Pope Benedict Departs and Other News

Benedict XVI leaves the papal office today following his resignation earlier in the month, and it is fitting that he should be the lead story in our latest BRIN post. This mostly derives from YouGov’s February 2013 Eurotrack survey, but space has been found for a couple of miscellaneous items, too.

Pope Benedict departs

YouGov has taken the opportunity of Benedict XVI’s departure to ask the publics of six Western European countries (Great Britain, France, Germany, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden) how they rate his pontificate. Questions were included in the regular online Eurotrack undertaken between 21 and 27 February 2013, with 1,704 Britons aged 18 and over being interviewed (among them 117 professed Roman Catholics). Results have been disaggregated by religious affiliation within country (but not by other demographics) at:


A press release about the survey has also been issued and can be found at:


Asked whether Benedict had been right or wrong to resign as pope, 68% of Britons said right, similar to Denmark (67%), but lower than in Finland (71%), Sweden (72%), France (75%), and Germany (82%). In Britain 77% of the religious contended that he had made the right decision, including 79% of Catholics, compared with 64% of the religiously unaffiliated (29% of whom did not know what to think). Only 8% of Britons said that Benedict had been wrong to resign.

When it came to assessing how well or badly Benedict had done during his eight years as pope, a plurality of Britons (41%) expressed no view, with 36% thinking he had done well, and 23% badly. The positive figure was better than Sweden (18%), Denmark (24%), and France (33%), but nowhere near as good as in Germany (52%, the country from which he hails). Benedict’s performance was rated as good by 72% of British Catholics, 50% of all those professing a religion, 28% of non-Christians, and 26% of people without faith.

On specific aspects of his pontificate, Benedict was often judged to have been too conservative and to have changed things too little. In Britain 43% said that this had been true of theological issues such as women priests; 47% of moral issues such as birth control, abortion, and homosexuality; and 33% of social issues such as wealth and poverty. Catholics were as inclined to reach this verdict as the rest of the population. Otherwise, a principal difference by religious affiliation was the large number of ‘don’t knows’ to be found among non-Christians and those without religion.

In terms of Benedict’s political clout, only 9% of Britons considered that leading politicians in Britain had paid a great deal or a fair amount of notice to the views of Benedict and the British Catholic hierarchy, less than in Germany (33%) or France (18%), but fractionally more than in the Scandinavian countries. The overwhelming majority of Britons (71%), and even 78% of British Catholics, accepted that politicians had paid little or no notice to the pope and his bishops. Moreover, three-fifths of all Britons and 72% of the irreligious thought that politicians had been right not to have taken such notice, albeit 57% of Catholics disagreed.

More generally, respondents were asked whether four groups of religious leaders play a positive or negative role in the life of each country. In Britain (as can be seen from the table, below) a majority in three cases and a plurality in the other selected neither of these options, replying instead that they did not know or that the leaders made a limited impact on national life or that their role was equally positive and negative. 





Protestant bishops and archbishops




Roman Catholic bishops and archbishops




Leading Jewish rabbis




Leading Muslim clerics




Among those expressing a clear opinion, Roman Catholic and Muslim leaders were especially seen in a critical light. Not unexpectedly, people who espoused a religion tended to be disproportionately more positive about religious leaders and the irreligious disproportionately more negative; however, when it came to Muslim leaders, both religious and irreligious were similarly negative. Catholics were most positive about their own bishops and archbishops.

On the characteristics of the next pope, many Britons could not get hugely exercised. They became most animated (in the sense of 44% saying they would be delighted) at the prospect of a pope who wanted to permit Catholic couples to use contraception. The proportion expressing delight at other scenarios was: a pope who advocated much stronger action to redistribute money within countries from rich to poor (24%); a pope who advocated that rich countries should spend far more on overseas aid (17%); a pope from Africa (11%); and a pope from South America (9%).

Religion and the current politico-economic situation

The YouGov Eurotrack study also included questions about current political and economic issues in Europe, the answers to which will be of interest to BRIN readers because they have been broken down by religious affiliation. Here we report on some of those for Britain alone, albeit the same level of detail is also available for the other five countries included in the survey.

