No religion steadily becoming norm in UK society, says leading academic

22 July 2016

“No religion” is steadily becoming the norm, Linda Woodhead MBE FAcSS, a leading academic researcher and commentator and Professor of Sociology of Religion in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University, and Director of the Institute of Social Futures, told an Academy event on Wednesday (July 20).

Professor Woodhead’s talk, “Explaining the Rise of ‘No Religion’”, was chaired by Patricia Broadfoot, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Bristol and a Lay Minister in the Church of England, and was the last in the Academy and Campaign’s Summer Programme on topical social science themes.

Previous Summer Programme events:
After the EU Referendum – where next for social science?
The state of Japanese social science: Japanese social science and the state
A nation at unease with itself? Britain on the eve of the EU referendum

In her talk, Professor Woodhead pointed to her research documenting the decline of religious identification and assessed the factors that indicate to be of no religion was becoming increasingly commonplace across society.

“The growth of no religion isn’t sudden; there has been a steady and gradual rise over a fairly long period. I suspect it’s been taking place for at least a century or more. The question is whether it’s speeding up now.”

Professor Woodhead’s research found that 46% of people self-identify as having no religion, up from 37% in January 2013. This is overwhelmingly true of younger cohorts, with 60% of 18-24 year olds, and 55% of 25-39 year olds identifying as “nones”, compared to just 34% of people over 60.

Professor Woodhead noted that although “nones” question organised religion and traditional religious authorities, they are not anti-religious, with many subscribing to forms of spirituality and a range of views on belief in god. She found that the majority are morally liberal, believing in the supremacy of the individual to make life choices. “Nones” are also politically diverse, with a fairly even split in political leanings between “no religion” and the general population, despite 56% voting for Remain in last month’s EU Referendum.

As a result of its rise, no religion has superseded Christianity as the “default cultural position”. As the “taken for granted” dominant structure, one which requires “no justification” or that “you don’t really have to think about”, no religion is the “unmarked position that involves minimal effort to acquire,” she said.

This shift prompts questions of changing perceptions of what is now becoming the marked and non-default position, Professor Woodhead said, whereby to identify with religion is seen as eccentric, odd, and even toxic. She contested assumptions that “a shift has happened because adults convert, or suddenly realise they don’t believe anymore.” While this does occur, it is less of a factor than consistency in identification and upbringing. “No religion is sticky – if you’re brought up in it you’re going to stay that way, because to you it appears as if it’s the norm, it’s obvious, it’s a way of looking at the world.” Her research shows a 95% probability that those who are raised with no religion will continue to identify that way, compared to just 45% among those raised as Christians.

However, no religion has yet to become fully institutionalised, particularly in elite institutions such as parliament, the judiciary and in public schools. The significant role of Christianity in particular throughout history continues to pervade everyday life, “even when we don’t notice it”, she said. Notable exceptions include personal life rights, with a one-third split between those who prefer religious funerals, non-religious funerals, or both, and the sustained increase in civil marriages since their introduction in 1840, which Professor Woodhead deemed “the best indication that no religion has been growing for a long time.”

Professor Fraser Watts, former President of the British Psychological Society and of the International Society for Science and Religion, and a former Reader in Theology and Science at the University of Cambridge, challenged what he saw as Professor Woodhead’s “lumping” of the “nones”, as their heterogeneity resists simple group classification.

Professor Watts noted a series of “big differences” among the “nones”, namely a divide between “active hostility” to religion on the one hand, and “indifference” to it on the other. He pointed in particular to a split in spirituality, with some being “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR), a characteristic that may be lacking in others. “Spirituality is primarily hard-wired, whereas religion is more culturally embedded,” he said. While the former may be more prevalent than is currently demonstrable, Dr Watts cautioned against viewing it as a “passing fad.” “Religion may continue to decline, but I don’t think spirituality will,” he said. There is a general belief in “something more”, one that is moulded into an “individualistic nature” pervasive in non-religious spirituality.

“At its worst, spirituality is rather narcissistic. On the other hand, people who are spiritual but not religious are all much the same…all responding in the same ways to the same cultural trends, and not really functioning as autonomous individuals at all.”

Professor Watts interrogated “what it is about religion that the ‘nones’ don’t like,” saying, “As a failing Church becomes more concerned with its own survival, it becomes increasingly irrelevant in the eyes of many people”, with some taking the view that it is not simply overly strict on moral issues, “but that it is actually immoral” on some of its broader cultural views.

“Is there any hope for religion?” Dr Watts asked. Though unsure, he echoed Professor Woodhead’s suggestion that “traditional forms of religion are still embedded in some parts of our culture.” Where religion is “well-embedded, well–resourced, and attracts levels of support that reach a critical mass, it can still thrive in a way that surprises.”

Read Professor Watts’ full response.

Read about previous Summer Programme events:
After the EU Referendum – where next for social science?
The state of Japanese social science: Japanese social science and the state
A nation at unease with itself? Britain on the eve of the EU referendum

Follow the conversation on Twitter at #whoarethenones