BSA36: Religion press release

Number of atheists more than doubles in two decades as less than half of Brits express confidence in Churches

The number of people who don’t believe in God has more than doubled in the past two decades, according to the most recent British Social Attitudes Survey, Britain’s longest running survey of public opinion.

26% of Brits say that they don’t believe in God, 18% are agnostic and only 19% of the public is absolutely certain of God’s existence. In 1998, 10% didn’t believe in God with 21% certain of God’s existence, suggesting that as well as secularization there has been an increase in confident atheism.

The survey, by the National Centre for Social Research, also highlights a continued religious decline in Britain; 52% of people say they do not belong to a religion, up from 31% in 1983 when the survey was first carried out. Whereas religious affiliation has slightly grown across some non-Christian religions, it has decreased across most Christian denominations. The sharpest drop occurred within the Church of Englandii. 12% of Brits currently describe themselves as followers of CoE, down from 22% in 2008 and 40% in 1983. Young people aged 18 to 24 are least likely to say they belong to CoE (1%) while those aged 75 and over are most (33%) likely to say so. At every age, men are less likely to identify with a religion or believe in God than women; for instance, 29% of men aged between 18 to 34 years old believe in God compared with 38% of women in the same age bracket.

While most respondents express confidence in the educational system (80%), courts (75%) and Business (71%), just 46% report the same for churches and religious organisations (54% in 1998) – making it the least trustworthy institution apart from Parliament (45%) of those asked about in the survey. In addition, 35% of people think Churches have too much power and an even greater amount (63%) believe that religion brings more conflict than peace around the world. When asked whether religious officials should try to influence elections, significantly more respondents (76%) say they should not than say they should (9%).

Against a backdrop of declining religious belief, the survey also shows that people are less likely to believe in reincarnation. Belief in this concept fell from 24% to 20% since 2008. And, although people are more likely to believe in heaven (37%) than hell (26%), they are less inclined to believe in heaven now than a decade ago (41% in 2008).

Despite the notable shift towards a less religious society, Brits have become more tolerant of those with different religious views. While attitudes towards followers of specific religious groups vary, with Christians proving most popular (52%) and Muslims least popular (30%)iii, 39% of respondents say they would ‘definitely accept’ a person with a different religion marrying a relative - a rise of 15 percentage points from 2008 (24%). Only 3% say they ‘definitely would not’ do so. In contrast, those with very strong religious beliefs generate less favourable perceptions, with 65% of respondents feeling that very religious people are often too intolerant of others and 68% of respondents stating extremist religious views should not be allowed to be published online.

Nancy Kelley, Deputy Chief Executive at the National Centre for Social Research, comments: "This long-term decline in religious identity, practice and belief is one of the most profound social changes we have measured as part of the British Social Attitudes Survey. It is clear that society is becoming more secular, and that more of us are confidently atheist, but it would be wrong to assume this means faith is no longer an important part of British life. We may be more sceptical of religious institutions, but we are increasingly tolerant of religious belief, and both non-religious and some religious worldviews are strengthening, suggesting that debate about moral and ethical questions may become more, not less important in the coming years."