According to much traditional religious teaching, sexual activity and having children should occur only within the institution of marriage. Getting married should represent a lifetime commitment between a man and a woman, and same-sex relationships are frowned upon. Many clerics are doubtful, even strongly opposed, to the abortion of an unborn foetus. In short, both sexual activity and the life to which it potentially gives rise are regarded as sacred gifts and consequently surrounded by a moral code that individuals should not transgress.
The changing status of marriage
Elements of this outlook were still evident in 1980s Britain. Although in 1983 only 28 per cent said it was "always" or "mostly" wrong for a man and a woman to have sexual relations outside marriage, the proportion who thought such behaviour was "not wrong at all" stood at well below half (42 per cent). And in 1989 when we first asked whether "people who want children ought to get married", a clear majority of 70 per cent agreed. Now it is only a small minority who raise an eyebrow about sexual relationships outside marriage. Just 12 per cent say this is "always" or "mostly" wrong, and an all-time high of 65 per cent see nothing wrong at all in such behaviour. Even when a couple want to have children, less than half (42 per cent) now think they ought to get married first.
Despite the transformation of attitudes towards many aspects of sex and marriage, it would be a mistake to assume that all forms of behaviour in personal relationships are now considered equally acceptable. 'Cheating' on one's husband or wife, is, if anything, even more likely to be greeted with disapproval than it was 30 years ago. Now 63 per cent say that it is "always wrong" for a married person to have sexual relations with someone other than their partner, slightly more than the 58 per cent who thought this in 1984. And such behaviour is no more acceptable if undertaken by a man than by a woman. So, while we no longer look to traditional moral codes to inform all our views about sex and marriage it seems that, for many, sexual exclusivity within marriage is an ethical standard that should continue to be upheld.
Less traditional views about gender roles
Attitudes towards the role of men and women have changed considerably too. In the 1980s there was still considerable support for 'traditional' gender roles. In 1984, for instance, 43 per cent agreed with the view that "a man's job is to earn money; a woman's job is to look after the home and family", but now only 13 per cent take this view. And while in 1989 42 per cent thought that "family life suffers when the woman has a full-time job" and two-thirds (64 per cent) that "a mother with a child under school age should stay at home rather than go out to work", by 2012 the proportions agreeing with these views had fallen to 27 and 33 per cent respectively. However, as our Gender roles chapter shows, actual behaviour at home has not caught up with changing attitudes. Women still report undertaking a disproportionate amount of housework and caring activities, spending an average of 13 hours on housework and 23 hours caring for family members each week, compared with eight and 10 hours respectively for men.
Greater tolerance of same-sex relationships
Perhaps the most dramatic attitude shift of all relates to the way in which Britain thinks about same-sex relationships. In 1983, half the public (50 per cent) said that "sexual relations between two adults of the same sex" were "always wrong", a figure that rose to nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) over the subsequent four years, in the wake of the discovery of AIDS and its much-publicised linkage with male homosexual activity in particular. Then, only one in five (17 per cent) thought homosexuality was "not wrong at all". Now these proportions are more or less reversed; only around one in five (22 per cent) think that same-sex relations are "always wrong" while nearly half (47 per cent) say they are "not wrong at all".
The disapproval that many people felt about same-sex relationships in the 1980s led some to believe that gay men and lesbians should be excluded from aspects of everyday life. In 1983 only 41 per cent thought it "acceptable for a homosexual person to be a teacher in a school", while 53 per cent disagreed with this statement. And at a time when no serving MP had ever come out as gay or lesbian, only slightly more people felt it was acceptable for a gay man or lesbian "to hold a responsible position in public life" than felt it was not (53 and 42 per cent respectively). Such attitudes seem a world away today. Nowadays, 83 per cent think it is acceptable for a gay man or lesbian to teach in a school, and nearly everyone (90 per cent) feels comfortable with their holding a position in public life.
Even so, controversy still surrounds the position of gay men and lesbians when it comes to the sensitive subjects of children and marriage. The public is more or less evenly divided between those who think that "homosexual couples should be allowed to adopt a baby under the same conditions as other couples" (48 per cent) and those who do not. And although over half (56 per cent) agree that "gay or lesbian couples should have the right to marry one another if they want to", that majority is far from overwhelming. Still, even here public opinion has been transformed over the last 30 years: in 1983, 87 per cent opposed the idea of 'gay adoption' (and just five years ago, in 2007, only 47 per cent supported 'equal marriage'). That such issues are now being publicly debated is also a sign of just how dramatic a change in attitudes has already occurred.
