Is Britain a less religious country now than it was in 1900

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Last updated: April 2, 2019

When “Sympathy for the Devil” hit the British charts in 1968, just as the cultural revolution of the 1960s was reaching its zenith, the devil really seemed to be around and busy stealing many a man’s soul and faith. Indicators for religious belief, practice and affiliation entered a new phase of accelerating decline and at the dawn of the new century, most had reached an all-time minimum. Does this imply that Britain is less religious now than it was in 1900? Indeed, it does. But the case is not as straightforward as once has been thought.In this essay I will follow common usage by defining religion as ‘beliefs, actions and institutions predicated on the existence of entities with powers of agency (gods) or impersonal powers .

.. which can set the conditions of, or intervene in, human affairs’. 1 Thus, to assess whether Britain is a less religious country now than it was a century ago, one has to evaluate each of these three determinants of religion: The types and pervasiveness of personal beliefs, the degree to which people act on these beliefs by attending Churches or other religious activity and the size and strength of religious institutions.I will confine my analysis to Christianity, despite the fact that other religions have constantly grown in 20th century Britain. This makes sense because even in 2001 all other religions together made up only 5. 4 percent of the British population.

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2 Strength of belief and attendance to religious rituals seem high in some but low in others (for instance Judaism3). Furthermore, the adherents of the largest ‘other’ religion, Islam, tend to live on the margins of society and their influence on public life is therefore disproportionally small.In other words, the group of ‘other religions’ is relatively small and heterogeneous, its impact on the religiosity of the nation as a whole thus very limited. Therefore, the answer to the question posed in this essay can be found by examining the fate of once all dominant Christianity, which is still by far the most popular religion in Great Britain.

I will concentrate on showing that Britain has become less religious in the 20th century, the focus will not be on why this has happened.Thus the major secularisation theories will not be discussed in great detail. It is the changing prevalence and strength of belief in Britain that lies at the centre of my analysis. First and foremost this means the degree of faith in the tenants of Christian teaching, shared by virtually all denominations: God, Jesus as the son of God and life after death. The percentage of those who do not believe in God has increased from 10% in the 1960s to 27% in the 1990s. Despite a significant drop, however, 70% of the British population still do believe in God.Belief in Jesus as the son of God has fallen from 68% in the 1940s/50s to 47% in the 1980s, the number of those who do not believe this has more than doubled from 18 to 39 percent.

In the 1990s, 41% of the population stated that they do not believe in life after death, whereas only 21 per cent had said so in the 1940s/50s. At the same time, the number of those who expressedly believe in life after death has fallen only slightly from 49 to 43 percent. 4 Evidently, a large residual belief remains which has often been overlooked by scholars obsessed with decline.Yet, at the same time one cannot avoid the fact that each of these indicators shows a significant decrease of belief. This suggests that at a personal level, less Britons are religious now than were at the beginning and even the middle of the 20th century. In assessing the religiosity of Britain as a country it is important to examine the influence of religious ideas in society at large and the extent to which people derive their personal identity from ‘Christian expectations, or discourses’ circulating in the public sphere5.

Up to the 1960s religion remained central in this respect. In fact, the 1930s, ’40s and especially ’50s saw a revival of popular religiosity. This was not only true for Church attendance (as will discussed below) but also for the influence of Christian ideas and ideals. Print media, radio and television transported strongly Christian messages. Notable is the emphasis placed on traditional values of family, home and piety usually in the context of heterosexual Christian marriage. Christian codes of conduct were still powerful.Like many others in similar situations, young John Lennon was ridiculed because his mother ‘lived in sin’. 6 The Christian Sunday was commonly observed, best clothes were worn, work and games restricted and “parkies [tied] up the swings in the public park”7.

What is more, youth culture was still closely interwoven with Christianity. One witness recounted from the interwar years: I remember it all as such fun. I came into the district as a young teacher and looked for some social life beyond school.The local church was teeming with different organisations – concert party, badminton club, ramblers, social club, drama group, and there were lots of other young people to meet. 8 But this changed with the rise of an alternative youth culture in the ‘swinging sixties’. Pop music, sexual liberation and widespread opposition to the social and political establishment created community experiences and a moral universe outside the traditional Christian codes and institutions. Discourse in magazines, television and popular music shifted from themes with strong Christian undertones to anti-war agitation, nihilism, drugs and sex.According to Callum Brown this cultural shift had the greatest impact on women.

“The reconstruction of female identity within work, sexual relations and new recreational opportunities from the late 1960s, put not just feminism but female identity in collision with the Christian construction of femininity. “9 Since women had formed a central part of British Christianity – as the motor of Church related activities and most importantly as transmitters of Christian ideas to the next generation – this had a profound impact.The effects are still felt today as those who have not been indoctrinated with Christian morals by their mothers increasingly reject marriage and other Christian norms and do not convey Christian traditions to their children either.

