Religious Data and Religious Change

The nature of religion has changed greatly in Britain over the past fifty years.

British religious statistics are a historically rich and varied resource. In some countries, governments have historically collected statistics on the religion of its citizens. In Britian, this did not happen officially until 2001. Nevertheless, many important and valuable historical and contemporary sources exist. The earliest religious census was conducted as early as 1603. In 1851, a major religious census was carried out as part of the official Census.

From the 1930s, opinion polling firms began including questions about religion – often on press commission. Stories about religion – whether Prince Charles should marry in church, whether people knew the Easter story, attitudes to religious minorities, and what people thought about Sunday trading – have always been of interest to the public.

From the 1970s, large-scale surveys such as the British Social Attitudes Survey and the British Household Panel Survey included questions on religious practice and belief. The 2001 Census included a question on religious identification for the first time, for England, Scotland and Wales.

From such sources, researchers have begun to learn more about changing patterns of religious identification, belief and practice.

Why Religious Data Matters.

Data can tell us much about slow, long-term religious change and cultural shifts falling below the radar of public debate. The following are some examples of religious change since 1950, via demographic change, immigration and cultural change:

  • Increased diversity
  • Less formal practice
  • Fewer attend church
  • Fewer say they belong to a religion
  • More outmarriage

Some religious groups have higher birth rates than others. And increasing life expectancy means that older generations, who are more religious, are practising religion for longer – while their children are less likely to practise. ‘Mixed’ marriages are also more common. People are more likely to say that they aren’t particularly religious – ‘just spiritual generally’ – and if they do practise, it is less likely to involve going to church. People are also increasingly see truths in many belief systems and to sample them accordingly. And a rising number of people neither believe, practise, nor belong to any religion.

There has also been change within faith traditions themselves. New forms of Christianity are more common, such as Pentecostalism, and the ‘New Church’ movement. With ‘Reverse Mission’, religious ministers increasingly come to Britain from other countries. Islam in Britain is experiencing a great deal of change and vitality as the children of South Asian immigrants have grown up, often choosing to define themselves in terms of religious identity rather than ethnicity. About half of British Muslims are aged under 25. In addition, New Religious Movements appear to have grown in number. Reliable data on these changes can help us understand and explain what such changes mean, why they have occurred, and how extensively.

Religious data and public policy.

Religion has become more high-profile in policy circles and the public sphere in recent years. High-profile issues include:

  • The wearing of religious dress at work and in schools
  • The freedom to choose a faith school versus the social importance of integrated education
  • The status of religious law and tribunals in a secular society
  • Balancing the right to freedom of speech against the right to be protected from religious hatred
  • The Northern Town riots of 2001, rooted in community divisions with racial and religious aspects
  • The law on embryo cell research and euthanasia, and the legal time limit for abortion
  • How the Government works with religious organisations and faith communities as ‘stakeholders’
  • Public funding of faith groups across the spectrum, and what is required of them in return
  • The impact of the 9/11 attacks, and the causes and consequences of the 7/7 bombings
  • The future for multiculturalism in the post-7/7 climate

Policy formation requires high-quality evidence. The 1999 White Paper Modernizing Government stressed the importance of what is now known as evidence-based policy making.

The Government also uses a wide variety of other evidence besides statistical data. Such evidence might include research reports, stakeholder opinions, focus groups, case studies, and personal experience and judgement. Statistics, therefore, are generally used in a richer context.

However, reliable statistics are essential for some purposes. One of these is the monitoring of equality. Britain has one of the most religiously diverse populations in the European Union. This is both within Christianity, and between different religions.

Recent changes in legislation have made it illegal to discriminate at work on the grounds of religious belief, through the Equality Act 2006. The Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 has made it illegal to threaten people because of their religion, or to stir up religious hate.

Data on religion can help local and central government monitor religious equality, and outcomes by religious group as well as other demographic groups.

This gives the option of targeting interventions more effectively, if it turns out that some groups are more likely to experience unfair disadvantage.

Is it really possible to measure religion?

This question can provoke strong reactions, because the quest to measure can look simplistic or even against the spirit of a faith-based community.

For example, surveys often try to judge how religious a person is, or how strong their belief is, by using numerical scales. A ‘belief in God’ scale might score respondents zero to ten, where zero is ‘no belief’ and ten is ‘certain belief’.

Some researchers believe that to understand the complexity of religious belief and practice more completely, it is more important to read texts closely, interview people in depth, and observe how religious organisations work.

These approaches are very valuable – and sometimes the only way of getting information. But representative data can help us understand religious trends beyond small numbers of texts or interviews, so that we can describe larger groups of people, or changes over time.

In any case, research which uses data should also be informed by theory and by case studies. In turn, data analysis can encourage researchers to amend theories and review case studies.

Many researchers increasingly use ‘mixed methods’: a combination of data analysis, fieldwork, interviews or analysis of how organisations work or individuals think and act.