Doubt cast on 'stable' statistical trend

12 August 2016

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Part of the landscape: Liverpool Cathedral

Part of the landscape: Liverpool Cathedral

THE decline in religious adherence in Britain may be levelling out, the latest figures from the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey suggest.

Each year since 1983, researchers have asked respondents what religion they belong to, if any. For decades, the percentage of those who chose “No religion” has been steadily increasing: from 31 per cent in 1983 to 40 per cent by 1995, and peaking at 51 per cent in 2009.

The latest figures for 2015, however, confirm that 51 per cent remains the high water-mark, and the percentage of those who have no religion has been largely the same since 2009.

Of the 4328 people surveyed last year, 17 per cent said that they were Church of England or Anglican; nine per cent said Roman Catholic; 17 per cent said “Other Christian”; and a further eight per cent said that they belonged to another, non-Christian, religion.

Forty-eight per cent said that they had no religion: slightly less than the 49 per cent in 2014, and the 50 per cent in 2013.

Ian Simpson, a senior researcher at NatCen Social Research, which carries out the BSA poll, said: “The proportion of people saying they have no religion peaked at 51 per cent in 2009, and has plateaued since then.

“It appears that the steady decline of religion in Britain has come to a halt, at least for now. This is partly due to a stabilisation in the proportion of people describing themselves as a Christian of some kind, since 2009.”

Mr Simpson also said that, while the total number of religious adherents in the UK seemed to be stable, there had been change within this group over the past decade.

The percentage of Anglicans had decreased from 26 per cent in 2005 to 17 per cent last year; but this decline had been partly cancelled out by small rises among non-Christian religions.

Those aged 18 to 24 were the group most likely to say that they had no religion, at 62 per cent. This figure drops at every age group: 24 per cent of those aged 75 and over said that they had no religion.

Professor Linda Woodhead, a sociologist of religion at Lancaster University, was, however, dismissive of the suggestion that the long decline of the faithful in Britain could be at its end.

“There is absolutely nothing saying that in the figures,” she said on Monday. “They show that the C of E has declined from 22 per cent to 17 per cent in the last ten years. If you look at the three-year rolling averages, ‘No religion’ has grown from 45 per cent to 49 per cent in the last ten years.”

Converting the annual figures into three-year rolling averages shows that between 2000 and 2010 those reporting no religion rose from 41 to 48 per cent, but, since then, the averages have alternated between 48 and 49 per cent, with no discernable increase.

None the less, all the factors that have led to those with no religion becoming an increasingly larger proportion of the population were continuing, Professor Woodhead said. Every successive generation was less likely to go to church than their parents. “These trends are about a century old, and they have been so steady there is no reason to think they will change any time soon. “The interesting question is migration, which is what has kept the other [non-Anglican] groups stable. If Brexit does really mean a cap on migration, then that increase is going to stop.”

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