THERE are reasons to be hopeful in a new report that highlights high rates of “nonversion” — the loss of people brought up with a religious affiliation to the “no religion” category — its author argued this week.
Although “C of E” was no longer the “default setting” for British adults asked about their religious identity, there was left a core of committed, practising Christians who shored each other up and were set to become a “creative minority” in the UK, the author, Professor Stephen Bullivant, director of the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, said.
His report, The “No Religion” Population of Britain, is based on data from the 2015 British Social Attitudes (BSA) Survey, and the 2014 European Social Survey. Those who identify as “no religion” make up 48.6 per cent of the British adult population.Those claiming a Christian affiliation make up 43 per cent of the population, of which 17.1 per cent are Anglican.
The research concludes that the main factor in the growth of “Nones” is “nonversion”: people who were brought up with a religious affiliation who later identify with none. Three-fifths of Nones say that they were brought up with a religious identity. Fewer than one in ten of those brought up non-religiously now identify with a religion. For every one person brought up with No religion who has become a Christian, 26 people brought up as Christians now identify as Nones.
“The C of E as the default setting of British social life, cultural life, has really dissipated,” Professor Bullivant said on Tuesday. “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.”
The report highlights the fact that the proportion of Nones has remained either at, or below the 2009 level. It also says that, after significant declines, Anglican numbers have reached a point of “newfound stability” in recent years, and that there have been “significant increases” in people describing themselves as Christian, without any denominational qualifier.
While the decline in affiliation numbers was not something for churches to celebrate — “any Christian group benefits from this kind of wider penumbra of goodwill and affiliation beyond the walls of people who actually practise” — there were reasons to be hopeful about the context, Professor Bullivant argued. Those who remained were committed, and, having been “swimming against the tide” in their peer groups, may produce “a revival in intensification of commitment” and church growth. He would “lay money on the fact that retention will start to rise, precisely because the people who are left to still bring up their children as Christians will almost, of necessity, be more committed ones.”
There were already signs of this in the Roman Catholic Church, he suggested, including a rise in vocations. The committed met others at church who were “in the same boat”, who “become a norm for each other” and were inspired to go out and evangelise: “a kind of creative minority effect”.
The report says that, while 43 per cent of British Nones say that they are “not at all religious”, the remainder affirm some level of personal religiosity, and about seven per cent pray at least weekly.
On Monday, the director of research at the think tank Theos, Nick Spencer, said that research suggested that belief in God was declining, “but nothing like as fast as nominal religious identity”.
It was important to consider “what Nones actually believe”, he said. “If they retain Christian ethical values, despite dispensing with any nominal association, you are not going to see much of a change; so it probably doesn’t matter that much, and arguably a lot who called themselves C of E did not hold particularly strong Christian ethical values in the first place. But, if the vacuum is further filled in with possessive individualism and consumerism and other self-interested ideologies, that is problematic.”
In response to the context, Christians should “carry on doing what they do”, he said: praying, “practising the virtues of the New Testament”, worshipping, and loving each other and their communities.
“My sense is that, in the very long term, faithful practice will turn the situation around in the UK long after BSA studies like this have come to pass.”
A co-leader of the programme Understanding Unbelief, at the University of Kent, Dr Lois Lee, said this week that the “non-religious identity” must be “taken seriously”.
She explained: “Identifying as ‘not religious’ might not sound like it means very much, but my interview research in the UK has shown that, to the contrary, identifying as ‘not religious’ is both a popular and meaningful identity to people, including for people for whom the ‘atheist’ identity has been tainted by its association with the views of a very limited set of public figures, who do not reflect the views of every atheist out there.”
This category was “heterogeneous”, she said, and contained its own denominations, including humanism and a post-modern agnosticism that “emphasises the limits of human knowledge about metaphysical questions and questions of ultimate meaning”.
Comparing the entire no-religion group to religious denominations was “likely to distort our understanding of the British landscape”, she warned. For example, while it outnumbered those who identified as C of E, the post-modern Agnostics might represent similar numbers. Understanding Unbelief is dedicated to further exploration of these denominations.