1. Skip to content

National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Official figures show that Britain is rapidly secularising

Declining Graph

The British Social Attitudes Survey is one of the largest annual polls of opinion in Britain and is commissioned by the National Centre for Social Research. The latest edition will be published later this month, and will look at religious attitudes in Britain. The NSS has had a sneak preview and can reveal that it shows a further dramatic lurch away from religion by Britons. It also shows a deepening suspicion of people with strongly-held religious beliefs.

We have repeatedly objected to the claims by Prime Minister Gordon Brown that that religion is central to the lives of people in this country on the grounds that they are false. This research, conducted in 2008, shows the claims are also counter-productive; more and more people are turning away from organised religion and are increasingly suspicious of politicians who parade their faith as part of their politics. People particularly do not want their private lives to be dictated by religious teachings.

When asked which, if any, religion they belonged to, 50% said they were Christian (in 1983, that was 66%). 43% said they had no religion (up from 31% in 1983).

In 1983 1% of respondents had been Muslim, whereas in 2008 it was 3%.

When asked whether they believed in God, 18% said that they definitely don’t; 19% said they didn’t know whether there was a God and there was no way to find out; 14% said they didn’t believe in a personal God, but did believe in some higher power; 13% said they sometimes believed in God and sometimes didn’t; 18% said they had doubts but overall believed in God; 17% said they had absolutely no doubt that God exists.

When asked to assess their own religiosity, 7% said they were “very or extremely” religious; 30% said they were somewhat religious; 22% said they were neither religious or non-religious whereas 26% said they were “very or extremely non-religious”.

When asked about church attendance, 62% admitted they never went to church. (It is well established that respondents grossly exaggerate church attendance so this figure is likely to be well understated.)

The only good news for religious bodies in these findings is that most people — believers and non-believers alike — think that religion “helps people to find inner peace”, “make friends” and “gain comfort”. But they still consider religion is good for other people, not themselves.

When asked about religious leaders trying to influence how people vote in an election, 75% said that they shouldn’t, while 67% think religious leaders should stay out of Government decision-making. When asked the question If many of our elected officials were deeply religious, do you think that the laws and policy decisions they make would probably be better or probably be worse? Nearly half of respondents thought they would be worse, whereas only 26% thought they would be better.

Then came: In matters of right and wrong, some people say it is important to faithfully follow the leaders and teachings on one’s religion. Others say it is important to follow one’s own conscience? Only six percent think they should follow their religious leaders – which is bad news for the Pope, who demands total obedience from his flock. Eighty-nine per cent think they should follow their own conscience.

Sixty per cent agreed that there can be no absolutely clear guidelines of what is good and evil and the same number think that “morality is a personal matter and society should not make everyone follow the same standard”.

On the idea of trying to convert people to another faith, only 17% thought it was OK for religious believers to try to recruit others to their faith; 81% took the opposite view.

On the question of intolerance, 73% of Britons maintain that “people with very strong religious beliefs are often too intolerant of others.”

On the matter of “faith schools”, the survey asked: “Some schools are for children of a particular religion. Which of these statements comes closest to your views about these schools: No religious groups should have its own schools. Some religious groups but not others should have their own schools. Any religious group should be able to have its own schools.”

On the first option – no religious groups should have schools – 42% agreed, “Some groups but not others” was supported by 13 per cent. The “any religious groups should be able to have own schools” was supported by 43%. We imagine the answer would have been rather different if the question had been about supporting these schools with public money.

Fifty-two per cent of respondents agreed with the opinion “Britain is deeply divided along religious lines” with only 16% disagreeing.

The question that was probably regarded as most uncomfortable was about attitudes to particular religious groups. Respondents were asked to rate their feelings about particular groups on a scale of 1 to 100, with 1 to 49 being regarded as cool and 51 to 100 being regarded as warm and 50 being neutral. Protestants were regarded the most positively, with 47% marking them warmly; Catholics had a 45% warm score. Non-religious people were also reasonably well thought of, with 40% giving them a warm score and only 8% giving them a cool one.

Only 23% regarded Muslims warmly, and 34 per cent gave them a “cool” score. Similarly, 55% of respondents said they would be bothered by the building of a large mosque in their area, while only 15% said they would be bothered by the building of a large church.

On freedom of expression the question was asked: Consider religious extremists, people who believe that their religion is the only true faith and all other religious should be considered as enemies. Do you think such people should be allowed to (a) hold a public meeting to express their views or (b) to publish books expressing their views?

45% said they would “definitely not” permit the public meeting, while 34% would “definitely not” allow publication of a book. The authors of the report suspect that the terms “religious extremist” is now perceived almost entirely to apply to violent Muslims and this may have affected the way people responded to this question.

With the statement: People have a perfect right to give a speech defending Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda – 66% disagreed. Then they were asked: Some books or films offend people who have strong religious beliefs. Should books and films that attack religion be banned by law or should they be allowed? More than a quarter (27%) of people in Britain were prepared to ban these works.

As for the wearing of religious dress, respondents were asked: Should people be allowed to dress in a way that shows their religious faith by wearing veils, turbans or crucifixes? 53% said they should be allowed, but 42% said they shouldn’t.

Keith Porteous Wood, the National Secular Society’s Executive Director, commented: “The picture for religion in Britain portrayed in Social Attitudes is bleak. It is a pity the Government is too blinkered to learn the clear messages screaming from these figures showing that so much of what they are doing in relation to religion is held in low regard by the population at large. People do not like religion in public life and do not regard religion as a basis for personal ethics. The Government’s policy towards multiculturalism and in particular towards Muslims has been a complete failure, both for Muslims and for the rest of the community – something we have been telling them for years.

Mr Wood added that “the Social Attitudes survey clearly shows that Britain is heading strongly in a secularist direction. Some of the comparative figures between now and 1983 are quite startling. In 1983, the number of people identifying themselves as Anglican was 40% but by 2008 it had dropped to 23%. It is further evidence that the Church of England is living on borrowed time (and taxpayers’ money).”

Published Fri, 15 Jan 2010