More immediately, the weakening of Christian codes of conduct was reflected by the introduction of new laws legalizing homosexuality (1967), abortion (1967) and the granting of easier divorce (1969). It has been argued that even before the 1960s Christian religion was never popularly accepted in its pure, orthodox form but permeated by paganism and quasi-heathen rituals such as the ‘churching’ (i. . spiritual cleaning) of women after birth. That is, that Christian religion and Churches were merely hijacked by a superstitious population in order to execute their enduring heathen beliefs in barely disguised form. However, even if popular Christianity was never ‘pure’ and even if superstition is more resilient than has previously been thought, Christianity’s central messages and morals were certainly more widespread and accepted at the beginning of the 20th century than they are now.In the last 100 years, society as a whole has undoubtedly become less dominated by religion which has lost its central place as moral arbiter and determinant of popular culture. Thus, in terms of personal faith and the prevalence of Christian concepts and morals in society and culture at large, Britain is significantly less religious now than it was in 1900.

This is true, even if earlier accounts may have overstated the magnitude of decline or prematurely predicted Christianity’s imminent death.Somewhat surprisingly church attendance and membership and participation in religious rituals such as baptisms, confirmations and marriages have declined by more than belief in the supernatural itself. In the last thirty years church attendance fell from 12 to 7. 5 percent. 10 This has led Brierley to speak of a ‘bleeding to death’ of British churches, especially because churchgoers are on average considerably older than non-churchgoers and this age bias has increased over the last two decades. Church membership also shows a consistent decline.According to Brierley it has fallen from 27% at the beginning of the 20th century to only 10% at its end.

11 With the exception of a short-lived net increase during the early 1950s religious revival, this is a story of continues erosion of religious affiliation. Attendance of Christian Sunday schools has fallen dramatically too. In 1900, 55 percent of the population had attended Sunday school, by 1940 this figure had dropped to 36% and by 2000 to a miniscule 4%. 12 The figures for religious rituals reflect the same trend: Confirmations in the Church of England have fallen from a total of 227,135 in 1910 to 190,713 in 1960 and 40,881 in 1997.Baptisms and religious marriage have also declined and cohabitation is becoming ever more popular. The high rates of decline in church attendance and membership and participation in rituals have traditionally attracted much attention. As a result, overall decline of religion may have been exaggerated in the past because scholars mistook these indirect measures as direct barometers of personal beliefs and religion’s influence on the public consciousness.

Nevertheless, to a considerable extent the decline in religious activity can be explained as a reflection of the (more limited) decrease in faith which has been pointed out above.Furthermore, competition from the rising leisure culture certainly played a part. For those whose fear of God was not too great in the first place, the Sunday morning TV program may have tipped the balance against going to mass. The argument that the fall in Church membership and attendance is partly due to a general trend of ‘flight from institutions’ which affected trade unions, secular volunteer organisations and political parties just as much as churches is also a valid point.Yet, despite the truths contained in this “believing without belonging”14 reasoning, one should not go so far as to assume that what happened to Christian churches in the 20th century is solely a matter of abandoning institutions in general.

As Steve Bruce has argued, We could imagine people loosing faith in a certain institution… but if there was still a lot of demand for Christianity one would have thought that it would find some avenue of expression in the plethora of choice.

.. t is difficult to suppose that the almost universal decline of the Christian churches in Britain does not signify a decline in the demand for Christianity. 15 Yet another cause of the decline in religious activity is linked to the third ‘determinant of religion’ I have singled out to examine faith in 20th century Britain: the strength of religious institutions. The importance of Christian churches as social institutions has decreased markedly in the 20th century in a process which Morris has called ‘institutional marginalization’. 6 This means the ‘progressive disentanglement of established religion in Britain from structures of local and national government, and the corresponding evolution of approaches to social and educational policy’. 17 The most important example in the twentieth century is perhaps the expansion of the modern (welfare) state. Religious institutions and officials were finally replaced as the providers of healthcare, charity and education by secular agencies.

This development certainly aided the decline of religion during the 1960s and thereafter because it pushed the institutions that acted as preservers and transmitters of religious belief out of the public sphere. Britain today is less religious than it was a hundred years ago. Belief in the central tenants of Christian faith has fallen. Church membership, mass attendance and participation in religious rituals have decreased even more rapidly. Finally, Churches have lost much of their influence in society because of institutional marginalization.It has been argued that, looking at the bigger picture, the magnitude of religious decline seems vastly overstated in the existing literature on the topic: Residual belief remains large while at the same time signs of non-affiliation have always been relatively common.

Indeed, the decline – for instance – of church attendance from 12. 5 to 7. 5 percent does not appear very large if one considers that it implies that 87. 5 percent of the population did not (regularly) attended church in either time period.

But this argument has two flaws: Firstly, even if small, the decrease is nevertheless statistically significant and thus relevant.Secondly, numbers may deceive. The changing social and cultural influence of Christianity is not directly measurable with statistics of church attendance or baptisms but has to be established by evaluating ‘discursive’ evidence. As Callum Brown has shown in his book “The Death of Christian Britain”, doing so reveals beyond reasonable doubt the displacement of religion as the central determinant of public and private morality and the weakening of Christian faith in the 20th century. Therefore, it seems fair to conclude that Britain is a significantly less religious country now than it was in 1900.

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