Religion and belief: some surveys and statistics
Numerous surveys indicate that the proportion of individuals who do not hold religious beliefs is steadily increasing.
Religions and beliefs are notoriously difficult to measure, as they are not fixed or innate, and therefore any poll should be primarily treated as an indication of beliefs rather than a concrete measure.
However, one of the most well-respected measures of religious attitudes is the annual British Social Attitudes Survey, further details of the latest report may be found here.
The English and Welsh Census uses the highly leading question “What is your religion?”. By assuming that all participants held a religious belief, the question captured some kind of loose cultural affiliation, and as a result over in 2001 70% of the population responded ‘Christian’; a far higher percentage than nearly every other significant survey or poll on religious belief in the past decade.
The Office for National Statistics understands the religion question to be a proxy question for ethnicity. This is in order to capture the Jewish and Sikh populations, both of which are captured under race legislation but are not included in the ethnicity category in the census, as they should be, rather than the religion category. The result is that a very loose, cultural affiliation is ‘measured’ by the census in terms of religion or belief, with particular over-inflation of the Christian figure, and an undercounting of the non-religious population. As a result, the census data on religion is most definitely not suitable for use by employers or service providers
2011 Census Polls
In a poll conducted by YouGov in March 2011 on behalf of the BHA, when asked the census question ‘What is your religion?’, 61% of people in England and Wales ticked a religious box (53.48% Christian and 7.22% other) while 39% ticked ‘No religion’.
When the same sample was asked the follow-up question ‘Are you religious?’, only 29% of the same people said ‘Yes’ while 65% said ‘No’, meaning over half of those whom the census would count as having a religion said they were not religious.
Less than half (48%) of those who ticked ‘Christian’ said they believed that Jesus Christ was a real person who died and came back to life and was the son of God.
Asked when they had last attended a place of worship for religious reasons, most people in England and Wales (63%) had not attended in the past year, 43% of people last attended over a year ago and 20% of people had never attended. Only 9% of people had attended a place of worship within the last week.
The Humanist Society of Scotland commissioned a separate poll asking the Scottish census question, ‘What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?’. In response, 42% of the adult population in Scotland said ‘None’.
When asked ‘Are you religious?’ 56% of the same sample said they were not and only 35% said they were.
See our Census 2011 Campaign for a fairer, more accurate census on belief in Britain
The 2001 Census:
According to the 2001 UK Census, those of no religion are the second largest belief group, about 2 and a half times as many as all the other (non-Christian) religions altogether – at 15.5% of the population. 7,274,290 people said they had “no religion” – though only 10,357 specified that they were atheists.Jedi Knights had 390,127 followers, and formed a larger group than several of the “major religions”: Jews (259, 927); Sikhs (329, 358); Buddhists (144,453); or minor religions such as Jainism (15,132), Zoroastrianism (3,738) or the Baha’i faith (4,645).
Surveys and polls on Religion and Belief in the United Kingdom:
In the UK, those who describe themselves as non-religious have risen from 31% to 50% between 1983 and 2009 according to the British Social Attitudes Survey’s 28th report issued in 2011. Among people aged between 18-24, the incidence of religious affiliation is only 36%.
Conversely, the report found that only 44% of people in the UK identify as Christians compared to 50% in 2008, and 66% in 1983. The Church of England has seen the greatest decline in its numbers; membership has halved from 40% of the population in 1983 to just 20% in 2010.
An Ipsos MORI poll, published in January 2007 for the British Humanist Association indicated that 36% of people – equivalent to around 17 million adults – are in fact humanist in their basic outlook.
Another question found that 41% endorsed the strong statement: ‘This life is the only life we have and death is the end of our personal existence’. 62% chose ‘Human nature by itself gives us an understanding of what is right and wrong’, against 27% who said ‘People need religious teachings in order to understand what is right and wrong’.
In a 2006 Guardian/ICM poll:
- 63% of people say they are not religious (compared to 33% that do)
- 82% of those questioned see religion as a cause of division and tension between people
- Only 17% of those polled believe the UK is best described as a Christian country
In a Mori poll for the Catholic weekly, The Tablet, published May 2005, the decline of religious belief is evident:
- 36% of people in the 18-34 age group in Britain define themselves as atheist or agnostic
- In the population as a whole, 24% say they have no religion
In the 2007-08 Citizenship Survey, participants were requested to select factors that they regarded as important to their identity from thirteen options. Whilst family was top with 97%, followed by interests (87%), religion ranked bottom at 48%. Religion ranked bottom consistently with all age groups up to 65+, where it only moves up to eleventh. Christians ranked religion as thirteenth as a factor important to their identity.
Church Attendance in the UK:
According to the 28th report (2011) of the British Social Attitudes Survey, 20% of the population are affiliated with the Church of England (compared to 40% in 1983). However, the report found that 48% of this group never attend services; only 8% of people who identify with the Church of England attend church weekly.
