Faith of the Faithless

‘Whatever the trends in affiliation to formalised religion in Britain, we are not a post-religious, still less a post-spiritual, society, and … even those “beyond the fringe” – who do not call themselves religious, attend religious services or believe in religious teachings – still have vestiges (and sometimes more than that) of religious and spiritual faith.’

‘It is quite wrong to assume that the … population falls into two categories: those who are committed religious believers and those who are wholly secularised. The reality is that there are many shades of gray between these two poles.’ Indeed, ‘overall, the proportion of people who are consistently non-religious … is very low at 9%.’

These are the conclusions of a new report by Nick Spencer and Holly Weldin, Post-Religious Britain? The Faith of the Faithless, which was published on 3 December 2012 by the Theos think tank and is available on its website at:

The Theos claims are based upon secondary analysis of three existing datasets: the NatCen/British Social Attitudes Survey of 2,229 British adults in June-November 2008 (BSA); a ComRes/Theos survey of 2,060 UK adults in October-November 2008 on attitudes to Charles Darwin (Darwin); and a ComRes/Theos survey of 1,749 English adults in August 2012 on attitudes to English cathedrals (Cathedrals).

Using these data, Theos investigated three groups of ‘faithless’: the ‘nevers’, those who say that they never participate in a religious service as a worshipper, amounting to 47% of the population (Cathedrals); ‘atheists’, those who say they disbelieve in God, representing 24% (Cathedrals); and the ‘non-religious’, the 44% (BSA) who reply ‘no religion’ in answer to the question ‘do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?’

The report reviews the socio-demographic attributes of the ‘nevers’ and ‘atheists’ (pp. 11-15) before turning to the evidence for residual Christianity or spirituality to be found among all three groups (pp. 16-31). Specifically (data based on Cathedrals study, unless otherwise stated):

  • Nevers: 31% identify themselves as Christians, while 44% believe in a human soul, 35% in God or a higher power, 28% in life after death, 22% in reincarnation, 21% in angels, 20% in God as a universal life force, and 13% in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead 
  • Atheists: 11% identify themselves as Christians, 8% claim to worship at least once a year, with 23% believing in a human soul, 15% in life after death, 14% in reincarnation, 7% in angels, 5% in God as a universal life force, and 4% in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead 
  • Non-religious: 16% consider themselves to be very or moderately spiritual (BSA), 18% pray at least once a year (Darwin), 17% read the Bible at least once a year (Darwin), 22% attend a religious service at least once a year (Darwin), 34% (BSA) or 28% (Darwin) believe in life after death, 24% in heaven (BSA), 20% in the supernatural powers of deceased ancestors (BSA), 15% in hell (BSA), 10% that God designed and created the universe and remains involved with it (Darwin), and 7% that the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God (Darwin)

It seems inevitable that the report will excite some controversy, not least on the eve of the publication of the 2011 census of religious affiliation, which is likely to reveal an increase in those professing no religion since 2001. Some cynics (but naturally not BRIN) may even suggest that the timing of the release by Theos is designed to mitigate the ‘bad news’ which the census may well bring to people of faith.

The potential for such a row is notwithstanding the assurance of Spencer and Weldin that ‘there is no intended polemic within these findings’, their hope simply being that they will ‘prompt further research into non-religiosity in Britain’ (which is obviously a desirable goal). They warn that ‘using this data as ammunition in an on-going conflict’ between atheist and religious apologists would be ‘somewhat counterproductive’. But that is precisely what seems likely to happen.

Of all the statistics in this report, the claim that ‘those who are consistent in their rejection of all forms of religious and spiritual belief, affiliation and practice’ number a mere 9%, which appears on pp. 7 and 32, could prove most contentious, unless and until Theos can produce the detailed workings which show how they have arrived at this figure. Hopefully, they will provide such clarification at an early opportunity.

Other findings will come as no great surprise to many BRIN readers. Thus, while a decline in churchgoing is one legitimate indicator of ‘secularization’, few would regard it as the sole measure or mutually exclusive of faith. It is a practice upheld by the Church over two millennia, and backed up by legislation in England and Wales until (theoretically) as late as 1969. In opposition to it, it has long been a popular assertion, made well before the days of national sample surveys, that it is unnecessary to go to church to be a religious believer, ‘good Christian’, and so forth.

The fact that apparent ‘non-believers’ exhibit residual characteristics of religious belief and practice is also well-established. It was quantified in the first real sample survey devoted to religion, undertaken by Mass-Observation in the London Borough of Hammersmith in 1944-45, and published as Puzzled People in 1947. But it has also been demonstrated qualitatively in several important oral history projects at the start of the twentieth century.

There may be several explanations for the phenomenon, including the simple one that many people do not subscribe to a systematic, logical and consistent set of beliefs, in the way that theologians might like to expect us to behave. Rather, individuals assemble their own ‘theology’ from a spectrum of options spanning the orthodox to folklore and alternative.

Additionally, the ‘prestige factor’ associated with surveys on religion may still cause some to be wary of admitting that, in reality, they have rejected some conventional religious belief or practice. There is a particular tendency to exaggerate claims of churchgoing frequency, noted by Kathleen Bliss as early as 1948 in the Christian News-Letter, in which she quoted the experience of Mass-Observation and the BBC as pointing towards an inflator of two, i.e. halve the claim and you get somewhere near the ‘truth’.

It is likewise worth remembering that similar inconsistencies are to be found among many professing Christians, who appear to have abandoned much traditional Christian belief and practice and to be, effectively, secularized. The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science made much of these anomalies in publicizing its Ipsos MORI poll of April 2011, as featured by BRIN at:

So, while Post-Religious Britain? is certainly to be welcomed, not least for providing further data from the Cathedrals study to set alongside those previously reported by Theos in Spiritual Capital, as well as for stimulating debate, perhaps it does not really tell us quite so much that is new.

Certainly, for understanding the socio-demographics of those who claim no religious affiliation, the forthcoming 2011 census data will be a far more authoritative source.

Finally, watch out for Professor Linda Woodhead’s blog provoked by Post-Religious Britain? This is forthcoming on The Guardian’s Comment is Free website.


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