Changes in religious belief and practice (AP1)

In this unit on Atheism and Postmodernism, we will look carefully at these two key ideas, particularly in reference to what they have to say about religion and the impact they have had on religion.

Before looking at these ideas, we will look at the changing nature of religious belief and practice in the UK.

When we talk about religious belief we mean what p people believe and in this blog we will consider different beliefs people have about God and how this has changed over time.  When we talk about religious practice we mean what people do and in this blog we will focus on the issue of church attendance.


sctrfigure3_tcm77-290499This graph uses information from both the 2001 and 2011 census.  The census is a large survey the government carries out every 10 years covering the whole country.  It asks questions about family, income, where you live and amongst other things, religious affiliation.  In this question, people are asked for their religious affiliation, that is which religion they link themselves with.  It is not the same as asking what people believe and not the same as asking them about religious practice, it is simply asking which religion (if any) they associate themselves with.

If we look at the difference between 2001 and 2011, the first significant change we see is in the numbers stating ‘no religion’.  In 2001 this was about 15% but by 2011 this had risen to about 25%, or 1 in 4 people.

In contrast to this, the numbers of people who identify themselves as Christian in 2001 is just over 70% but by 2011 this had fallen to just under 60% of the population.

If we now turn to look at religious practice, we can 5study data about church attendance.  This graph tells us about about 15% of adults in the UK go to church at least once a month.  This is about 7.5 million people and of those, about 5 million go every week.

But contrast this with what we have just seen.  A significant majority of the UK population identified themselves as Christian in the census yet only 15% of the population are regular churchgoers.  Clearly there are lots of people who say they are Christian but don’t attend church.

If we look at this more closely, 7we see that about 1/3 of the population are in touch with religion.  This is made up of other religions (that is, religions other than Christianity), regular churchgoers (people who attend at least once a month) and occasional churchgoers (who attend at least 6 times a year) which adds up to about 16 million people.  This means that 2/3 of the population are not in touch with religion.

Of these about 16 million people are what we call ‘de-churched’ as they used to attend church, perhaps going to Sunday School as a child, but they no longer go to church.  The final 1/3 are ‘non-churched’.  These 16 million adults have had no contact with Christianity beyond events such as weddings and funerals.  Clearly there has been a decline in church attendance.

This graph, which uses data from a different source, gives a similar picture.  The pink line gives us the falling level of church attendance and predicts this will continue.  It also tells us that the average age of those who attend church is rising.  This suggest that as some leave the church (the group called ‘de-churched’) and others stay, the church is not attracting new members, especially amongst the young.  This explains the rise in average age.  If this trend continues, then over the next 30 years or so as the average age continues to rise, many churchgoers will die, meaning the numbers of people who attend church will fall even more dramatically.

If we in more depth at this data, we see that church attendance is expected to halve between 1980 and 2015, a 50% reduction.  The fall in attendance is closely followed by a fall membership, though it seems some people remain members though they no longer attend.  But it is noticeable that there has been a much smaller fall in the numbers of churches and church ministers.  Between 1980 and 2015, they are only expected to fall by about 10%.  Putting these two together tells us that church groups or congregations are, on average, smaller.  Lots of people have left the church as we can see in the declining attendance, but most churches are still going, though probably with fewer people in each church on average.

Finally, lets return to look at religious belief, especially what people believe about God.

This data, taken from a YouGov survey conducted in 1957 and again in 2013 gives us more detailed information on the changes we have already seen.

If we start with those we would call atheists, in 1957 they totalled about 6% of the population but by 2013 this had risen to about 28%.  The number of people who answer ‘don’t know’ has also risen slightly over the same time.  Clearly therefore there must have been a fall in the number of people believing in God.  But the picture isn’t as simple as that.  The number of people who believe in God as a spirit or life force was about 37% in 1957, but by 2013 this had decreased to 32%, only a small reduction.  The most significant decline has come amongst those people who believe in God as a personal God, a God whom you communicate with, pray to and worship.  The numbers of people who believe this have failed significant from 41% in 1957 to 17% in 2013.  Since those who believe in a personal God are those more likely to attend church as part of their relationship with God, then the fall in the number of people who believe a person God also therefore explains the fall in the number of people attending church regularly.

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