More generally, the BSA Survey discovered that 56% of people who were brought up in a religion never attend services, and only 14% do so on a weekly basis. In the 26th survey it was found that 62% of the population never attend any form of service.
According to ‘Religious Trends No 7 (2007-2008)’ published by Christian Research, overall church attendance in the United Kingdom has diminished rapidly in terms of percentages and in real terms.
In 1990 5,595,600 people, representing 10% of the UK population, regularly attended Church, by 2005 this number had reduced to 3,926,300, equating to 6.7% of the UK population
By 2015, the level of church attendance in the UK is predicted to fall to 3,081,500 people, or 5% of the population.
The Church of England’s own attendance figures, attest to the decline; between 2002 and 2008, average Sunday attendance figures have diminished from 1,005,000 to 960,000.
Religion and Belief internationally:
In September 2010, Ipsos conducted a 23 country poll on religion.
Of the 18,192 people who participated, 48 per cent agreed ”religion provides the common values and ethical foundations that diverse societies need to the thrive in the 21st Century”.
However 52 per cent agreed with the statement ”religious beliefs promote intolerance, exacerbate ethnic divisions, and impede social progress in developing and developed nations alike”. With the exception of the United States of America, generally wealthy nations had a markedly more negative view of religion.
In 2007 Britain ranked 15th in the table that shows the top fifty countries with the largest percentage of people who identify themselves as either atheist, agnostic or a non-believer in God.
In 2004, the BBC commissioned an ICM poll in ten countries examining levels of belief, participants from the United Kingdom tended to display markedly less religious belief then many of their counterparts. In response to the question “A belief in God (higher power) makes for a better human being”, 43% participants from the UK disagreed with this statement, substantially more than any other nationality.
In the United States the picture of belief is quite different, in the USA only 3% of people questioned in the American Religious Identification Survey stated they did not have a belief in God, and only 8% were doubtful. However, it is important to note that in the USA, as with most of Europe, there is a marked decline in the level of belief; in 1991, 86% of Americans identified as Christian, by 2008, this number had reduced to 72%.
Attitudes in the UK
Attitudes towards belief:
In a 2007 survey conducted by YouGov on behalf of the broadcaster and writer John Humphries, 42% of the participants believed religion had a harmful effect.
C of E not important say most people - YouGov, 2005
In a large-scale YouGov poll of over 3,500 people, the Church of England came 32nd out of 37 in a list of what people think defines Britishness. Only 17% of respondents thought that the Church of England was “very important” in contributing to a sense of Britishness, while 23% thought it was “not important at all”.
Religious belief is declining faster than attendance at services in the UK, according to a study funded by the ESRC which found that parents’ beliefs, practices and affiliations have the biggest impact on children.
Young People in Britain: The Attitudes and Experiences of 12-19 Year Olds (PDF) – Research report for the DfES, 2004
65% of young people are not religious. Though religious belief amongst the young has declined by 10% in less than 10 years, moral attitudes have not and fewer young people are racially prejudiced.
On Faith Schools:
For more a more detailed analysis, please see BHA faith schools statistics- http://www.humanism.org.uk/education/education-policy/faith-schools-why-not
In an Ipsos Mori poll commissioned by the teachers union NASUWT and Unison in April 2010, when asked which group is the most appropriate to run state-funded schools, only 4% answered “religious organisations”. When asked which group should not state-funded schools, 35% said religious organisations (the highest figure obtained by any organisation listed).
- 57% believed that state funded schools that selected students according to their religion harm community cohesion.
- 72% agreed or strongly agreed that all schools should implement recruitment and employment policies that do not discriminate on grounds of religion or belief.•
- 74% held the view that all state schools should teach an objective and balanced syllabus for education about a wide range of religious and non-religious beliefs.
According to the British Social Attitudes Survey 2010, 42% of all those questioned are against any form of faith school.
On Assisted Dying:
Polls taken on the issue of assisted suicide consistently demonstrate the majority of the public wish the law to be reformed, and to create a humane and ethical law on assisted dying.
According to the 26th report of the British Social Attitudes Survey published in 2010, 71% of religious people and 92% non-religious (82% in total) believe that a doctor should be allowed to end the life of a patient with an incurable disease.
In a January 2010 poll conducted for the BBC by ComRes, 75% of those questioned supported Physician Assisted suicide for the terminally ill.
A further poll taken in January 2010 by YouGov for the Daily Telegraph, 75% of the sample agreed that the law on Assisted Suicide should “Be amended to allow some people, such as doctors and/or close relatives to assist a suicide in particular circumstances”
In a Populus Poll for the Times in July 2009, 74% supported a change in the law legalising assisted suicide in the cases of individuals with a terminal illness.
During the debate over Lord Joffe’s Private Members Bill legalising Assisted Suicide in 2004, a YouGov poll found 80% of the public supported the intentions of the Bill.
