Record number of British people say they have no religion

News prompts fresh calls for Government to cut amount of public money going to the church and reduce its influence in society

May Bulman
Monday 04 September 2017 17:54
More Britons are saying they are not at all religious than ever before, according to the British Social Attitudes survey by NatCen
More Britons are saying they are not at all religious than ever before, according to the British Social Attitudes survey by NatCen

The number of Britons who say they have no religion has hit a record high, new data has revealed.

More than half of the British public (53 per cent) say they are not at all religious – a figure that has increased by five percentage points since 2015 and by 19 percentage points since 1983, when just three in 10 people deemed themselves non-religious.

The news has prompted fresh calls for the Government to cut the amount of public money going to the church and reduce its influence in society.

The decline in religious affiliation is hitting the Church of England particularly hard, with the number of people considering themselves Anglican having halved since 2000 – at just 15 per cent. Young people were particularly underrepresented, with just 3 per cent of those aged 18-24 describing themselves as Anglican, compared with 40 per cent of those aged 75 and over.

Just over four in 10 people said they followed some form of Christianity, while around one in 20 people in the UK said they belong to non-Christian religions, with 3 per cent describing themselves as Muslim, 2 per cent Hindu and 1 per cent Buddhist.

The figures, collated from a survey of 2,942 adults in Britain by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), mark the first time the proportion of non-religious Britons has risen since 2009, when the number of people saying they had no religion hit 51 per cent. Prior to that, a gradual increase between 1983 and 2009 saw the figure rose from 32 per cent to 51 per cent.

More than seven in 10 (71 per cent) of young people aged 18-24 saying they had no religion in 2016, up from 62 per cent in 2015, the figures show. Four in 10 people aged 65-74 meanwhile said they had no religion – with this figure dropping to 27 per cent for those aged over 75.

While there has been a decline in people classing themselves as Anglican Christians, the proportion of people describing themselves as Catholic remained relatively stable over the past 30 years – at around one in 10.

It comes after figures last year showed that Church of England had lost more than 100,000 worshippers in a decade, with attendance falling an average of 1 per cent each year and 11 per cent since 2005.

Analysis of figures showed that for the first time, more people were being educated in state-funded Church of England schools, attending compulsory collective worship every day, than attend Church of England churches each week.

An average of 980,000 people attended church each week in 2014, the figures showed, down from the 1,009,100 initially calculated for 2013. Meanwhile, Department for Education statistics showed that 1,027,584 children were enrolled at Church of England schools in 2014, surpassing the figure for weekly church attendance for the first time.

Just under one in seven (16 per cent) of all school places in England are subject to religious admission criteria, and both Church of England research and independent polling have revealed that a large number of parents are forced to attend church simply to get their children into their local school.

Responding to the latest figures, Humanists UK, a national charity working on behalf of non-religious people, said it was “meaningless” for the Church of England to remain the national legally established church, and to urge the Government to end the “ever-increasing” state funding for religion.

The charity’s chief executive Andrew Copson said: “How can it be right that 97 per cent of young people today are not Anglicans, but some 20 per cent of the state schools to which their children will go belong to the Church of England?

“More generally, how can the Church of England remain in any meaningful sense the national legally established church, when it caters for such a small portion of the population?”

Mr Copson urged that the “collapse” in people adhering to the Church of England indicates that the Government should reduce state funding for religion and public emphasis on religious groups, adding: “‘It is clear that the Church of England is experiencing ongoing and probably irreversible collapse in adherents.

“This should just be their private concern, but the fact that their response to this has been to seek ever more power and public money, even as the case for such state support evaporates, makes it a matter of public interest.

“It is long overdue that the Government woke up to the demographic reality of today’s Britain and recognises that ever-increasing state funding for religion, and public emphasis on the activities of religious groups, is the reverse of what the public wants.”

Responding to the findings, representatives of the Church of England recognised that it was more “honest” for many people to say they were not religious than to say they were Christian, but added that this did not amount to atheism.

The Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool, said: “In this modern world people are more willing to be honest and say they have ‘no religion’ rather than casually saying they are ‘Church of England’.

“This honesty is welcome. Of course the latest BSA figures bring a continuing challenge to the churches, to speak clearly of our faith into a sceptical and plural world. But saying ‘no religion’ is not the same as a considered atheism. People's minds, and hearts, remain open.”

The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, said the decrease in numbers was “troubling”, saying: “Of course it's always troubling for the institution of the church to see numbers declining and to hear how younger people are less and less engaged with the life of the church.

“But the church is not an institution. The church is that community of men and women whose lives are centred on Christ. We do care about numbers, but only because we care about people.”

Roger Harding, head of public attitudes at NatCen, which carried out the research, said: “This increase follows the long-term trend of more and more of us not being religious. The differences by age are stark and with so many younger people not having a religion it’s hard to see this change abating any time soon.

“The falls in those belonging to the Church of England are the most notable, but these figures should cause all religious leaders to pause for thought.

“We know from the British Social Attitudes survey that religious people are becoming more socially liberal on issues like same sex relationships and abortion. With falling numbers some faith leaders might wonder whether they should be doing more to take their congregation’s lead on adapting to how society is changing.”

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