Fewer people are believing in God – but it’s not because of science
Is the Divine losing its draw? Prof Linda Woodhead looks into whether we’re a faithful flock that’s temporarily strayed, or if we’re no longer willing to take a leap of faith.
Britain is one of the most secular countries in the world. Belief in God has been declining, along with other indicators of religion, since polling began. In 1961, when a question about God was included in a survey by the National Opinion Polls, 91 per cent of Britons expressed belief. By 2018, according to the British Social Attitudes survey, that had fallen to 55 per cent of the population, with 26 per cent affirming that they’ve never believed.
Nevertheless, these figures show that a majority of Britons still believe, whether confidently or tentatively. Belief in God has declined less sharply than other aspects of religion, like belonging to a church and taking part in its rituals. Organised religion has been losing followers quicker than God!
This suggests, contrary to a common view, that losing faith in God is not the main reason people leave organised religion. It’s just as often the other way around – people who don’t belong to a religion are less likely to believe in God. If your family isn’t religious and you’re raised without any meaningful contact with a religious group, you’re less likely to believe.
So the main reason for declining belief is that fewer people are enculturated and socialised into belief. They’re not brought up with the ‘plausibility structures’ (the wider sociocultural norms and frameworks of meaning) that are found in more religious societies.
It’s not only that talk about God has also become rare in schools, universities, workplaces and the media, it may even be taboo and stigmatised. People who believe in God often worry about being viewed as weird or unintelligent. Confident atheists reinforce these negative views.
There are philosophical objections to belief as well, like the so-called ‘problem of evil’, which asks how an omnipotent and benevolent God can allow evil and suffering. This isn’t an issue for those who believe there are many gods and spirits (who are not all-good or all-powerful), but it is a problem for some forms of monotheism.
In Britain today, confident atheists and confident theists remain minorities in society. They may be the most vocal, but they’re outnumbered by people who are agnostic, or keep an open mind, or believe in unseen forces and powers, or God and gods – or who just think it likely that there’s ‘something more out there’.
Although it’s likely that the downwards trend in belief will continue, it’s not inevitable. Belief in God isn’t a static thing, and the way that people experience and understand God changes. It’s true that Christian plausibility structures for a certain kind of monotheism have been declining. But increased religious pluralism, tolerance and the way that new forms of spirituality have entered into mainstream culture offer new kinds of plausibility and new ways of encountering the divine.
The most likely scenario for belief in Britain is increased diversity, with contention between a range of different religious, non-religious and atheistic approaches.
Linda is a professor of religion and society at Lancaster University. She is a former leader of Religion and Society research programme and co-founder of the annual Westminster Faith Debate. Linda is also the author of Christianity: a very short introduction and Religion and Change in Modern Britain.