Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Spirituality Spectrum: 21st century believing

The University of Exeter published some research earlier this week on evolving attitudes among those born in 1970. Here's the analysis of their views on religion and faith, with analysis by Prof David Voas (who's also been involved in some of the CofE research recently). More details plus a link to the full research here.

Professor Voas concludes that it would be more meaningful to allocate people to one of seven categories:

  • Non-religious (28% of the 1970-born cohort): Does not have a religion or believe in either God or life after death.
  • Unorthodox non-religious (21%): Does not have a religion or does not attend services. Believes in God or life after death but not both.
  • Actively religious (15%): Has a religion and believes in God and life after death. Attends services.
  • Non-practising religious (14%): Has a religion and believes in God and life after death. Does not attend services.
  • Non-identifying believers (10%): Does not have a religion, but believes in God and life after death.
  • Nominally religious (7%): Identifies with a religion. But believes in neither God nor life after death.
  • Unorthodox religious (5%): Has a religion and attends services at least occasionally. Believes in God but not life after death (or, in a few cases, vice versa).
It's a fascinating spectrum, and a reminder that the UK doesn't have a simple Christian/atheist binary option (if it ever did). On first sight it reminded me of the current political opinion polls, a spectrum of identities with no one block claiming a significant or decisive percentage. 

What I'd love to see is some way of tracking how people end up at these points. The research suggests that the stronger your religious upbringing, the more likely you are to have a faith now, and be practicing it. No surprise there. But how do you end up as an agnostic who believes in God and life after death. Or a Christian who doesn't believe in either?

It's a reminder that we can't pigeon hole people, everyone's faith is part of their life story, not everyone in church will believe the same thing, nor will everyone at a Richard Dawkins book signing. People need to be listened to, rather than lumped together, 

The report also notes that men are much less likely to identify with a faith than women. Another challenge. Given that Jesus started with a bunch of blokes, the church has to ask itself what we've lost of authentic Christianity that the majority of men don't see Jesus as any of their business, or themselves as any of His.


  1. I believe some fortunate people are enlightened; some will never be. Possible money has replaced God. Too many variables maybe?

  2. Thanks for this David. To your last paragraph about the lack of men with active faith --- the thing that immediately sprung to mind was that Jesus called men to growth ("I will make you") and a mission ("fishers of men") and, generally, a story of struggle and sacrifice. We tend to call people to the inward journey and hope it leads to an outward reality; Jesus seemed to call people to a mission which then led to an inward journey. Perhaps.

  3. You end up as a non-identifying believer when you find out exactly how corrupt the Church (and more especially the clergy) is...

  4. James - are you talking about your own experience or that of other people?

    I've come across both people who have kept their faith but fallen out with the church, for a variety of reasons, some of which can be laid at the door of the church and some of which can't. I've also come across people who have come to faith because they've seen it lived out by the church (and the clergy). The church, like all human institutions, is (to put it mildly) a mixed bag.

  5. I feel it is more likely that Christianity has lost its validity and truth. As more and more Christians become more easily swayed to accept secular idea and incorporate them into their beliefs, and become more willing to accept the Bible as a fallible book rather than the inspired and True word of God, non-Christians find it hard to accept a faith that even Christians aren't sure of. If one bit of the bible isn't true, what makes the rest true? We have nothing concrete to hold on to any more.
    It seems logical too that men will find it harder then to believe as men are more concrete and less abstract than women so with less surety and less to hold on to it follows they will find faith harder to grasp and hold on to. Sarah

  6. Why the emphasis on life after death?

    Ir seems to indicate a skewed notion of religion on the part of those asking the questions and likely to elicit equally skewed answers.

  7. It's the strong gender bias in favour of female believers that concerns me most and offers much to reflect on.

    Different ideological groups could no doubt offer different rationales for why this might be the case. Is the feminisation of church leadership to blame? Or perhaps an aging church congregation means demographically more women which in turn makes men feel uncomfortable and more likely to seek like-minded friendship elsewhere. Or is the tendency towards liberal interpretations of scripture putting off younger men who prefer the robust, masculine God who goes out to battle and keeps women (and lesser men) in their place? Or, are women just naturally more inclined to believe 'woo-woo' stories of the supernatural?

    Personally I suspect the main driver is that like-attracts-like. My own church is liberal catholic with a large majority of women, but the clerical leadership is all male. An evangelical church I visited recently which has a strong emphasis on 'robust biblical teaching' had a 50/50 split; it was full of families, and many of the young men (no women) were being trained in biblical exegesis. A call to leadership whether in family or church is no doubt an encouragement to attend the place which affirms you in that role, especially when you're surrounded by like minds who have become friends.

    I'm definitely not saying this is how I'd like church to be. I felt strongly excluded from that particular church as I'm not married, don't have children, not male and not straight either for that matter. So the same factors that attract men there, repel me, and the same factors that attract women and queer folk to my church would be nauseous to the conservative evangelical brothers.

    I find it a huge shame that such ghettos are appearing, since I would like parish churches to be for the whole community not just catering to a niche, but that is the consequence of being a broad church and having an increasingly diverse leadership with much flexibility over belief and practice. We'll all drift to the communities that love and affirm us, if we can.

    If anyone would like to reflect further on this issue I'd be very interested to read your thoughts.

  8. I imagine I would count as "Unorthodox religious (5%): Has a religion [Quaker in my case] and attends services at least occasionally. Believes in God but not life after death".

    What I don't understand is why it should be assumed that belief in God (however defined) should necessarily imply belief in an after-life. I sense quite a lot of evidence for the former (though not of the kind that would convince Professor Dawkins); but I cannot see how the latter could possibly be constituted - given the absence of necessary equipment such as a live brain.