On abortion and contraception:
There is a consensus in the UK that abortion is justified in cases of a health risk to the parent or a defect has been diagnosed, with the British Social Attitudes Survey finding that, overall 78% of the UK population supports choice in these circumstances. However, whilst 86% of people categorised as un-religious were in favour, the religious were less supportive, with 67% supporting abortion rights where there is a health risk.
Only 6% of Catholics questioned in a poll by YouGov for ITV agreed that abortion should never be allowed, and only 11% believed abortion should only permitted as an indirect consequence of a life-saving treatment for the mother.
In contrast 30% agreed that abortion should be a matter of individual choice, and 44% agreed that abortion should be permitted on grounds of ‘rape, incest, severe disability to the child or as an indirect consequence of life-saving treatment for the mother’
Only 4% of Catholic adults questioned believed artificial contraception is wrong and should not be used. 71% agreed it should be moved more often, 23% believed it was a matter entirely for couples.
In a 2006 survey conducted by Ipsos Mori for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), found that 63% of the representative sample agreed with the statement that ‘if a woman wants an abortion, she should not have to continue with her pregnancy’ 18% disagreed with this.
This level of support has been tracked by a series of polls since the 1980s. In the earliest polls Ipsos Mori found 54% of respondents agreed that ‘abortions should be made legally available for all who want it’, and this number has generally been slowly rising.
In 2007, the organisation Catholics for Choice commissioned a poll from YouGov (PDF) on religious opinion towards abortion, and the involvement of Catholic Bishops in the political debate concerning abortion law. In response to the statement:
“It should be legal for a woman to have an abortion when she has an unwanted pregnancy”
- 63% of all respondents to the poll strongly agreed or agreed (14% disagreed or strongly disagreed);
- 58% of self-identified Protestants strongly agreed or agreed (19% disagreed or strongly disagreed);
- 43% of self-identified Catholics strongly agreed or agreed (27% disagreed or strongly disagreed).
“Catholic bishops concentrate too much of their attention on abortion when there are other issues that also require their attention”
- 64% of all respondents to the poll strongly agreed or agreed (8% disagreed or strongly disagreed);
- 68 % of self-identified Protestants strongly agreed or agreed (7% disagreed or strongly disagreed);
- 42% of self-identified Catholics strongly agreed or agreed (27% disagreed or strongly disagreed).
On medical research:
In the British Social Attitudes Survey, when asked “medical research on embryos should probably or definitely be allowed”, 61% of religious respondents agreed, compared to 77% non-religious respondents.
Religion and government
In the British Social Attitudes Survey 2010:
- 75% of those questioned believed their religious leaders should not to influence their voting behaviour
- 67% believe religious leaders should stay out of government decision making.
- 45% of Britons believe that the involvement of religious leaders would have a deleterious effect on policy.
- Only 25% of people believe religious involvement would produce better policy.
- 73% of respondents believe that “people with very strong religious beliefs are often too intolerant of others”. This view was held by 82% of people who class themselves as non-religious, and 63% of those who consider themselves religious
The 28th report of the British Social Attitudes Survey (2011) also concluded that we can expect to see ‘a continued increase in liberal attitudes towards a range of issues such as abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and euthanasia, as the influence of considerations grounded in religion declines.’ (Page 182)
The same report goes on to recommend that, ‘the recently expressed sentiment of the current coalition government to “do” and “get” God (Warsi, 2011) therefore may not sit well with, and could alienate, certain sections of the population.’ (Page 183)
Bishops in the House of Lords:
74% of the British public believe it is wrong that Bishops have an automatic right to a seat in the House of Lords, including 70% of Christians according to an ICM survey conducted in 2010 on behalf of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust.
Volunteering and the non-religious
The BHA have produced a briefing on religion, belief and volunteering.
Figures released by the Department for Communities and Local Government published in the report Citizenship Survey: April 2010 – March 2011in September 2011 demonstrate that there is almost no difference in participation between those with no religion (56%) and Christians (58%). The proportion of Hindus and Muslims participating in civic engagement and formal volunteering is the lowest of all religion or belief groups, at 44% respectively.
The report ‘Faith and Voluntary Action’ from the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (2007) finds that: “Religious affiliation makes little difference in terms of volunteering”.
The report also states that motivation for volunteering is complex – and ‘faith’ as a motivator is actually very difficult to prove/assess/measure.
The 2001 Citizenship Survey finds that the proportion of people who volunteered and had a religious affiliation is similar to the proportion of people who had no religious affiliation, and this is true of both informal and formal volunteering. In both categories of those with religious affiliation and those with none, 39% participated in formal volunteering at least once a year, and 68% of those with no religious affiliation participated in informal volunteering versus 67% of those who describe themselves as having a faith.
(Source: Religion in England and Wales: Findings from the Home Office 2001 Citizenship Survey, Home Office Research Study 274)
In the Cabinet Office research publication (2007) ‘Helping Out. A national survey of volunteering and charitable giving, shows that the rates of volunteering differ between religious groups differ within religious groups, and between religious and non-religious people. Non-religious people volunteer more than some, but less than others.