Attitudes towards Different Religious Groups in Britain: Survey Data Sources

As well as evidence from opinion polls, data collected in social surveys allow us to explore and explain attitudes towards different religious groups in Britain. This post highlights some of the survey resources – available for general usage – which allow researchers to examine public views towards religious groups in Britain.

The three surveys used are:
the European Values Study;
the Pew Global Attitudes Project surveys; and
the British Social Attitudes surveys.

The surveys use different types of questions in order to gauge attitudes towards religious groups, and I give some summaries here. For each survey, the data are weighted so that the results are demographically representative.

1. European Values Study (EVS)
The EVS includes a British sample as part of its multi-national focus. It has undertaken surveys in 1981, 1990, 1998 and 2008. In each survey it has asked this question:

‘On this list are various groups of people. Could you please sort out any that you would not like to have as neighbours?’

It has asked about a range of social groups, not just those belonging to different religious faiths. Also, the religious categories asked about have varied across surveys. Muslims and Jews have been asked about in every survey from 1990 onwards, while other groups have been included in just a single survey. Table 1 gives the proportions (%) in each survey who mention that they would not like to have a particular religious group as neighbours.


Table 1 shows that, for the two groups asked about in nearly every survey – Muslims and Jews – the proportions who would not want them as neighbours have fallen over time. For Muslims, it has declined from 16.8 per cent to 12.2 per cent; for Jews from 7.2 per cent to 3.1 per cent. In 1981 a broader category – ‘minority religious groups’ – was used, and around a fifth expressed disapproval (21.6 per cent).

The other religious groups asked about have varied. In the latest survey (2008), just 1.6 per cent would not like to have Christians as neighbours, compared to 12 per cent for Hindus (asked about in 1990) and 12.6 per cent for Sikhs (asked about in 1998). Comparisons could be made with public attitudes in a range of other countries included in the EVS.

Further information and datasets are available at

2. Pew Global Attitudes Project (GAP)

The Pew GAP has since 2004 asked about attitudes towards Jews, Muslims and Christians in its cross-national surveys (with the exception of the 2007 survey). For each of these groups, respondents are asked:

‘On a different topic, please tell me if you have a very favourable, somewhat favourable, somewhat unfavourable or very unfavourable opinion of …[a particular religious group]’.

Responses to this question for the most recent survey – undertaken in 2009 – are shown below in Table 2 (for the British sample). Attitudes are most favourable towards Christians (82.2 per cent respond ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’) compared to Jews (75.4 per cent) and Muslims (64.5 per cent). Respondents are more likely to offer a ‘don’t response’ for Jews and Muslims. Again, interesting comparisons can be undertaken with other countries included in the GAP surveys.


Further information and datasets:

3. British Social Attitudes (BSA)

The BSA 2008 survey asked about feelings towards various religiously-defined groups. It used a series of ‘thermometer’ scales – ranging from 0 through to 100 – in order to measure whether people feel warm (or cold) towards particular groups. Higher scores (i.e. above 50) represent warmer feelings.

In their recent study (American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, 2010), Putnam and Campbell argue that feeling thermometers represent an ‘effective way of gauging the gut-level feeling people have towards different groups’ (p. 503). Their analysis of attitudes in the United States using ‘thermometer’ scores found that the most unpopular religious groups were Muslims and Buddhists, along with Mormons (p. 507). The most positive assessments were of Jews, mainline Protestants and Catholics (p. 506).

In the BSA 2008 survey respondents were asked to rate their feelings towards seven groups:
– Protestant people (including Church of England, Church of Scotland, Anglican, Methodist, and others);
– Catholic people;
– Jewish people;
– Muslim people;
– Buddhist people;
– People who are deeply religious; and
– People who are not religious.

The average score for each group is shown in Figure 1 (in ascending order), revealing significant variation in feelings. Muslim people and people who are deeply religious received the lowest mean scores. Catholic people and Protestant people received the highest average scores, followed by people who are not religious. Jewish people and Buddhist people were very close to or the same as the average mean score across groups (56.1).


Further information and datasets:

Further reading
– Putnam, R. D. and D. E. Campbell (2010). American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. New York: Simon & Schuster.
– Voas, D. and R. Ling (2010), ‘Religion in Britain and the United States’, A. Park et al (eds), British Social Attitudes 26th Report. London: Sage.

Dr Ben Clements
Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester

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Religious Affiliation and Volunteering

Volunteering by Affiliation











This post is just to flag up the release of the most recent Taking Part in England dataset, covering January-December 2010. This survey is sponsored by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and asks an unusually large sample their leisure and cultural pursuits. It also asks questions about friendships, political participation, and volunteering.

Religion is captured in the Taking Part surveys by a religious affiliation question along the lines of the recent Census, and a question on whether the respondent currently practises that religion. I posted about the survey here last year: DCMS also provides an online analysis tool, NETQuest, for TP users.

DCMS has compiled a report on the 2010 dataset, as well as some useful crosstabulations and trend data using the complete set of datasets. I have just drawn up the graph above from their uploaded tables on volunteering available here. There are also reports and tables available on digital participation, and cycling and swimming proficiency.

Sadly, the questions on volunteering were not asked in 2009. It’s not clear whether there is any distinct trend over the past five years, but there is a significant difference in the volunteering activity between those reporting that they are Christian and those reporting no religion.

There are many possible reasons for this: older people are also more likely to say that they volunteer, which is also given in thestables, and we know that the older are more likely to report a religious affiliation: this may be the key driver.

Nevertheless, Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s American Grace found that in the US those who were religiously-active were more likely to volunteer in all fields apart from the arts. (See the volunteering category at the American Grace blog; there is also a lot of coverage of American Grace at their Social Capital blog.)

It may be that the situation is similar in the UK. There is a good deal of work to be done in this area, and a lot of data are available. The 2008 British Social Attitudes survey included three items on volunteering:

How many times, if any, did you volunteer in the past 12 months? By volunteering, we mean any unpaid work done to help people besides your family or friends or people you work with.


Could you tell me whether you have done any volunteer work for a religious group or place of worship in the past 12 months? any unpaid work done to help people besides your family or friends or people you work with.

Before that, the 1998 and 2008 surveys included questions on charitable, political and religious volunteering, which could be broken down by religious affiliation and frequency of attendance.

Volunteering is also covered extensively in the Citizenship Survey, with a report published here on volunteering and charitable giving using the data. This found that non-practising Christians; practising and non-practising Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs; those of ‘other’ religions who are non-practising, and those with no religion were less likely to volunteer regularly in a formal context compared to practising Christians.

Volunteering is also covered in the European Values Study and European Social Survey.

Substantial research programmes already exist to study volunteering, social capital and philanthropy. The task remains for researchers in the sociology of religion to explain the causal mechanisms through which religiosity affects voluntary effort, and to suggest what the impact of secularisation and growing religious diversity is likely to be.

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