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What is the future for religion in Britain?

What is the future for religion in Britain?

This is the fourth in a series of blogs looking at the future of religion in Britain. To read the others click here

While the secularization of consciousness in the West is an ongoing process, the secularization of behaviour has reached the point of no return.  Leaders of the major Christian denominations are asking the wrong question: the issue is not ‘why are people staying away from church?’, but ‘why would anyone go to church?’  The default position now is that we do not gather together to sing and pray and listen to an indifferent speaker deliver a thought for the week.  There is no expectation that we should.  The onus is on churches to offer something that people want and would have difficulty finding anywhere else.

What could that be? It is not religion, because only the most conservative believers think that God demands collective participation. It can only be community.  And for the most part, local churches are not especially attractive communities for those who do not already belong, or even for some who do. The elderly may need people, but for the young there are simply too many alternative ways of spending time. 

Religious commentators sometimes blame social scientists for promoting pessimism among believers.  A distinguished sociologist who rarely leaves Aberdeen has been accused of undermining religion in Britain by issuing self-fulfilling prophecies of decline. The idea of scholar-as-oracle is enticing for those of us who live lives of academic drudgery, but the reality is less exciting. History unfolds with or without us. 

Consider the remarkable decline in Anglican identity. About half of English people born early in the 20th century still declare their affiliation to the C of E; only about one in 20 among those born at the end of the century do so. All Protestant denominations are similarly affected, and it is not even the case that ‘once a Catholic ...’ 

In the past the C of E was famously the default, the box ticked on hospital forms if you specified nothing else, the church that we didn’t go to. We no longer know what church we don’t go to, and the tendency now is to accept the label ‘Christian’ – because what we’re not has changed.  We’re not Muslim (except for those of us who are). 

The impact of secularization is not only on religious affiliation and practice; it’s also on belief.  Not all forms of belief, to be sure: there is a good deal of postmodern tolerance for supernaturalism.  But belief in God has taken a battering, and it seems highly unlikely that the churches can exploit and discipline the folk superstitions that persist: the dabbling in magic, the reluctance to give up on life after death, the egocentric interest in past lives, and so on.

So the future of religion among the white British is bleak. There are charismatic (small-c) leaders who can inspire and build congregations, but they are few and far between.  Most ordained ministers are good, well meaning people with the leadership ability of bank managers.

The future of religion in Britain is to be found in Islam and the black majority churches. Muslims already contribute ten per cent of British births; within several decades people of Muslim heritage will form ten percent of the population, even if immigration came to an abrupt halt tomorrow. If even half are observant, they will form a substantial proportion of the religiously active population. Ethnic minority Christians will have another large share. The future of religion in Britain is black and brown. 

David Voas is acting director of the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex.  He is co-director of British Religion in Numbers

Image from wikimedia, available in the public domain.


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