British Social Attitudes Survey, 2012


The results of the British Social Attitudes (BSA) Survey for 2012 were released by NatCen on 10 September 2013 via a dedicated website – – which includes, among other outputs, a copy of the questionnaire (with marginals) and British Social Attitudes, 30, a free book (downloadable in PDF, ePub or .mobi formats) comprising seven thematic chapters of analysis and commentary. The volume is edited by Alison Park, Caroline Bryson, Elizabeth Clery, John Curtice, and Miranda Phillips.

As usual, this annual survey was undertaken by NatCen on behalf of the Economic and Social Research Council and a consortium of Government departments and charitable funders. Face-to-face interviews were conducted between June and November 2012 with 3,248 adults aged 18 and over in Britain, of whom 2,866 also filled out a supplementary self-completion questionnaire.

Three specifically religious questions were posed face-to-face, with the following results:

  • Although just 20% had not had a religious upbringing, as many as 48% overall professed to belong to no religion at the time of interview in 2012, a proportion which increased steadily with each generation cohort (standing at 60% for those born in the 1980s against 25% for those born in the 1920s). Church of England was still the single biggest denominational/faith category in 2012 but, at 20%, it was 16% fewer than the number brought up as Anglicans, and much reduced from the 40% recorded when the question was first put in 1983.
  • Among those with a current religion and/or brought up in one, weekly attendance at religious services (excluding rites of passage) now runs at 12%, with a further 8% claiming to worship at least monthly and another 14% at least once a year. By contrast, 58% worship never or practically never.
  • Asked whether they had ever discussed with anyone their wishes in six areas should they not have long to live, 51% said in 2012 they had discussed nothing, while 11% had discussed their spiritual and religious needs (12% in 2009). Women (15%) are more likely than men (9%) to have discussed their spiritual and religious needs, and similarly older than younger age groups, and higher than lower social grades.

Additionally, responses to all questions in the survey can be quickly analysed by religion, through the BSA Information System website at (prior registration is required). This facility is especially relevant for the 2012 BSA which includes numerous questions concerning morality and social values, replicated from earlier BSA studies. A sampler of what can be discovered via such analysis is included in the chapter in the book on personal relationships (focusing especially on changing attitudes to marriage, homosexuality, and abortion over three decades) by Park and Rebecca Rhead, from which the following statistics for 2012 have been extracted:

  • All religious groups apart from non-Christians have become more accepting of premarital sex over the past three decades, the number of Anglicans and Catholics describing it as always or mostly wrong now being reduced to one in ten (much the same as in the population as a whole), compared with almost one in three in 1983. Most tolerant of all are people of no religion, only 2% of whom in 2012 considered premarital sex to be wrong (11% in 1983). Frequency of attending religious services also has an impact; whereas 71% of non-attenders said in 2012 that premarital sex is not at all wrong, this was true of only 23% of weekly attenders at worship.
  • Despite a similar process of liberalization of attitudes over time, people of faith are still appreciably more disapproving of homosexuality than society at large. Indeed, the gap between the religious and non-religious on this issue is now far wider than in the past. Overall, 28% of Britons in 2012 deemed sexual relations between two adults of the same sex to be always or mostly wrong, but the proportion fell to 16% among the irreligious and climbed to 61% of non-Christians (with 35% for Catholics and 40% for Anglicans).
  • Religion continues to be closely associated with attitudes to abortion. Catholics are the least accepting, with only 39% supporting a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy if she wishes to, against 56% of Anglicans. Those professing no religion are most supportive of all (73%, compared with 62% of all Britons). However, acceptance of abortion has increased among all faith communities since 1983; in the case of Anglicans, for example, just 34% endorsed abortion in these circumstances thirty years ago.

Liberalization of opinions on matters of personal relationships since BSA commenced in 1983 is substantially accounted for by generational differences, ‘intolerance’ progressively dying out as more illiberal older age cohorts are replaced by more liberal younger ones. The fact that the same pattern has occurred with religious affiliation might suggest that social liberalism is causally linked with increased secularization. Nevertheless, since even Christians have displayed greater social liberalism over three decades, the relationship is inevitably rather more complex than that.

This complexity is more fully explored in another chapter in the book, on social class by Anthony Heath, Mike Savage and Nicki Senior, which deploys multivariate analysis to study interactions, in 1984 and 2012, between thirteen measures of ‘social cleavage’ (including religion and attendance at a place of worship) on the one hand and five indicators of attitudes to welfare and four of social liberalism on the other. On social liberalism the authors conclude (p. 184):

‘By 2012 … measures of social class have … declined in importance, and there are much closer associations between liberal attitudes and the other social cleavages, notably religion, attendance at a place of worship, age and ethnicity. In 2012, as in 1984, religion and attendance at a place of worship have the strongest associations of all … This is especially the case with attitudes towards premarital sex (and related issues like ease of divorce). The relationship between liberal attitudes and religiosity has, if anything, got stronger over time, especially with respect to the acceptability of same-sex relationships. But educational level also remains a powerful predictor of liberal attitudes.’

The dataset for the 2012 BSA will eventually be available through the UK Data Service (although it is not yet).


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