Losing Their Religion? Using Statistical Evidence to Evaluate Secularisation

The secularisation debate in A-level Sociology, encompassing a wide diversity of ideas around pro, anti and post-secularisation positions, is an increasingly complex area for students to cover. Although this can make it a somewhat daunting topic, it also provides significant opportunities for students to critique these different positions (and gain solid marks for knowledge, application and evaluation into the bargain).

Given the argumentative nature of a debate that so often seems to turn on interpretations of different opinions, this, somewhat perversely perhaps, opens-up interesting opportunities for students to apply statistical data to different aspects of the debate and, by so doing, introduce highly-effective forms of evaluation into exam answers.

In this respect the latest British Social Attitudes Survey (2019) covering religious beliefs, attitudes and practices is a useful teaching resource in the sense it provides some interesting empirical evidence students can apply to evaluate two areas of the secularisation debate:

1. Levels of Religious Belief

Religious self-identity
Religious self-identity

The survey provides “raw percentages” of the British population who self-identify with:

  • No religion (52%)
  • Christianity (39%)
  • Non-Christian faiths (9%).
  • This is relatively simple statistical data – which has the added bonus of being easy to remember – can be applied to the secularisation debate in a couple of ways – one simple, the other a little more subtle:

    Simple secularisation: On a relatively uncritical level we can see the percentage of the population who self-identity as “non-religious” as part of a broadly secularising process in contemporary Britain. This is particularly significant if we compare past with present, where we find a general increase in “non-believers” and a consequent decrease in “believers”. If you want to take this a little further, however, it’s possible to note a couple of interesting ideas:

    Firstly, not all religious behaviour is in decline. While Christianity has significantly fallen over the past 25 years, non-Christian faiths have increased slightly – although a significant part of this increase is the result of a higher number of non-Christian believers now than in the past, brought about by physical immigration and a slightly-larger birth rate among these immigrants who, demographically, tend to be younger than the host population.  

    Secondly, comparative analysis is complicated by the fact it has become increasingly acceptable in contemporary Britain to self-identify as both “agnostic” (neither believing or not believing in religion) and, more importantly perhaps, “atheist” (without religion).

    In this respect, the numbers self-identifying as “non-religious” in the past are likely to have been depressed by people not wanting to openly self-identify in this way because of the social stigma attached to being “non-religious”. While this makes comparisons between past and present difficult – and raises significant questions about data validity – the current figures nevertheless indicate a degree of contemporary secularisation. 

    Subtle secularisation: One of the central counter-secularisation arguments, summed-up by Davie’s (1994) evocative phrase “Believing Without Belonging”, is that what we are seeing in the statistical data is not “secularisation”, as such, but a general, long-term, decline in organised religion. Using indicators of organisation such as church attendance, of which there has been a persistent long-term decline, the argument here is that what we’re witnessing is a general disenchantment with organised forms of religious practice, rather than a decline in religious belief itself. While this argument is both useful and important, there are a couple of ways you can criticise it as part of a pro-secularisation argument:

    Firstly, there’s no strong evidence to support the idea of “privatised religion” – certainly not in terms of religious practice, where 50% of respondents report “never praying”, nor in terms of believing in concepts like “heaven”, “hell” or “miracles”. The evidence, in other words, supports the idea of a long-term withdrawal from organised religion but doesn’t support a concomitant rise in non-organised religious practice or belief. Rather, the strength of both agnostic and atheistic beliefs reported in the Survey suggests people are increasingly “neither belonging nor believing”.

    Secondly, and related to the above, while there has been a growth in “alternative spiritualities” – so-called “New Age” or holistic spiritualities found by Heelas and Woodhead (2004) in their seminal “Kendal Project” study (“The Spiritual Revolution”) – that might be indicative of a changing religiosity, these beliefs and practices are, at best, marginal forms.

    At the time of their study, Heelas and Woodhead, for example, found “less than 2% of a typical small English town engaged in activities that could generously be described as spiritual and half of the participants in yoga, meditation, and various forms of healing were primarily concerned with physical and psychological well-being”. As the Survey concludes, “We find little support for the argument that religious sentiment or need has not declined; it is just expressed in novel ways

    2. Age and Religious Beliefs

    CoE affiliation by age
    Example of affiliation by age

    The Survey found a strong and consistent correlation between age and religious beliefs: the elderly, for example, are much more likely than the young to self-identify as religious, something we can apply in a couple of ways to evaluate the secularisation debate:

    a. Simple anti-secularisation: The Survey finding that the elderly are consistently more-religious than the young (a finding generally consistent across a wide range of religious research) could be used to support an anti-secularisation position – but only if it could be shown that age and religion are causally connected rather than merely correlated: as people age, in other words, do they become more religious?

    b. Subtle secularisation: The mantra “correlation is not causation” is useful for sociology students to remember, not just because it’s a useful evaluation gambit in its own right but also because while age correlates with a lot of things (from voting behaviour to religious beliefs and practices) the evidence suggests it has no causal relationship to religion (or voting behaviour, come to that – but that’s another story).

    Evaluation here focuses on the underlying, rather than surface, relationship between age and beliefs and the Survey is important here because it suggests religious beliefs don’t change with age; young non-believers don’t end-up as elderly believers.

    As the Survey argues, “religious decline in Britain is generational; people tend to be less religious than their parents, and on average their children are even less religious than they are” (Voas and Chaves, 2016). The evidence to support this claim comes from three statistical observations:

    Firstly, “two religious parents have roughly a 50/50 chance of passing on the faith”.

    Secondly, “one religious parent does only half as well as two together”.

    Thirdly, there is little evidence to suggest children raised by non-religious parents are likely to embrace religious beliefs / practices as they grow to adulthood. “Two non-religious parents”, in other words, “successfully transmit their lack of religion” to their children.

    As the Survey concludes, ”To borrow the terminology of radioactive decay, institutional religion in Britain now has a half-life of one generation” – which, when you come to think about it, is a handy piece of evaluation to apply in any question you get on secularisation in an exam.

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