What Are The Main Trends in Religion and Values in Britain?

Questions for debate

How has religion in Britain changed since 1945? What are the main differences between the 1950s, the 1980s and the 2010s, and what are the continuities? How does all this relate to wider social trends?

Conclusions from the debate

There are significant continuities, including the fact that a half to two-thirds of the population still identify as Christian, and the churches continue to play an important role in society. However, the overall profile of religion in the UK – and of Christianity and the churches – has become far more diverse. Most importantly, the form of religion and the way in which people are religious has changed: there is much more individual choice and selection, less traditional ‘belonging’, and religion supports a much wider range of identities.

Research Findings

The myth of secular progress received a series of shocks from 1979 (Iranian revolution) through 1989 (fall of communism) to 2001 (twin towers attack) which revealed the limitations and blind spots of a perspective which held that religion would inevitably decline and that the rest of the world would follow where secular Europe had led.

The religious profile of the UK has changed significantly, and change has been most evident since the 1980s:

Overall, the religious and secular profile of the UK has become increasingly diverse since 1945. It is not merely that there are more ‘religions’, but there is much greater diversity of religious identity, even in relation to the same religion.

Modes of belief, belonging, identity and ritual have all shifted since the 1970s – from church- and clergy-controlled forms of centralised, organised, hierarchical institution to more laicised, democratic, fluid, and self-chosen forms with much looser networks of association, often across national borders.

As well as shrinking in public influence (which nevertheless remains considerable), the churches have become more socially conservative since the 1970s, and it can be argued that they now represent a minority rather than a (liberal) majority viewpoint. This is reflected in disputes over issues like female leadership and gay marriage.

Christianity has lost it dominance, though not its influence, and the state has become increasingly interested in relating to all faiths. The status of the Church of England has been downgraded in the process.

Religion is increasingly affected by the logic of the ‘market’ and not just the state – for example in having to market and brand itself and, in some cases, take payment for services. This provides new opportunities for a much wider range of religious ‘producers’ and ‘products’, as do new media like the internet.

Linda Woodhead

“41% of us now believe in angels, 53% in an afterlife and 70% in a soul – that’s much higher, often double, than when the records began.”

Linda Woodhead

Points of Debate and Disagreement

Though their numbers have declined, the historic churches (especially the state churches in the UK) retain their social significance. FaithDebate07_arrow Their significance has diminished, and they no longer speak for the majority.
Religious continuity remains more important than change. FaithDebate07_arrow The 1980s represent a dramatic hinge in religious history – the point at which the organised model of religion consolidated at the Reformation ceased to be the main mode of religion in the UK.
These changes involve a loss of community and salience in people’s lives. FaithDebate07_arrow These changes involve a recasting of community into looser networks of belonging and occasional gathering; the fact that religion is chosen makes it no less salient.

Practical Suggestions

If religion is no longer ‘packaged’ in the churches or a small number of ‘world religions’, but is more diverse and individualised, more thought needs to be given to updating how religion is treated in research, law and policy, for example:

The status and authority of traditional religious ‘leaders’ should not be assumed to be what it once was, and their ability to speak in a representative capacity may be limited.

Inter-faith relations become a much more complex matter in relation to ‘superdiversity’ (see Debate 1) and may need to be radically rethought.

The role and status of the Church of England (and the Church of Scotland) needs to be clarified: can it still claim to be a truly national and inclusive body which speaks on behalf of all ‘souls’ and all religions in the UK?

Grace Davie

“Religion – and here I speak mainly about Christianity – has moved in the post-war period from something approximating a conscript army, with large numbers of people involved whether they liked it or not, to a professional army which people join voluntarily, sometimes for a short period and sometimes for a longer one. Broadly speaking I contend that the professionals are rather more committed than conscripts. Does that make us a more or less secular society that we were in the 1950s?”

Grace Davie

“Everyday, lived religion – is thriving and evolving, whilst hierarchical, institutionalised, dogmatic forms of religion are marginalised.”

Linda Woodhead

How the Media Reported the Debate

“Whether secularisation theory holds true or not, one thing is crystal clear. The established hierarchical, dogmatic Church is in terminal decline. This is why its demands for yet more power and privilege must be challenged.”

Stephen Evans, National Secular Society 10 May 2012

“Religion has returned to the core business of sustaining everyday life, supporting relations with the living and the dead, and managing misfortune.”

Linda Woodhead, The Guardian 7 May 2012

“Why is all this happening now? It’s common to date the current, fevered debate on the place of faith in modern Britain to the fallout from 9/11 or, beyond that, to the Rushdie affair of the late 1980s. But both those traumatic events are beginning to recede into history.”

Nelson Jones, New Statesman 2 May 2012

Wednesday 02 May 2012, held at 61 Whitehall

Research on the Religion and Society Programme reveals dramatic shifts in religion and values in the last fifty years. This closing event summarises these changes, and debates their significance for politics and public life. Watch highlights from the debate and download podcasts of the presentations, responses and discussion below. You can also watch the full event on YouTube here. The debate was chaired by Charles Clarke. Access the press release and media coverage here.


  • Aaqil Ahmed

    Aaqil Ahmed

    Aaqil is Commissioning Editor Religion and Head of Religion and Ethics at the BBC. He is also a...

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  • Charles Clarke

    Charles was Labour Member of Parliament for Norwich South, which he remained until May 1997 –...

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  • Cole Moreton

    Cole Moreton

    Cole Moreton is an author, journalist and broadcaster exploring who we are and what we believe in....

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  • Grace Davie

    Grace Davie

    Grace is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Exeter. Her publications include...

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  • Linda Woodhead

    Linda is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University and Director of the Religion...

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  • Trends Introduction

  • Intro by Grace Davie

  • Intro by Aaqil Ahmed

  • Intro by Cole Moreton

  • Trends Questions and responses


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