Although most Britons (60%) disapprove of the Coalition Government’s record to date, the proportion is notably higher among those without a religion (65%) than those who profess some faith (56%), apart from Roman Catholics (68%, whose politics tend to be left-of-centre – see the next item, on the religious right). There is a corresponding gap in approval ratings of the Government: 32% by the religious (rising to 35% of non-Catholic Christians) and 20% of the faithless, with a national mean of 24%.

These judgments on the Government do not appear to correlate with perceived changes to the financial situation of respondents’ households during the previous twelve months. Whereas the religious are relatively more positive about the Government than the irreligious, it is the former whose households have suffered most: 60% reported that their finances had worsened a lot or a little against 51% of the religiously unaffiliated, with the number observing an improvement standing at 9% and 12% respectively.

On Britain’s membership of the European Union, people without religion (41%) were more likely than those with (33%) to say that they would vote in favour of continuing membership, in the event of a referendum being held, the national average being 36%. Nationally, 42% stated that they would vote to leave the European Union, comprising 49% of the religious and 38% of the irreligious. Among the religious, Catholics were most in favour of leaving (55%) and non-Christians the least (34%, with 43% wishing to stay in membership).

Naturally, it cannot be assumed that this spread of opinions is solely the function of the religion/irreligion factor, which is the only variable to be included in the YouGov tables. We know from other surveys that both religion and politics are independently impacted by secular demographics, and they will doubtless explain some of the variance noted above.

Religious right

In a new report from the Theos think-tank, Andy Walton (with Andrea Hatcher and Nick Spencer) asks Is There a ‘Religious Right’ Emerging in Britain? The question is answered in the negative, in the sense of there not being an American-style religious right at present, and the judgment being that there is little chance of one developing in the immediate future. Part of the evidence base for this conclusion is a ‘brief foray’ (pp. 34-45) into relevant social surveys, particularly the British Social Attitudes Surveys and the British Election Studies, although some use is also made of BRIN.

The findings which the authors particularly highlight are: a) the number of committed Christians in Britain is a relatively small proportion of the electorate, particularly in terms of evangelicals and Catholics, who form the backbone of the US religious right; b) only 9% of Britons with a religious affiliation say religion is very important in making political decisions, with less fixation with some of the specific issues which dominate the US political scene; and c) practising believers, albeit socially conservative, disproportionately espouse economic views which are left-of-centre, especially among Catholics. Is There a ‘Religious Right’ Emerging in Britain? can be found at:


Religion and education

The December 2012 issue (Vol. 33, No. 3) of Journal of Beliefs & Values is a special number, guest-edited by Elisabeth Arweck and Robert Jackson, devoted to religion and education. Specifically, it comprises a dozen articles reporting research projects which have been funded by the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Programme. Although the majority of contributions are of a qualitative nature, several authors deploy quantitative methods to varying degrees. From this standpoint, BRIN readers will probably be most interested in the two articles on young people’s attitudes to religious diversity by Leslie Francis and members of his research group (pp. 279-92, 293-307), which apply techniques from the psychology of religion and empirical theology. The papers include details of the theoretical underpinning, design and scope, and preliminary results of a study of approximately 10,000 years 9 and 10 pupils (aged 13-15) in state-maintained secondary schools in London, England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. They report, respectively, on interim datasets of 3,020 and 5,993 cases.

An interesting revelation from the first paper is that ‘a negative view of Muslims is more prevalent among secular young people than among young people who are practising members of Christian churches. In this sense, Christianity is seen to promote acceptance, not rejection, of adherents of Islam.’ The second article illustrates how empathic capacity (in terms of attitudes to other religious groups) is more strongly related to God images than to religious affiliation or religious attendance. Secular factors (such as gender, neuroticism, and psychoticism) also make a difference in predicting the empathy of individuals. For titles, abstracts, and access options for all the articles in this special issue, go to:      



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

This entry was posted in Religion and Politics, Religion in public debate, Survey news and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.