Declining Faith in Scotland?

The correspondence columns of The Scotsman may seem an unlikely venue for a debate on religious statistics, but the issue of 3 January contained an interesting letter from Professor Callum Brown of the University of Dundee about the decline of faith in Scotland during recent years. The letter will be found at:

In it Brown, a leading academic exponent of secularization and author of the standard monograph on the social history of modern Scottish religion, compared religious profession in Scotland in 2001 (from the decennial census of population) with the Scottish Household Survey for 2008 (presumably, Brown was using only the second half of the data for that particular survey which actually fielded throughout 2007 and 2008).

‘The position has changed significantly’ between the two dates, Brown wrote. In the space of these seven years, affiliation to Christianity in Scotland dropped from 65% to 57%, principally as the result of falling allegiance to the Church of Scotland (down from 42% to 35%) and to the other Christian category (which declined from 14% to 9%). Roman Catholic identification remained stable at about 15%, while those claiming no religion increased from 28% in 2001 to 40% in 2008, virtually by 2% each year.

Brown made the important point that the question-wording used on both occasions was identical (‘What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?’), thereby implying his confidence that he was comparing like with like. It is a well-known fact that investigation of religious affiliation is especially sensitive to the precise formulation of the question.

Brown’s 2001 figures appear to be calculated on a base which included those who declined to answer the voluntary question about current religion, of whom there were 278,000 in Scotland. If these are removed from the base, then the proportion of Christians in Scotland in 2001 rose to 69%.

Such a calculation enables comparison with the Scottish data from the Integrated Household Survey for 2009-10. 72% of the 55,000 Scots interviewed then answered Christian in response to the question ‘What is your religion, even if you are not currently practising?’

Some might superficially interpret this result as an increase rather than a decrease in Christian allegiance in Scotland since 2001. 25% of Scots said that they had no religion in 2009-10, with a wide geographical variation – from 8% in Inverclyde to 38% in Midlothian.

Another recent source is an Opinion Research Business poll in 2010. This asked a more normally-sized (1,000) representative sample of adult Scots ‘Which religion, if any, do you regard yourself as belonging to?’ 69% said Christian (including 53% Church of Scotland) and 28% no religion, with just 1% refusing to reply. Fractionally more (70%) said that they regarded themselves as a Christian and 26% not (excluding the 2% non-Christians).

The reality is, therefore, somewhat complex, possibly more so than Brown would like to admit. It will be interesting to see what results emerge from the 2011 census of religious profession in Scotland.

In the meantime, a year-by-year analysis of all the religious affiliation data in the Scottish Household Survey from 1999 to the present would be beneficial and would at least confirm whether Brown’s 2008 findings followed a consistent trend. All these data are available for secondary analysis from the Economic and Social Data Service. Any volunteers for the job? Or perhaps it has already been done?

None of the above is to infer that religious affiliation should be interpreted solely as a measure of religiosity. Clearly, for many it is inextricably bound up with national, ethnic and cultural identity.

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