial increase in atheism and in self-description as ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ non-religious; and very low confidence in religious organisations, but tolerance of religious difference.”

Most of the shift has been towards non-affiliation, with more than half of the public now saying they do not regard themselves as belonging to any religion. A small number lost a childhood faith but most were brought up with no religion.

The report defines the decline as “generational”. Two nonreligious parents successfully transmit their lack of religion. Two religious parents have roughly a 50/0 chance of passing on the faith. One religious parent does only half as well as two together. “To borrow the terminology of radioactive decay, institutional religion in Britain now has a half-life of one generation.”

Bishop of Portsmouth Philip Egan tweeted in response: “As this new BSA report shows, secularism continues its relentless rise, with over 51 per cent now saying they are ‘nones’. As Catholics, graced with the Good News of Christ, let’s redouble our prayers and missionary efforts.”

He later added: “I’m studying at the moment Stephen Bullivant’s rather sobering ‘Mass Exodus’. How to (re)connect with the 87 per cent of Catholics in our Diocese who don’t practise is presently the focus of our Diocesan Pastoral Council. Let us pray for the ‘lapsed’ and do our best to befriend them.”

Meanwhile, new analysis from Pew Research shows that between 2007 and 2017, laws, policies and actions by state officials that restrict religious beliefs and practice increased markedly around the world. Violence and harassment by private individuals, organisations or groups, along with other social harassment, also increased.

Pew found that 52 governments, including China, Indonesia and Russia, impose either “high” or “very high” levels of restrictions on religion, up from 40 in 2007.


  Loading ...
Get Instant Access
Subscribe to The Tablet for just £7.99

Subscribe today to take advantage of our introductory offers and enjoy 30 days' access for just £7.99