University of Leicester
Same sex equality issues, such as civil partnerships, adoption and gay marriage, have been the subject of considerable debate in recent years. Both the 1997-2010 New Labour governments and the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition administration have proposed and, in the case of the former, enacted into law progressive legislation.
These measures have often elicited critical reaction from the leaders of various faiths and denominations as well as religiously-based campaign groups. Here we look at attitudes in Britain towards same sex equality issues, as well as looking at trends over time in views towards homosexuality. Throughout, the focus is on comparing attitudes across religious groups.
Before we look at attitudes towards rights to marriage and adoption, which have more recently been the subject of debate and controversy, it is useful to examine public opinion over a longer period using general indicators of approval.
First, Figure 1 shows attitudes towards sexual relations between same sex couples, charting the proportions in each religious group who sad it was ‘always wrong’ or ‘mostly wrong’ (question wording shown underneath). It uses data from the British Social Attitudes surveys, where the same question has been asked on a regular basis of nationally-representative samples of the population.
Trend data are shown for four groups: Anglicans, Catholics, other Christians (such as the non-conformist denominations and those unaffiliated) and those of no religion. The number of respondents in the BSA surveys who report belonging to minority religious faiths tends to be small, particularly in the earlier surveys, so they are not shown in Figure 1.
There is a clear downward trend in the proportions who take a strongly disapproving view on the issue, and this occurs for all four groups. As a more concise way of showing changes over time for each group, Table 1 reports the percentages from the two surveys that ‘book-end’ this data series, those of 1983 and 2010. In particular, the final column shows the difference between these two time points for each group. In each case, there has been a substantial drop over recent decades in the proportions who disapprove of sexual relations between adults of the same sex (reductions of between 30-40 per cent). In others words, while clear majorities disapproved in 1983 (highest at 74.8 per cent for Catholics and 79.7 per cent for other Christians), in 2010 opposition had fallen to lower than 50 per cent in each group – lowest at 37.4 per cent for Anglicans and 20.4 per cent for those with no religion. Note that in all our tables given below, survey weights have been applied.
Table 1: Comparing Attitudes to Same-Sex Relationships, 1983 and 2010
To provide further evidence of changing attitudes towards homosexuality on the basis of religious affiliation, Figure 2 also charts views on (dis)agreement with homosexualrelationships (note the difference in question wording), again using trend data from BSA surveys. This question has only been asked on a few occasions: in 1996, 1997 and 2007. Nevertheless, we can clearly see that the proportions in each group who ‘strongly agree’ or ‘agree’ homosexual relations are ‘always wrong’ fell in the decade between 1997 and 2007. Those of no religion show the lowest levels of disapproval in both periods.
Table 2 also shows that attitudes towards homosexuality have changed over time. It uses data from the British samples of the European Values Study, with surveys conducted in 1981, 1990, 1999 and 2008. It uses a question which asks respondents to place themselves on a scale, ranging from 1 through to 10, where 1 means a response that ‘homosexuality can never be justified’ and 10 a response that ‘homosexuality can always be justified’.
The mean (average) scores are shown for four groups (again omitting members of other religions due to small numbers in the samples), with higher scores representing more liberal attitudes.
Table 2: Whether homosexuality can be justified (mean scores)
Across religious groups, attitudes have become more favourable over time, while Catholics and those of no religion generally have the highest mean scores in each survey. Indeed, in 2008 the mean scores of Catholics and those of no religion were almost identical, at 5.7 and 5.8, respectively. Anglicans and other Christians had lower scores (at 5.4 and 4.9, respectively). Using evidence from a different survey series, we can therefore detect a broadly similar pattern to that shown in Figure 1: attitudes towards same sex relations have liberalised in recent decades, and this has occurred across groups.
The trend data reported here relates to general indicators of approval or disapproval. It may be that views on more specific issues also differ on the basis of religious affiliation, and so we investigated further.
Issues such as adoption by same sex couples, civil partnerships and, most recently, gay marriage have been the subject of wider debate in British society, particularly as religious organisations and denominational leaders have challenged and tried to influence opinion in response to proposed or actual legislation. For example, there has been mobilisation within the Catholic Church in order to oppose current plans for same sex marriage, with Cardinal Keith O’Brien recently writing in the Sunday Telegraph that:
‘Redefining marriage will have huge implications for what is taught in our schools, and for wider society. It will redefine society since the institution of marriage is one of the fundamental building blocks of society. The repercussions of enacting same-sex marriage into law will be immense.’
What does recent survey data tell us about the attitudes of Catholics when compared with other religious groups? Are they more supportive of or more opposed to measures such as civil partnerships and same sex marriage? Using data from the British Social Attitudes surveys conducted in 2006 and 2007, we can examine views on some of these issues. From the BSA 2006, we can compare views on civil partnerships and whether same sex couples are capable of being good parents.
The questions asked were as follows:
- ‘How much do you agree or disagree that… gay and lesbian couples should be able to have much the same rights as married couples by entering into a Civil Partnership?’
- ‘How much do you agree or disagree that… a gay male couple are just as capable of being good parents as a man and a woman?’
