Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Gender Gap in UK Religious Belief

Religious faith in Britain today
Women much more likely than men to say 'I'm a believer', study finds:

A survey out today has shown that 54% of British men born in 1970 now identify as non-believers but the same survey also showed that only 33% of women in the same cohort share this non-belief. The survey is the latest report from a longitudinal cohort study tracking the lives of 9,000 people born in a single week in 1970 being carried out by the UCL Institute for Education (IOE).

This gender gap is perhaps rather surprising but so is the wide range of different religious beliefs which people born in 1970 now seem to hold, and this could reflect a growing detachment from organized religions and possibly the low level of importance attached to religious beliefs in Britain today. Consequently, religious beliefs are becoming hazy and diffuse, even poorly defined. In earlier generations it would have been almost taken for granted that you were an Anglican, a Methodist, a Catholic, a Baptist, Presbyterian, Jew, Muslim, etc, and that you held the orthodox views on the existence of god, life after death, sin, duty of attendance at religious services on given days and times, etc.

Now, people are far more likely to have only notional affiliation more often as some sort of cultural identity rather than identification with a given creed. In such circumstances it is quite possible and understandable that some people might identify as Christian Atheists or Jewish Agnostics for example. I probably know far more 'Lapsed Catholics' than actual practicing Catholics who never-the-less identify themselves as Catholics. Likewise, most of my siblings and their families would probably still describe themselves as 'Church of England' even though they never go near a church, couldn't recite the Nicene Creed and think there is probably no god anyway. It's just not important enough to worry about.

From an analysis of the survey data, Professor David Voas identified seven categories of religion belief/non-belief:

  • Non-religious (28% of the 1970-born cohort): Does not have a religion or believe in either God or life after death.
  • Unorthodox non-religious (21%): Does not have a religion or does not attend services. Believes in God or life after death but not both.
  • Actively religious (15%): Has a religion and believes in God and life after death. Attends services.
  • Non-practising religious (14%): Has a religion and believes in God and life after death. Does not attend services.
  • Non-identifying believers (10%): Does not have a religion, but believes in God and life after death.
  • Nominally religious (7%): Identifies with a religion. But believes in neither God nor life after death.
  • Unorthodox religious (5%): Has a religion and attends services at least occasionally. Believes in God but not life after death (or, in a few cases, vice versa).

Professor Voas also warned that a healthy level of scepticism is justified when assessing results such as these when about a quarter of those surveyed appear to have changed their mind between 2004 and 2012 about whether they had or had not been brought up in a religion. Well, eight years is a long time to remember stuff like that.

From Voas' seven classifications it is also clear that people's views are often confused and poorly thought out, or at least unorthodox, with some self-identified non-believers apparently believing in an afterlife.

Another gender gap was also found in the degree of certainty with which beliefs in a god and an afterlife are held. Women believers are much more likely to say they are certain about their beliefs than are men but amongst non-believers, Men are twice as likely to be certain than women. Even amongst Atheists, men are much more certain that there is no afterlife than are women (63% to 36% respectively). The survey also detected a change which must be worrying for organized religions and those whose livelihoods depend on them: a large proportion of those who identified themselves as strongly religious at age 16 had lost their religion by age 42 (the age of this survey) and there was only a very small movement in the other direction.

There was a diminishing degree of uncertainty the further removed the religion was from the traditional British religions. 88% of Muslims (less than 1% of the survey), 71% of 'evangelical' Christians (Baptists, etc), 33% of Catholics and only 16% of 'mainstream' religions (Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, United Reform Church) expressed certainty that their god exists. This suggests that religious certainty is inextricably bound up with cultural identity or ethnic origins rather than based on philosophical or rational consideration of the evidence, or lack of it.

The 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70) is following the lives of more than 17,000 people born in England, Scotland and Wales in a single week of 1970. Over the course of cohort members' lives, BCS70 has collected information on health, physical, educational and social development, and economic circumstances, among other factors. Since the birth survey in 1970, there have been eight surveys at ages 5, 10, 16, 26, 30, 34, 38 and 42.

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