Numerous surveys indicate that the proportion of individuals who do not hold religious beliefs is steadily increasing and perhaps now represents the majority of the UK’s population.
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 foremost respected measures of religious attitudes is the annual British Social Attitudes Survey; further details of the latest report may be found below and on NatCen’s website.
Surveys and polls on religion and belief in the United Kingdom
How religious the UK population appears to be depends upon the question that is asked, but broadly speaking there are four different ways of measuring religiosity: based on loose cultural affiliation; based on ‘belonging’ to a religion, or identifying as religious; based on believing in the core tenets of a particular religion; and based on levels of religious practice (whether self-reported or observed).
All of these measures need to be taken into account by anyone trying to come to a full picture of the religiosity of the UK. Regrettably the most high-profile demographic survey, the Census, only asks about the first measure, and the issue of politicians over-inflating the religiosity of the UK based on the Census’s results was the subject of our 2011 Census Campaign.
On top of that, religious individuals hold a range of attitudes towards ethical issues which are frequently out of line with the position of their religion’s hierarchy and closer to the BHA’s – we will return to this later on on this page.
Loose cultural affiliation: Census data
The English and Welsh Census uses the highly leading question ‘What is your religion?’ By assuming that all participants hold a religious belief, the question captures some kind of loose cultural affiliation, and as a result the 2001 Census recorded a far higher percentage of the population as ‘Christian# than nearly every other significant survey or poll on religious belief in the 21st century. The 2011 Census recorded a lower proportion as ‘Christian’, which is still very high. The placement of the question alongside questions of ethnicity and national identity only further compounded this issue.
According to the 2011 UK Census, those of no religion are the second largest belief group, about three and a half times as many as all the non-Christian religions put together – at 26.13% of the population. 16,038,229 people said they had ‘no religion’ with a further 4,406,032 (7.18%) not stating a religion. 58.81% described their religion as Christian and 7.88% as some non-Christian religion. This represented a massive change from the 2001 Census, where 15.5% of the population recorded having no religion, and 72% of the population reported being Christian.
However, 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 reported having 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.
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 equalities legislation as ethnic groups 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, service providers or politicians as a proxy for religious belief, belonging or practice.
In 2015 YouGov repeated the Census question and found 49% saying they are Christian while 42% say they have no religion.
See our 2011 Census Campaign for a fairer, more accurate census on belief in Britain.
Belonging and identifying
In the UK, the percentage of the population which describes itself as belonging to no religion has risen from 31.4% to 50.6% between 1983 and 2013 according to the British Social Attitudes Survey’s 31st report issued in 2014. Conversely, the report found that only 41.7% of people in the UK identify as Christians compared to 49.9% in 2008 and 65.2% in 1983. The Church of England has seen the greatest decline in its numbers; membership has more than halved from 40.3% of the population in 1983 to just 16.3% in 2014.
Among people aged between 18 and 24, the incidence of religious affiliation is only 30.7%. It is only amongst the over 55s that the majority of respondents are religious. But even then, only 47% of English funerals in 2012 were performed by the Church of England, Roman Catholic Church, and Methodist Church, down from 59% in 2005.
A 2014 Survation poll found 60% of the British public describing themselves as not religious at all, compared with a third being somewhat religious and 8% very religious.
A 2014 YouGov poll found that 50% of the population do not ‘regard themselves as belonging to any particular religion’, compared to 43% who do. It also found that only 3% of the population consider themselves to be ‘very religious’ and only 20% ‘fairly religious’, while 37% consider themselves to be ‘not very religious’ and 40% ‘not religious at all’.
Belief in the tenets of religions
Surveys also show an even lower level of belief in the core tenets of Christianity in particular than do measures of cultural affiliation or belonging. For instance, a 2013 YouGov survey found that just 27% of the population believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God, just 26% believe in the Biblical account of the crucifixion, just 22% believe in the devil and just 33% believe in life after death. A 2014 YouGov survey found 10% saying religion is ‘very important’ to their own lives, 19% ‘fairly important’, 24% ‘not very important’ and 44% ‘not important at all’.
Conversely, 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 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.
