F Rosa Rubicondior: Massive Decline in UK Religious Affiliation

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Massive Decline in UK Religious Affiliation

Methodist Chapel, Bentlawnt, Shropshire, UK
Exclusive: New figures reveal massive decline in religious affiliation | Christian News on Christian Today

That sensational headline isn't mine, it's from Christian Today, a mainstream online magazine for Christians, and it couldn't be more apposite.

The results of a large, 20,000 person survey by 2015 British Election Study, published on the British Religion in Numbers website, make gloomy reading for people who earn their living from religion. The decline has been little short of catastrophic and however you look at them, there are few crumbs of comfort for the Christian Churches.

This is a very familiar chart to anyone interested in changes in religious beliefs in the UK. It is broadly in line with changes seen over much of the developed world and especially in Western Europe since WWII. Over this period in the UK Anglicanism, and most other Christian Church affiliation such as Methodism, has declined sharply from a combined total of well over 90% to now under 50%. Over the same period there has been almost a ten-fold increase in non-belief, going from below 5% in 1963 to approaching 50% in 2014.

The only crumb of comfort here for Christians is that the figures for the Catholic Church appear to have held up - until, that is, you look below the surface and see that the downward trend has only been kept in check by immigration from the newer EU member states in Eastern Europe, most notably from Poland. Islam has also increased due to immigration but remains very much a minority religion.

These changes stand out even more starkly when plotted as net change since 1963.

There is very little evidence of movement between religions; almost all the swing has been over to non-belief. In other words, this is a massive rejection of religion itself, not just one flavour of it. It has even been suggested that the Methodist Church faces extinction in the UK within the next 20 years. Contrast this with the period when Methodism, Baptism and Presbyterianism were growing in the UK when disillusion with the established church was reflected in a move into non-conformist Christian religions. Non-belief gained very little. Now, it's religion itself which is being rejected.

To get a glimpse of what the future holds for religion in the UK we only need look at the distribution of religious affiliation by age group. The generation who were in their mid 20's in 1963, and who were overwhelmingly Christian, are now in their 70's. Some 60% of those still identify as Christian (down from some 90% in 1963), showing that once religious beliefs have become established by about 20-30, they tend to change only reluctantly.

On the other hand, the younger the age-group the less likely they are to have any religion and the more likely people are to identify as non-believing. Those in the 18-24 year-old age group are over 60% non-believing and are likely to change little over the rest of their lives. This is the generation which will produce the next generation and the evidence is that non-believing parents are far more likely to have non-believing children than are believers.

Lastly we see that England is actually lagging behind the other two countries in the UK (Northern Ireland was not included). In both Wales and Scotland, once the home of fire-and-brimstone fundamentalism, non-believers are now in a clear majority over all other religions put together, having recently gone through the 50% mark.

Even in England, the home of Anglicanism and its Episcopalian offshoot and where the Head of State is titular Head of the established Church, Anglicanism now claims the affiliation of less than one in three of the population and less than one in six of those aged between 18 and 24.

One passage in particular from the Christian Today article made me smile:

[Professor Voas] also said that even though the linear trends would predict virtual extinction of the Church of England by the end of the century, he did not believe the future lay this way. It was more likely that the trends would follow an "S" shape and the decline will at some point "bottom out".

He said: "Although the decline appears relentless it is rather gradual, at the rate of about one per cent a year. It would not be fair to project a linear decline. The decline might dwindle as the numbers dwindle." But he warned that the churches do need to find a way to keep their young people if they are going to survive.

In other words, since we are seeing a relatively steady 1% per annum long-term rate of loss, and since 1% of a small number is smaller than 1% of a big number, the absolute rate of loss of members will fall as there are fewer and fewer people to actually leave the church. It must be comforting to think that at some point in the foreseeable future, the last thousand Anglicans can tell themselves that only ten of them will be leaving the faith this year and only nine the next.

How to try to snatch a few crumbs of comfort from relentlessly bad news and the prospect of a bleak, and mercifully short, future.

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