British Cohort Study + Fostering

Our main story in today’s round-up of religious statistical news features initial findings from the current wave of one of the few genuinely longitudinal studies covering religion in this country, which further illustrates some of the methodological challenges involved in framing questions about religious affiliation. We also briefly note a survey of attitudes to inter-religious fostering in the wake of the recent row over fostering in Rotherham.

British Cohort Study: art of asking questions about religion

Among adult Britons now (2012) aged 42 years, 68% recall that they had some form of religious upbringing (32% as Anglicans, 10% as Roman Catholics, 8% as Christians in a specified denomination, 14% as undenominational Christians, 4% as non-Christians) and 32% none. However, today almost half (47%) regard themselves as belonging to no particular religion, with the biggest drop in affiliation (11%) being among those raised as Anglicans. Moreover, claimed attendance at religious services or meetings by these 42-year-olds is a distinctly minority activity, 74% never or rarely going, 16% occasionally but less than once a month, with 11% monthly or more often.

In terms of belief, 43% of these 42-year-olds say they believe in God (13% without doubts, 18% with doubts, and 12% some of the time). A further 14% believe in a higher power but not a personal God. Of the rest, 22% definitely do not believe in God and 20% are uncertain. The proportion who believe in life after death is slightly higher than in a personal God (49%, 19% definitely and 30% probably), with 18% replying definitely not and 34% probably not. In an echo of Mass-Observation’s classic 1947 study of Puzzled People, 23% of those who believe in God do not believe in life after death, and 21% of those who disbelieve in, or are uncertain about the existence of, God do believe in an afterlife.

Source: Analysis of initial responses (n = 2,197) to the May-December 2012 wave of the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70), which is following the lives of more than 17,000 people born in Britain in a single week during Spring 1970. By 2012 panel members were, accordingly, aged 42. They supplied information about religion by means of self-completion questionnaire in connection with the face-to-face interviews being conducted by TNS-BMRB. An important health warning is given by the researchers: ‘These [initial] responses may not be representative of the sample as a whole, and we have not investigated the characteristics of this subsample.’

The preliminary analysis appears in Alice Sullivan, David Voas and Matt Brown, The Art of Asking Questions about Religion, published on 28 November 2012 by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS), Institute of Education, University of London. The CLS, which oversees BCS70, is a resource centre funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. The report also summarizes the replies to religious affiliation questions given by cohort members in 1986, 1996, 2000, and 2004, making comparisons with British Social Attitudes Surveys, and highlighting how ‘apparently small differences in question wording can lead to dramatic differences in responses’. Of course, the fact that consistent question-wording has not been used for each wave of BCS70 does somewhat undermine the value of the longitudinal approach in charting changes in the behaviour of panel members as they age. 

The press release by CLS, with a link for downloading the report, and observations on the findings by BRIN’s David Voas, can be found at:


The majority (70%) of Britons think it definitely or usually acceptable for children to be fostered by foster parents who practice a different religion to that of the children being fostered. This is a higher proportion than believe that people with criminal records should be allowed to foster children (15%), or those with extreme political views (36%), the over-65s (44%), smokers (46%), and gays or lesbians (66%).

However, there is somewhat less approval of fostering by persons of a different religion to the foster child than is the case with fostering by unmarried couples (81%) or people of a different racial group to the child (85%). One-fifth (20%) contend that fostering across the religious divide should not be permitted, with Londoners and Conservative voters (each on 23%) and men (22%) being most likely to hold this view. The remaining 11% express no opinion.

Source: Online survey of 1,910 Britons aged 18 and over, undertaken by YouGov on 26-27 November 2012, and prompted by the current row in Rotherham where foster children have been taken away from foster parents who are members of the United Kingdom Independence Party. Full data tables, published on 28 November, are available at:


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One Response to British Cohort Study + Fostering

  1. Pingback: More British people may believe in an afterlife than believe in God | eChurch Blog

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