A secular future after all?

11th Dec, 2015

Earlier this week the report of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life was published. “Living with difference – community, diversity and the common good” was chaired by Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss and highlighted three striking trends in the UK:

  • The rapid increase in the number of people with non-religious beliefs and identities since 1983
  • The similar decline in Christian affiliation, belief and practice over the same time frame
  • The increased diversity among people who do have a religious faith as a result of immigration patterns

The report draws heavily on British Social Attitudes research produced by NatCen which found that across the public as a whole, 50% did not affiliate with a religion in 2010, compared with 31% in 1983 and 40% in 2001.

The Commission’s report goes on to say So twenty-first century ethno-religious issues and identities here in the UK and globally are reshaping society in ways inconceivable just a few decades ago, and how we respond to such changes will have a profound impact on public life.”

Interesting then to compare this report with one brought out by the PEW Research Center in April 2015.

This looks at global trends in religiosity – its predictions show the divergence between places with low fertility and ageing populations such as Europe including the UK, North America, China and Japan where there will be increases in atheists, agnostics and other people who do not affiliate with any religion, and the rest of the world where there will be large increases in the numbers of religious people, in particular Muslims and to a lesser extent Christians. Overall the PEW report says that people not affiliated with any religion will decline as a share of the global population by 2050 and become the fourth most populous group behind Christians, Muslims and Hindus – they are the third most populous group today.

In other words, according to the PEW predictions, the developed world will continue on its trajectory towards becoming increasingly secular, but the world as a whole will be less secular than it is today.

Two features of the PEW research make us question this finding:

First, the PEW predictions are primarily based on changes in numbers due to population growth and assume that most people will stay within the religious belief system they have been born into – it assumes that current demographic trends will continue and that since developing countries with Muslim and Christian populations have the highest fertility rates and the youngest populations now, they will therefore make up a much larger proportion of the increase in the world population by 2050.

The history of the developed world shows however, that changes in religious belief can come about rapidly – witness the 10% increase in non-affiliation in the UK just between 2001 and 2010. People can and do switch away from their childhood religions and also, many decide to bring up their children as not affiliated to any specific religion.

Second, much of the basis for the PEW research is the census data or similar government data sources collected by individual countries around the world. Often these sources give very different results from other data collected about religious affiliation – in the UK for example, the data used in the PEW report shows that in 2010 only 21% of the UK population is not affiliated with any religion compared with 50% in the BSA data. The British Social Attitudes report explains why this occurs:

“The difference ….can be partly explained by question wording: the census asks respondents “what is your religion?” – implying that the respondent has one – while [for example] 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.).” 

As a result, we believe that the PEW research may be underestimating the size of the global secular population now and also, overestimating the growth of the religious groups in the future. The UK and the rest of the developed world may not be out of step with the developing world after all.