The 2014 British Social Attitudes Survey found that 58.4% of the population never attend religious services while only 13.1% of people report going to a religious service once a week or more. Of the 16% of people who define as belonging to the Church of England, 51.9% never attend services and in fact only 10.7% of people who identify with the Church of England report attending church at least weekly. More generally, the 2014 BSA Survey discovered that 58.3% of people who were brought up in a religion never attend services, and only 12.8% do so on a weekly basis.
However, self-reported Church attendance is invariably higher than actual recorded attendance.
According to Religious Trends No 7 published by Christian Research, overall church attendance in the United Kingdom diminished rapidly from 1980 to 2005 in both proportional and real terms.
In 1980 5,201,300 people, representing 11.1% of the UK population, attended Church on a given Sunday, but by 2005 this number had reduced to 3,166,200, equating to 6.3% of the UK population. By 2015, the level of church attendance in the UK is predicted to have fallen to 3,081,500 people, or 5% of the population.
The Church of England’s own attendance figures also attest to decline; in 2013 average Sunday attendance figures were just 785,000, half the number that attended in 1968 and significantly lower than the 2002 figure of 1,005,000.
And on top of all this, recorded Church attendance is lower than the proportion of parents who admit to attending church regularly simply in order to get their children into church-controlled schools. The Church of England’s own research has found that the presence of nearby oversubscribed Church of England schools has a biggest impact on church growth than anything else.
Attitudes in the UK
Attitudes towards belief
A 2014 Survation survey found that 55% of the British public think atheists are just as moral as the religious, while one in eight think they are more moral and 6% think they are less moral. A majority of Brits (including 45% of Christians and 70% of Jews) believe that religion does more harm than good, with a quarter taking the opposite view.
A 2013 YouGov poll asked ‘Do you believe that religion can answer all or most of today’s problems, or is it largely old-fashioned and out-of-date?’ 19% said ‘can answer’ while 58% said ‘old-fashioned’.
A 2014 Ipsos MORI survey found that trust in the Church of England is lower than in any other national body asked about, other than national governments/parliaments/political parties.
The 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey found that just 12.5% of British people think it is ‘very important to be a Christian’ to be ‘truly British’, just 12% think it is ‘fairly important’, 26.2% think it is ‘not very important’ and 45% think it is ‘not important at all’. This meant that Christianity was the least important of the nine factors that were asked about.
On religion and government
A 2012 YouGov poll found that 67% of people do not think that religion should play any role in public life. In general, 51% of people think that religion is declining in Britain.
A 2012 Ipsos MORI survey of those who ticked ‘Christian’ on the 2011 Census found that:
- 73% strongly agree or tend to agree that religion should not have a special influence on public policy
- 92% support the statement that the law should apply to everyone equally, regardless of religion
- 78% say Christianity would have no, or not very much, influence on how they vote in general elections
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.’
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.’
A 2015 YouGov poll asked the public whether they view each of the party leaders more positively or negatively in light of their religious beliefs. The overwhelming majority (71-75%) said that in each case it would make no difference, but slightly more people were likely to view Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband more positively due to their atheism than negatively, while about the same number of people viewed David Cameron more positively than more negatively due to his membership of the Church of England.
On ‘faith’ schools
In June 2014, an Opinium poll found that:
- 58% of the British public was opposed to the existence of state-funded ‘faith’ schools, with just 30% accepting state funding.
- 70% of those opposed to state funding said this because they think the taxpayer should not be funding religion, 60% because they think ‘faith’ schools promote division and segregation, and 41% because they think they are contrary to the promotion of a multicultural society.
- 56% of respondents said that ‘faith’ schools should teach the national curriculum, with only a small minority arguing that they should have significant flexibility over what they teach.
In a ComRes/Accord poll from November 2012, 73% of respondents agreed (and 50% strongly agreed) that ‘state funded schools, including state funded faith schools, should not be allowed to select or discriminate against prospective pupils on religious grounds in their admissions policy’. Just 18% disagreed.
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 groups should not run state-funded schools, 35% said religious organisations (the highest figure obtained by any of the answers 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.
A 2010 YouGov poll asked parents to pick their top three factors from a list of twelve for choosing which school to send their children to; only 9% picked religion. A 2013 YouGov poll asked something similar and got similar results. ‘Ethical values’ was considered important by 23% of (which of course does not necessarily mean religious value), while just 5% picked ‘Grounding of pupils in a faith tradition’ and just 3% picked ‘Transmission of belief about God’.
