Getting Ahead in Life

The traditional annual volume derived from the British Social Attitudes (BSA) Survey was published by Sage just before Christmas. Edited by Alison Park, John Curtice, Elizabeth Clery and Catherine Bryson, The 27th Report: Exploring Labour’s Legacy was based on the 2009 survey, undertaken by Natcen between June and November that year.

Unlike the 2008 survey (, which was full of religious content, the 2009 study does not immediately appear to afford such a rich mine of information. Nevertheless, it is not without value for religion-related research.

The full sample, comprising 3,421 adult Britons aged 18 and over interviewed face-to-face, was asked the usual questions about religious affiliation and attendance. These are important both in their own right and as variables for analysing the more ‘secular’ questions.

Of particular interest is the fact that, for the first time in the history of BSA, a slim majority of respondents claimed to have no religion when asked ‘Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?’

In reply, 51% self-identified as having no religion. This compares with 31% when the question was first put in 1983. The 40% barrier was not broken until 1995. The proportion was 46% in 2007 and 43% in 2008.

Of the 49% with a current religion, the principal categories were Anglican (20%), Christian – unspecified denomination (9%), Roman Catholic (9%), and non-Christian (5%).

There can be little doubt that many individuals had become less religious over time. For instance, just 19% had been brought up without a religion, 32% less than said they had no religion in 2009. Similarly, 38% had been reared as Anglicans, almost double the number who were still Anglican in 2009.

Of those with a religion, only one in ten attended services connected with it weekly or more often, and 48% never or practically never went to their place of worship.

The main sample was also asked about groups and organizations, besides parents, who should ensure children live safely without suffering abuse or neglect. Unsurprisingly, social services (66%), schools (53%) and extended families (52%) topped the list.

Yet the very low score for religious groups (2%) was somewhat unexpected, apparently suggesting the poor public image of religious social work, doubtless not unrelated to widespread knowledge of sexual abuse of children at the hands of some Roman Catholic clergy.

As well as the face-to-face interview, respondents were invited to tackle a self-completion questionnaire. There were three versions of this, corresponding to three sub-samples into which the main sample was evenly divided.

Version A of the self-completion questionnaire incorporated a special module on inequality as part of an International Social Survey Program extension. The first question in this asked about opportunities for getting ahead in life and was answered by 958 individuals.

In reply, 9% said that a person’s religion was essential or very important in getting ahead in life, rather more than when the question was previously put, in 1987 (5%) and 1992 (3%). By 2009 religion had even assumed greater importance on this definition than race/ethnicity and gender (8% each).

But, in terms of ascriptive factors, religion was not considered as quite so essential or very important as coming from a wealthy family (14%) or having well-educated parents (31%).

It was also dwarfed by meritocratic factors such as hard work (84%), good education (74%) and ambition (71%), and by the non-meritocratic factor of knowing the right people (33%).

The full spread of responses for the importance of a person’s religion in getting ahead in life was: essential 3%, very important 6%, fairly important 10%, not very important 27%, not important at all 52%, cannot choose 2%, and not answered 1%.

There is a brief analysis of the getting ahead in life question in chapter 2 (pages 29-50) of The 27th Report: Exploring Labour’s Legacy, by Anthony Heath, Nan Dirk de Graaf and Yaojun Li on ‘How Fair is the Route to the Top? Perceptions of Social Mobility’.

The annotated questionnaire for the 2009 British Social Attitudes Survey will be found at:

POSTSCRIPT [23 February 2011]: The dataset for the survey has just been released at ESDS as SN 6695.

British Religion in Numbers: All the material published on this website is subject to copyright. We explain further here.

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