Wednesday, December 16, 2009

50% of UK Christian? That would be nice. Or would it?

A trailer for some research being published in January was released this morning by the National Centre for Social Research. It's a comparison of religious attitudes in the UK and US, and leads with the finding that people defining themselves as Christian has declined from 66% to 50% since 1983. Telegraph report here.

Some of the findings.
· Seven in ten (70%) Americans are religious, in that they identify with a particular religion, believe in God and attend religious services. This compares with just a quarter (26%) of people in Britain.

· Three in ten people (31%) in Britain are not religious: they do not identify with a religion, don’t believe in God and don’t attend religious services. This compares with just four in every hundred (4%) Americans.

· Just over a third (36%) of people in Britain and a quarter (24%) of Americans have practices and beliefs that lie somewhere in between. These people – the ‘fuzzy faithful’ – identify with a religion, believe in God or attend services, but not all three.

There's also some bullet points on church and society:
· In Britain, four in five (79%) people think it provides comfort in times of trouble, as do 95% of Americans.

· The majority of people in both countries are keen to maintain a separation of religion and state. For example two thirds (67% in Britain and 66% in the US) think religious leaders should not try to influence government decision-making.
· Nearly three quarters (73%) of people in Britain and two thirds (66%) of Americans think people with strong religious beliefs are often too intolerant of others.

The paper is based on the 2008 Social Attitudes survey in the UK, but those results don't appear to be online, unless anyone is better on Google than me?

George Pitcher has responded in the Telegraph
Nick Baines, who likes the reporting (shock! horror!) and wonders if the NSS would have said the same thing whatever the figures were. The answer is possibly yes.
Church Times report, with a nice table summing things up. Statistical table, as opposed to a talking piece of furniture.

1. This sounds about right: the three groups of faithful, fuzzy and agnostic/atheist is quite a good way to characterise it. I think about 15-20% of children are currently baptised in a church, which if you exclude the churches which don't practice infant baptism, looks fairly close to these findings.

2. Identification is lagging behind reality, which continues to pose the question of Christendom institutions (established church, bishops in the Lords, etc.) and their place in a post-Christendom society. At the same time there are quite a few people who want a church that they don't go to.

3. That last bullet point needs heeding, though one suspects that an intolerant religious person makes a better news story than a loving one, just as an actual crime makes a better story than a night when everyone keeps the law. Sadly the bigoted Christian is a staple news story, and this is not all the medias doing, it wouldn't be a story if they didn't actually exist.

4. 26% of people who believe in God, attend religious services and identify with a particular faith is a fairly sizeable chunk of society. That doesn't entitle it to privileges, but I'm struggling to think of another voluntary activity which comes close to that, no doubt commenters will enlighten me.

5. There's a challenge for parents, and churches equipping parents to pass on their faith to their children (who, of course, will make their own decision anyway...)
“Two non-religious parents successfully transmit their lack of religion. Two religious parents have roughly a 50/50 chance of passing on the faith. One religious parent does only half as well as two together.” It also means that any strategy for the future of the church which is simply based on sitting there and waiting for stuff to happen is doomed to failure. The question is not whether to change, but how.


  1. "The results suggest that institutional religion in Britain now has a half-life of one generation" {Telegraph}

    What a disturbing article. It's incredibly disheartening to read that the established CoE fell from 40% to 23% in a generation and Roman Catholics now into single digits. And those figures are for 2008 - what difference has a year made?

    The next census will be very interesting, it seems likely that we will see muslims exceeding catholics.

  2. Being American, I can't intelligently comment on the British side of this comparison. But the U.S. side is not accurate.

    Polls indeed show a huge majority of Americans professing a faith in God. The bulk of those are Christian, though this has fallen from over 90 percent to about 80 percent in the past decade.

    Polls typically put church attendance here at 40 percent weekly. However, this has been extensively scrutinized and certainly is way too high. Studies of records of attendance at churches (more accurate than their membership statistics), counting people at worship in selected areas on a given Sunday (the same technique used for estimating bird populations) and time diaries kept for the Dept of Labor suggest the figure is somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of the population and probably falling.

    All U.S. religious groups except for the Mormons, the Jehovah Witness and a few others are reporting declines. The Catholics remain high because of Hispanic immigration; in areas which have attracted few immigrants the decline has been spectacular (e.g., Detroit). Even the Southern Baptists project on the basis of their demographic data that up to one third of their congregations will close in the next three or four decades.

    I think religious life in the U.S. will continue to be more vital than in the U.K. for some time, but the overall trend is the same.