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Why Baby Boomers Turned from Religion by Abby Day

by
24 March 2023

Robin Gill considers what put the baby-boomers off church

ABBY DAY, now Professor of Race, Faith and Culture in the sociology department at Goldsmiths, established her reputation with two previous books for OUP, Believing in Belonging (2011) and The Religious Lives of Older Laywomen (2017). She showed how transcribed, extended interviews with targeted groups (ethnography) could nuance our understanding of major religious changes — first, among people who self-identified as Christians in the 2001 National Census, despite never going to church, and, second, among a vanishing group of assiduous elderly churchgoers. Now she has targeted “baby boomers” (people born c.1944-60) who “drifted away” from Anglicanism as teenagers, for different reasons, and now self-identify as “non-religious”.

During Covid lockdown, she interviewed 50 baby-boomers online in Britain and Canada who have connections with either humanism or the social sciences. Inevitably, this is a select, liberal-minded, and articulate group, and, very properly, she does not claim that it represents all of us baby-boomers. Yet it still yields insights that should be of concern to Church Times readers.

Her interviews suggest that individualism, materialism, or consumerism was not responsible for their drifting away — far from it: their time in Sunday school was more significant. It failed to make any serious connection with churchgoing, increased their feeling that their non-churchgoing parents were hypocrites for sending them there, that the Church’s patriarchal and sexually restrictive assumptions were outmoded, and that their teenage doubts were unanswered even within confirmation preparation (most lapsing soon afterwards).

As adults, they typically missed little about Anglicanism — apart from sacred music and Christmas services — but still held serious moral commitments, especially to family and community, without feeling any need to hold religious convictions. Oddly, though, several reported having paranormal experiences, even involving survival beyond death.

This drifting away has, she argues, serious implications for the Church of England. Such baby-boomers’ children, typically, have little connection with church, and find services even more strange and alienating than their parents did. As a result, generation by generation, the British and Canadian public is becoming (irreversibly?) less religious.

AlamyAn adult and children of the baby-boom generation walk near a village church, St Peter’s, Kington Langley, in Wiltshire, in October 1962

This dispassionate, even if bleak, analysis has real value, but it also has some gaps. She is convinced by Callum Brown’s thesis that 1963 represented the key tipping point for Anglican churchgoing. Yet, despite conceding that baby-boomers are themselves shaped by parents who were less than fervent churchgoers, she overlooks Clive Field’s forensic critique of Brown, namely that Anglican churchgoing decline predates 1963 by many decades; Nicholas Orme’s authoritative conclusion that even the Middle Ages were not “purely a time of faith”; and the late David Martin’s judgement that the English, especially, have long been religiously unenthusiastic.

In addition, she insists that many of her interviewees have strong values, but she asks them only occasionally how far they acted upon these values. There is strong evidence across Western societies that rates, say, of voluntary work and charitable giving are significantly higher among regular churchgoers than among non-churchgoers or those identifying as non-religious. Perhaps a sample of interviews testing that finding might form her next research project.

In the mean time, this nicely written and accessible book serves to enhance Professor Day’s already high reputation for religious ethnography.


Canon Robin Gill is Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent, and Editor of
Theology.

Why Baby Boomers Turned from Religion: Shaping belief and belonging, 1945-2021
Abby Day
OUP £70
(978-0-19-286668-4)
Church Times Bookshop £63

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