Life and death
If much of the public debate about same-sex relationships is relatively recent, the circumstances under which abortion should or should not be allowed has been a continuing subject of controversy during the last 30 years. Here too opinion has shifted, albeit less dramatically. In 1983 just 37 per cent endorsed what might be regarded as a 'woman's right to choose' - if she had decided for herself that she did not want the child. The proportion rose to 46 per cent if both parents were of that view; to 47 per cent if they could not afford any more children; and to 87 per cent if the woman's health would be seriously endangered by going ahead with the pregnancy.
What once were thus minority views (albeit in most cases only just) have now become majority ones. As many as 62 per cent now accept a woman's right to choose for herself; 73 per cent agree that an abortion should be permitted if both parents agree they should not have the child; and 64 per cent support abortion if the couple decide they cannot afford any more children. However, most of this shift in attitudes occurred during the 1980s. Since then public opinion has shown little sign of shifting further, and there seems little reason to presume that Britain is heading towards some new moral consensus on this issue. Abortion is, however, overwhelmingly accepted in cases where the woman's health is endangered by her pregnancy, with nine in ten (91 per cent) taking this view now.
The view that life is a sacred gift means that religious institutions often oppose euthanasia as well as abortion. This is a topic where the traditional religious view has long lacked widespread public support. Even 30 years ago (in 1983) only 23 per cent of the public agreed that if a patient has "a painful incurable disease" a doctor should not be allowed "by law to end the patient's life, if the patient requests it". The proportion now stands even lower, at just 16 per cent. But, in contrast to both abortion and same-sex relationships, this is one topic on which the country's legislators have so far proved reluctant to align the law with majority public opinion.
Overall, the considerable changes we've seen to Britain's moral outlook over the last 30 years support the case for individualisation. On many issues of sexuality, procreation and marriage, support for the position traditionally associated with most major religions has declined. Individuals are in many respects deciding these issues for themselves. As our Personal relationships chapter shows however, the change cannot simply be accounted for by declining religious faith. Even those who still have a religious identity are now less likely than they once were to uphold a traditional moral standpoint. Individualisation has, it seems, been a process that has occurred among those still to be found (at least occasionally) in the pews or equivalent, as well as among those who do not profess any kind of religion at all.
Much of the change we have found in this area reflects the impact of generational differences in people's views. This is clearest in relation to attitudes to premarital sex and homosexuality, with each subsequent generation being successively more liberal in outlook than the one before it. Consequently, as older generations have died out and been replaced by more liberal younger generations, society's view as a whole has become more liberal. As a result, the strong likelihood is that Britain will continue to become more liberal on many of these issues over the next few decades. The caveat to this is that unforeseen events might push attitudes in the opposite direction, as happened to attitudes towards homosexuality in the immediate wake of the discovery of HIV AIDS.
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- The difference between the proportions of the population identified as belonging to a religion by the 2011 Census and British Social Attitudes can be partly explained by question wording: the Census asks respondents "What is your religion?" - implying that the respondent has one - while the British Social Attitudes survey asks "Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?" The difference may also be due to the response options offered; with the Census listing the major world religions, and British Social Attitudes listing specific denominations; respondents answering the former would be most likely to see this as a question concerned with 'cultural classification' rather than religion (Voas and Bruce, 2004). Finally, the context of the questions is significant, with the Census question following one on ethnicity, arguably causing 'contamination' of responses (ibid.).
- The objective figures represent the proportions in one of the Registrar General's socio-economic groups 1-6.
- When this question was originally developed in 1984, it asked about "a husband" and "a wife" rather than "a man" and "a woman". This was replaced by a variant of the question using the latter terminology in 1994.
- This finding is sharply at variance with that reported by the Hansard Society's annual Audit of Political Engagement in 2012 and 2013, which found that there had been a marked decline in interest in politics. We would note that the change in the level of reported interest in that survey coincided with a change in the contractor undertaking it and thus perhaps might be a consequence of a change in how the survey was conducted (Hansard Society, 2013).
- This 1981 figure comes from the World Values Survey as reported in Hall (1999).
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