On assisted dying
Polls taken on the issue of assisted dying consistently demonstrate the majority of the public wish the law to be reformed, and to create a humane and ethical law on assisted dying. A September 2012 YouGov poll commissioned by the BHA found that 81% of UK adults (including 82% of Anglicans and 66% of Catholics) support the notion of mentally competent individuals with incurable or terminal diseases who wish to end their lives receiving medical assistance to do so, without those assisting them facing prosecution.
In May 2014, 73% of respondents to a YouGov/Dignity in Dying poll supported Lord Falconer’s proposals to legalise assisted dying for the terminally ill. Only 13% were against the proposals.
Majorities of religious believers support assisted dying. Separate YouGov polls in 2013 found that:
- 78% who attend a place of worship at least monthly support the practice
- 62% of strongly religious people support assisted dying for the terminally ill
According to the 26th report of the British Social Attitudes Survey published in 2010, 71% of religious and 92% non-religious people (82% in total) believe that a doctor should be allowed to end the life of a patient with an incurable disease. The 2012 survey similarly found that 84% of people support assisted dying for the incurably ill. A 2013 YouGov poll found 76% support for the right to die for the terminally ill, while Populus found support at 82% for this position in 2015.
On abortion and contraception
The British Social Attitudes Survey 2012 found that there is an overwhelming consensus in the UK that abortion is justified in cases of:
- a health risk to the parent, with 95% in favour
- the diagnosis of a defect, with 85% in favour
- the parents not wishing to have a child, with 76% in favour
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 be 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 used more often, 23% believed it was a matter entirely for couples.
A 2013 YouGov poll found that the percentage of the population wanting an outright ban on abortion had declined from 12% in 2005, to 7% in 2013. Whilst 44% of those polled agreed that life begins at conception, most of this group did not support a ban on abortion.
The level of support for abortion has been tracked by a series of polls since the 1980s. In the earliest polls most thought 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 on religious opinion towards abortion, and the involvement of Catholic Bishops in the political debate concerning abortion law. In response to the statement ‘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); and 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.
On establishment and bishops in the House of Lords
A 2013 YouGov poll found that 51% of British people think that the Church of England should be separated from the state, while 27% thought that the connection should continue.
A 2012 YouGov poll found that 58% of Britons do not believe that bishops should sit in the House of Lords. 65% of people think that bishops are out of touch with public opinion.
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 has 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.
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.
The BHA, meanwhile, took issue with a 2014 BBC poll suggesting that religious believers are more likely to donate to charity than non-believers (77% against 67%). As well as contradicting previous research such as that detailed above, the survey’s methodology was flawed in that its definition of ‘believers’ was restricted to those practising, and that many of the charities benefitted were likely to have been local churches serving their own ends.
Religion and belief internationally
According to the 2014 Pew Global Attitudes Survey, a majority of the population in all of the nine European countries surveyed, as well as in Canada, Israel, Japan, Australia, Argentina and Chile did not think that a belief in God was a necessary part of being moral. This figure was as high as 85% in France and 80% in Spain. The young and the University-educated were found to be more likely to hold this view in many countries.
Also in 2014, a WIN/Gallup poll found that Britain is very sceptical on the benefits of religion when compared to other countries. Only a third of British respondents saw religion as a force for good, whilst over a quarter believed it to exert a negative impact. In Denmark, Belgium, France and Spain, the overall perception of religious was net negative. Internationally, it was consistently found that the more educated a person was, the more likely they were to harbour a negative view of religion.
In 2012, WIN/Gallup found that 36% of the world’s population define as non-religious, with 13% of that self-defining as atheists. This is a significant increase on previous years.
In September 2010 Ipsos conducted a 23-country poll on religion. Of the 18,192 people who participated, 48% agreed ‘religion provides the common values and ethical foundations that diverse societies need to thrive in the 21st Century’. However 52% also 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 a table that showed 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. 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; according to Gallup polling the number of people identifying as non-religious was 15% in 2013, up from 6% in 1995. A 2014 Pew poll, meanwhile, found that a third of 18-29 year olds now have no religious affiliation.