The recent 26th British Social Attitudes Survey has a full chapter devoted to 'Religion in Britain and the United States'. It opens "Religion is a cause of perplexity to the British. On the one hand it is associated with Christian virtue, traditional values, the Dalai Lama and all things bright and beautiful. On the other hand it brings to mind violent fanaticism, reactionary morality, Osama bin Laden, abuse and oppression. After a long history of religious turmoil and mistrust we no longer much mind (what religion our leaders are), but strong commitment makes us worried."
It's a fascinating essay, and pulls in data from the UK and USA to compare and contrast. Here are some of the questions, with a few thoughts:
1. "Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?"
(1983 figures in brackets)
No religion 43% (31)
Christian 50% (66)
Non-Christian 7 (2)
Of the 'Christian'
Anglican 23 (40)
Roman Catholic 9 (10)
No denomination 10 (3)
and other mainline denominations mostly showing a drop.
There seem to be two main stories: the falling away in identification with the historic churches, towards 'no religion' (which reflects the changing of the generations) or 'no denomination', and the impact of immigration, which has bolstered RC numbers, and seen a rise in non-Christian faiths.
2. Belief in God
I don't believe in God 18%
I don't know whether there is a God and don't believe there is any way to find out 18%
I don't believe in a personal God but I do believe in a higher power of some kind 14%
I find myself believing in God some of the time, but not at others 13%
While I have doubts, I feel that I do believe in God 18%
I know God really exists and that I have no doubts about it 17%
So about 1/3 have a definite faith, 1/3 have a fuzzier faith - either fuzzy about whether God is there, or what kind of spiritual entity God might be, and just over 1/3 are atheist or agnostic
It's useful to have this level of detail: there are surveys which report a majority as believing in God, but 'believing' and 'God' aren't straightforward categories.
3. How religious are you?
neither religious nor non-religious 22%
somewhat non-religious 11%
very/extremely non-religious 26%
Which might in part reflect the British aversion to extremes. It's also a sign that if Christians want to communicate their faith, anything percieved as 'religious' packaging (e.g. the institutional church) is off to a losing start. 'Back to Church' Sunday will cut no mustard with people who describe themselves as non-religious.
4. How often do you attend religious services (apart from special occasions)
less than annually 5%
At least annually 15%
At least monthly 8%
At least weekly 10%
Less than 20% of those brought up as Anglicans, or calling themselves CofE attend monthly or more often.
This also shows that any attempt by churches to connect with non-Christians based on 'religious services' is probably a non-starter too. Weird stuff done by weird people in a weird building. This bears out some of the TEAR Fund research , which found that 26% of adults go to church once a year, and 15% go once a month or more. Jesus didn't start with religion, he started with relationships, perhaps there's something in that.
4. Does it do you any good?
there's a question on the 'personal benefits of religion'
65% agree that religion helps people to find inner peace/happiness
67% agree that it helps people to make friends
79% that it helps people to gain comfort.
Even among the 'unreligious', 49% agree with the first statement, and 58 and 68% respectively with the other two. More curious is the 10%+ of 'religious' people who don't agree with these statements!!!
5. Influence of religion
24% said religion is increasing its influence, 3/4 of these said that was a bad thing. This is the National Secular Society argument - that religion is both in decline, but becoming more politically influential.
57% said religion is decreasing its influence, and about 4 in 5 of these thought that a bad thing.
Overall, about 31% thought that more religious influence was a bad thing, and 50% that it was a good thing.
That's a big challenge: I know this lumps all religion together (it would be interesting to ask the question about particular faiths), but if Christians are seen as bad news by a significant section of our society, then a long hard look in the mirror is in order. It also begs the question of what's seen as 'religion' - is the creche provided by the Mothers Union for prison visitors, or the church-run food bank seen as an expression of religion? Or is it dusty bishops talking about sex and Islamic extremists?
6. Religion and Politics
75% said religious leaders shouldn't try to influence voting behaviour, and 67% think religious leaders should stay out of government decision making. Lords reform here we come... There's also a tendency to think that, if elected officials were more deeply religious, then laws and policy decisions would probably be worse. There's a Bush/Blair legacy to that which the report picks out.
What does this mean for the way the church engages with the General Election? I know of several churches who organise local hustings events, and encourage people to vote and engage with the issues, though it sounds like a more directive engagement (see recent RC interventions) might not go down so well. Perhaps it depends on the issue?
7. Moral Standards
89% say you should follow your conscience rather than what the leaders and teachings of your religion say. That pretty much reflects the number of people who are deeply religious.
60% agreed that there can never be absolutely clear statements of what is good and evil, or an absolute morality. That reflects where we are as a society - and a church identified with laws and rules isn't going to make much headway against that. I remember an Ethics seminar 15 years ago where we watched an hour of Eastenders and noted the dozens of moral issues raised in just a short time - processing morality through story and consensus, rather than principle and absolutes, is the flavour of things. I wonder also if this question is swayed by being part of the 'religion' section - things like racism, violence, etc. do seem to be seen in terms of moral absolutes, and nobody objects at public campaigns which try to enforce them (e.g. Kick Racism out of Football). Don't we still have some absolutes, but no longer on the turf which was colonised by Christendom?
Only 17% thought it was acceptable for religious people to try to convert others, 81% took the opposite view. That raises lots of questions for mission!
About 3/4 of people think that being very religious means you're often intolerant.
9. Faith Schools
42% - no religious group should have its own schools
13% - some should have them, but not others
43% - any religious group should be able to have its own schools.
So this debate is truly alive and kicking. It's not going to go away any time soon.
There's a whole section on religious diversity and tolerance, which shows that we've still some way to go as a society. It also shows that Muslims have a serious image problem - about 1/3 felt 'cool' towards Muslims, (as opposed to neutral or warm) - far and away the least favourable result, apart from that for 'deeply religious' (29%) - most other religious groups were in the 5-15% range. A majority would be bothered by a large mosque being built locally, but relatively few by a large church. There's unease about the level to which Muslims are integrated into British society. The writers note: Muslims deserves to be the focus of policy on social cohesion, because no other group elicits so much disquiet.
Lots of food for thought here, both about perceptions and practices. Those of us percieved as being 'religious' are possibly trying to run a marathon with both legs tied together. Two responses are to abandon traditional religion, and its forms, for something more acceptable (but every movement becomes an institution in the end) or to try to make the case for religion (not a word I particularly like) being good news. That's not easy when there are plenty of examples of the opposite.
Plenty of chewing over to be done....