PEOPLE in the UK are less likely to believe in God than the people of almost any other country in the world, a new study suggests.
Belief in God among UK adults has declined by more than one quarter since the 1980s, it finds, but belief in life after death — and belief in hell — has remained almost unchanged in those four decades.
The research was conducted by the Policy Institute at King’s College, London, as part of its World Values Survey: an international programme exploring social, political, economic, religious, and cultural values and attitudes in 90 countries.
In the UK, a random probability sample of 3056 adults was analysed from March to September 2020, of whom 1645 were from England, 523 from Scotland, 437 from Wales, and 446 from Northern Ireland. This data was measured against 24 other countries and compared with results from 1981.
The findings were published on Friday in a report: Lost faith? The UK’s changing attitudes to religion.
In 1981, three-quarters of the surveyed UK adults said that they believed in God, compared with just under half (49 per cent) in 2022. Just five countries had a lower percentage of belief in God: China (17 per cent), Sweden (35 per cent), Japan (39 per cent), South Korea (41 per cent), and Norway (46 per cent).
Belief in heaven among the UK adults fell over the same period, but less dramatically, from 57 per cent to 41 per cent. Despite this, the idea of heaven is still more popular than hell in the UK. In 2022, about one quarter (26 per cent) said that they believed in hell — a figure largely unchanged in four decades.
Similarly, the proportion believing in life after death has remained at about 45 per cent, rising to 47 per cent in the past few years.
The UK respondents were more likely to believe in life after death than those of several other European countries — including France (41 per cent) and Spain (38 per cent) — but were far less likely than respondents in the United States (70 per cent), Canada (57 per cent), and Australia (55 per cent).
Although younger people in the UK were less religious than older people, they were more inclined to believe in life after death. The majorities of Generation Z (51 per cent), Millennials (53 per cent), and Generation X (52 per cent) in the UK who said that they believed in life after death were notably higher than the proportion of baby-boomers (35 per cent) and the pre-war generation (39 per cent).
Younger people were also more likely to believe in hell: 32 per cent of Gen Z and Millennials said that they held this belief, compared with 18 per cent of baby-boomers, and 24 per cent of the pre-war generation.
Belief in heaven had also declined among older generations, the study found. This meant there was “little difference” in views between the younger and older cohorts.
The UK public generally were among the least likely to see themselves as religious: just 33 per cent — almost half the proportion in 1981 (57 per cent). Over the same period, the proportion who identified as atheist increased fivefold, from four per cent to 21 per cent, with a “notable uptick” between 2018 and 2022. Almost one third (31 per cent) of Generation Z respondents identified as atheist: the highest among all generations.
Only four countries were less likely than the UK to see themselves as religious: Sweden (27 per cent), South Korea (16 per cent), China (16 per cent), and Japan (14 per cent). Nigeria and Indonesia scored the highest, at 94 per cent and 91 per cent respectively.
The report suggests that religiosity has declined equally consistently across other Western nations over the past four decades, including Australia, Canada, Germany, and the United States.
The pre-war generation in the UK experienced the biggest decline in religious identification: from 69 per cent in 1981 to 46 per cent in 2022. The youngest cohorts — Millennials and Generation Z — remained the least likely to identify as religious: both 27 per cent.
Despite this, confidence in religious institutions in the UK has begun to rebound after declining for most of the past four decades. Between 1981 and 2018, confidence in churches and religious organisations in the UK fell from 49 per cent to 31 per cent, but had risen again by 2022 to 42 per cent. None the less, the UK ranked among the bottom half of countries for confidence in churches and religious organisations. Just seven countries ranked lower.
The proportion in the UK who do not consider God as being important in their life had doubled since 1981, from 28 per cent to 57 per cent in 2022 — a record high. Again, only four nations were less likely than the UK to say religion was very or rather important in their life: Australia (30 per cent), Sweden (28 per cent), Japan (15 per cent), and China (13 per cent).
Comparatively, the proportion of the UK public who said that religion was important in their life has remained relatively stable for decades, declining by just eight per cent between 1981 and 2018, only recently dropping, since then, by a further seven per cent to 30 per cent.
The UK public were also among the most trusting of people of religions other than their own, and among the most relaxed about other faiths — second only to Sweden for trust in people of different faiths (82 as opposed to 87 per cent).
UK attendance at religious services has remained “consistently low” since the 1980s, the report says. Other nations have had sharper declines, but the UK remains among the lowest in this category. Just 11 per cent of the UK adults said that they attended religious services weekly, five per cent monthly, and 13 per cent daily. Only seven nations scored lower across the board.
Prayer was even lower: only people in South Korea and China said that they prayed less often than those in the UK (63 per cent of whom said that they rarely or never prayed).
The director of the Policy Institute at King’s College, Professor Bobby Duffy, explained: “Our cultural attachment to organised religion has continued to decline in the UK — but our belief that there is something beyond this life is holding strong, including among the youngest generations.
“This reflects a long-term pattern, where those who feel actively connected to organised religions have moved from a ‘conscript’ army in previous decades, where many more felt it was an automatic part of life, to a more ‘professional’ army, which are fewer in number but more dedicated in practice.
“This is an important period in the development of religiosity and spirituality in Western countries like the UK. . . These sorts of international studies show that the decline of organised religion is not really a global story at all — as it continues to grow and flourish in many countries around the world, and these changes are really constrained to countries like the UK.”