- ‘How much do you agree or disagree that… a lesbian couple are just as capable of being good parents as a man and a woman?’
From the BSA 2007, we can look at attitudes towards adoption by same sex couples and towards their right to marry. The questions asked were as follows:
- ‘Do you think female homosexual couples – that is, lesbians – should be allowed to adopt a baby under the same conditions as other couples?’
- ‘Do you think male homosexual couples (gay men) should be allowed to adopt a baby under the same conditions as other couples?’
- ‘How much do you agree or disagree that … gay or lesbian couples should have the right to marry one another if they want to?’
Responses to these questions on the basis of religious affiliation are shown in Table 3 (BSA 2006) and Table 4 (BSA 2007). Here, we also report the opinions of those who belong to other (non-Christian) faiths. For all questions, responses are shown for: (i) ‘strongly agree’ or ‘agree’; (ii) ‘neither agree nor disagree’; (iii) and ‘disagree’ or ‘strongly disagree’.
Looking first at Table 3, we can see that Catholics and those of no religion are most likely to support civil partnerships (reaching 69.7 per cent for the latter group); as well as being most likely to agree that same sex couples are just as capable of being good parents as are heterosexual couples.
Table 3: Attitudes towards Same Sex Equality Issues (BSA 2006)
Table 4 shows a similar set of results. Again, Catholics and those of no religion are most likely to support same sex couples being allowed to adopt children under the same conditions as for heterosexual couples. Finally, we can look at attitudes towards an issue – gay marriage – which is the subject of current debate and controversy and which has been the subject of recent opinion polling.
Table 4: Attitudes towards Same Sex Equality Issues (BSA 2007)
Across religious groups, there are considerable differences in levels of support. For example, 58.7 per cent of Catholics and 60.8 per cent of those with no religion either ‘strongly agree’ or ‘agree’ with the right of same sex couples to marry; compare this with just 32.9 per cent of Anglicans, 40.4 per cent of other Christians, and 35.0 per cent for members of minority faiths.
The question in Table 4 – regarding lesbian couples being able to adopt children – has also been asked on several previous BSA surveys, allowing us to chart trends over time. This is done in Figure 3, which covers the period from 1985 through to 2007. It clearly shows that attitudes shifted sharply upwards from the 1990s onwards: across all groups, opinion became more favourable towards lesbian couples being able to adopt children. To provide a summary indicator of attitudinal change over time, Table 5 shows the figures for each religious group for 1985 and 2007, with the differences reported in the bottom row. The largest increases in the proportions saying ‘yes’ has occurred amongst those of no religion, followed by Catholics and other Christians, with increases of around 30 per cent or higher. The corresponding increase for Anglicans over the period was lower, at 20.4 per cent.
Table 5: Comparing Attitudes to Lesbian Adoption: 1985 and 2007 responses by Religious Affiliation
Finally, as well as looking at general (dis)approval of homosexuality and more specific issues concerning the rights of same sex couples, we can also look at how (un)favourable people in Britain feel towards gay and lesbian people, this time using evidence from the British Election Study (BES) 2010. As part of a wider battery of questions asking about feelings towards various groups in society, respondents in the BES 2010 were asked to place themselves on a scale ranging from 0 (feel very unfavourable) to 10 (feel very favourable). The mean scores are shown in Figure 4 below. Again, we can see that the most favourable feelings towards gay and lesbian people are on average expressed by Catholics (7.49) and those of no religion (7.57). Members of other religions are least favourable (at 5.75). In between are Anglicans (6.75) and other Christians (6.19).
There are two things to bear in mind when interpreting these figures and tables. First, the data reported here are from different surveys. However, we do find that there are common attitudinal patterns on the basis of religious affiliation. Secondly, religious affiliation represents only one factor that can influence individuals’ opinions and beliefs on same sex equality issues. More detailed analysis would have to take into account whether and how attitudes are shaped by other sociological factors such as gender, ethnic group, age, education, social class, as well as other aspects of religiosity, such as belief and practice.
BRIN readers may also be interested in developments in public attitudes in the US towards same sex relations and equality issues. Breakdowns are often provided for religious groups and religiosity:
Brewer, P. R. (2003), ‘The Shifting Foundations of Public Opinion about Gay Rights’, Journal of Politics, 65(4), 1208–1220.
Brewer, P. R. and Wilcox, C. (2005), ‘Same-Sex Marriage and Civil Unions’, Public Opinion Quarterly, 69(4), 599–616.
Crockett, A. and Voas, D. (2003), ‘A Divergence of Views: Attitude Change and the Religious Crisis over Homosexuality’, Sociological Research Online, 8, http://www.socresonline.org.uk/8/4/crockett.html.
Hayes, B. C. (1995), ‘Religious Identification and Moral Attitudes: The British Case’, British Journal of Sociology 46(3): 457-474.
Village, A. and Francis, L. J. (2008), ‘Attitude Toward Homosexuality among Anglicans in England: the Effects of Theological Orientation and Personality’, Journal of Empirical Theology, 21(1): 68-87.
Dr Ben Clements
Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester. For further correspondence, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.