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British pass another milestone on the journey away from faith

04 September 2017



TWO Church of England Bishops have responded with equanimity to the latest British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, in which the percentage of people who describe themselves as “not religious” is at its highest since the survey began. Just 15 per cent identify with the C of E.

“Saying ‘no religion’ is not the same as a considered atheism,” the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, said on Monday. “People’s minds, and hearts, remain open.”

The National Centre for Social Research publishes results of its BSA survey every year, including the answer to the question: “Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion? If yes, which?” In 1983, 31 per cent of respondents answered “no religion”. In 2016, the figure was 53 per cent, according to data published on Monday.

The percentage associating themselves with the Church of England has fallen from 40 per cent to 15 per cent, having remained at 17 per cent in the past two years.

This survey, like its predecessors, suggests that religiosity has decreased through the generations. In 1986, the percentage of those who ticked the “no religion” box was 55 per cent among the 18-24s.

Those who were aged 18-24 in 1986 now fall into the 45-54 bracket. In 2016, this group remained as non-religious as before: 56 per cent ticked “no religion”. Of the new cohort of 18-to-24 year-olds, 71 per cent ticked “no religion” in 2016.

Affiliation to the C of E also increases according to age, from three per cent of those in the youngest age group to 40 per cent of those aged over 70.

“In this modern world, people are more willing to be honest and say they have no religion rather than casually saying they are ‘C of E’,” Bishop Bayes said. “This honesty is welcome. Of course, the latest BSA figures bring a continuing challenge to the Churches: to speak clearly of our faith into a sceptical and plural world. But saying ‘no religion’ is not the same as a considered atheism. People’s minds, and hearts, remain open.”

He drew attention to the mission statement of his diocese: “a bigger Church making a bigger difference”. The latter half was crucial, he said: “People see the point of faith when they see the difference faith makes. So we seek to show that knowing Jesus makes a difference personally, and makes a difference for society. I believe that by showing that difference, more people will come to know God’s love.

“God remains relevant. The Church remains relevant. We in the Church, and all who love the Church, need to keep finding ways to show and tell those who say they have ‘no religion’ that faith — faith in the God who loves them still — can make that life-transforming difference for them and for the world.”

Earlier this year, Dr Lois Lee, a co-leader of the programme Understanding Unbelief, at the University of Kent, said that the “non-religious identity” must be “taken seriously” (News, 19 May). It was “both a popular and meaningful identity to people”, and contained its own denominations.

The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, said on Monday that it was “always troubling for the institution of the Church to see numbers declining, and to hear how younger people are less and less engaged with the life of the Church.

“But the Church is not an institution. The Church is that community of men and women whose lives are centred on Christ. We do care about numbers, but only because we care about people. But most of all, we care about that vision of justice and peace for all that is given us in Christ, and we will get on with living and sharing that vision with a few dozen people, a few thousand people, or a few million people: whoever it is that responds to the call of God in Christ.”

The findings suggest that other denominations have seen less decline in affiliation. Those describing themselves as Roman Catholic constitute ten per cent of the total, just one per cent lower than in 1983; and the percentage who choose “other Christian” is the same as it was then: 17 per cent. In total, the percentage of those who identify themselves as Christian has fallen from 67 per cent to 41 per cent. There is another category, “non-Christian”, i.e. people of another faith. This group has risen from two to six per cent of the whole.

The survey also looks at affiliation compared with the household in which respondents grew up. For example, among those brought up in a C of E household, half still describe themselves as C of E, and 43 per cent as “no religion”. Just 14 per cent of those brought up in a non-Christian (i.e. another faith) household describes themslves as “no religion”. These compare with 94 per cent of those brought up in a household described as “no religion” who continue to describe themselves thus.

There appears to be little correlation between affiliation and practice. Of all those who identify as C of E, almost half (46 per cent) said that they went to religious services or meetings “never or practically never”; a quarter went at least once a month.

Almost a quarter of Roman Catholics went weekly, as did 27 per cent of “Other Christians”, and 37 per cent of non-Christians.

Earlier this year, Professor Stephen Bullivant, director of the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, said that the main factor in the growth of “Nones” was “nonversion”: people who had been brought up with a religious affiliation but who later said that they had none (News, 19 May).

“The C of E as the default setting of British social life, cultural life, has really dissipated,” he said. “The people who are still ticking one of the Christian categories are not necessarily practising, but at least they know why they are ticking it: a committed fellow-travellerness.”

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