Society needs to keep up with Britons' religious beliefs - or lack of

Katherine Moss

Originally published on 30 November.

The latest ONS census reveals that less than half of Britons (46.2%) now identify as Christian, down 13.1% from 2011 — and the increase in those saying that they have no religion has accelerated (with 37.2% now choosing that option, up 12%). As we fast approach one of the biggest Christian festivals of the year, Kent’s Dr Lois Lee, Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies, asks if we’re ready for a non-religious Britain, and how the results of this census suggest that society is failing to keep up.  

Dr Lee says: ‘These census figures make the changes to the UKs worldview landscape more clear than ever before, and signal that it’s time for society to change too.  From what we teach in the classroom to issues of equality before the law, we are not as a country managing to offer the same respect, support and protection to those with nonreligious identities as we do those with religious ones.

‘To some extent, it doesn’t matter. We tend to overstate the differences between people with religious and nonreligious identities. Popular opinion, based on previous data, suggest that there is more that unites us than divides us. However, we need to ensure those who identify as non-religious experience the same forms of respect, support and protection that we (rightly) offer those with religious identities.

‘We also need to draw a line under the strange distinctions we make between religious worldviews and nonreligious worldviews. While census data don’t give us much fine grain on the worldviews themselves, we know from the UK’s other major data source – the British Social Attitudes survey – that the number of atheists is about the same as the number of people with nonreligious identities. The two things are closely tied, albeit not the same: some people with religious identities have no believe in God, and some people who say they have no religion do believe – but the nonreligious are particularly likely to be atheist to.

‘The BSA’s most recent findings on religion came in 2018 show also that more people say that they don’t believe in God than say that they do – for the first time in British history.  Not believing in God is not the same as having no beliefs at all about the nature and value of life: atheists have these beliefs and they are a source of meaning in their lives. We are about to enter into the Christmas period-proper, which today speaks as much to humanist beliefs and ethics as it does to Christian ones. Anyone who has shed a tear at a Christmas film can attest to that.

‘We need to continue educating ourselves and our children about the diverse existential beliefs and cultural traditions that are part of our society – but that must now include education about the nonreligious among them. Too many children still think the ‘Religious Education’ classroom is about the religious traditions that increasingly few of them identify with. Recently called-for reforms that will make how schools engage with worldviews much more inclusive are much needed and overdue.

‘The way we facilitate pluralism in society needs to change. Pluralism is essential; it is, amongst other things, a cornerstone of democracy. But ‘inter-faith’ organisations, initiatives and parliamentary groups are not fit for purpose when the religious language they use persistently works to marginalise or exclude those for whom that language has no meaning.

‘Those who have existential expertise should continue to have a significant role in our public life, but this cannot be confined to a handful of leaders of religious organisations. There is no shortage of philosophers, writers, community leaders and many others who think and speak from a nonreligious perspective. They should be given a place at the table, and a spot on Thought for the Day and such.

‘If we continue to privilege religious worldviews in our public life, the space for representation of and reflection on our worldviews in general will be increasingly vulnerable. There are a few occasions when we should be talking about ‘religion’ rather than something more inclusive like ‘worldviews’, but in many cases our religion-centred language needs to change. We are adapting, but slowly – and today’s figures suggest we may be failing to keep up.’