Mixed picture emerges on British attitudes to religion in public life

By staff writers
February 24, 2009

A new poll commissioned by the BBC suggests that a majority of people in Britain believe religion should be respected and valued in public life - but other research also says they oppose domineering religion.

Just under two-thirds of those questioned in the latest ComRes poll, timed to coincide with the launch of the BBC's 'Faith Diary', say that society "should respect and be influenced by UK religious values".

A similar proportion agree that "religion has an important role to play in public life", but without any specifics identified..

However, another recent Ipsos MORI survey by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), published on 20 January 2009, looking at race, religion and belief, indicated that religion may be a more significant source of division in Britain than race today - something they think is a bad thing.

Three in five (60 per cent) of the general population and two in three (66 per cent) of those in ethnic minority groups think religion is more divisive than race.

Moreover, in practice 48 million out of the UK's 58 million population are not involved in any regular religious practice, institutional religion has been in sharp decline since the 1960s, and the latest Church of England attendance figures show a continued decline overall.

In the latest BBC survey, eight out of 10 Muslims polled (and almost as many Hindus and Sikhs), supported a strong role in public life for what are described vaguely as "the UK's essentially Christian traditional religious values" - indicating a fear of faith being marginalised.

But a quarter of those identifying themselves as Christian still did not feel this themselves, despite considerable recent publicity from tabloid papers and some church leaders that "Christian Britain is under threat."

The BBC poll asked only four questions. Whether respondents agreed or disagreed with the following statements: ‘The media reports my religion fairly and accurately’, ‘The media reports other religions fairly and accurately’, ‘Our laws should respect and be influenced by UK religious values’, and ‘Religion has an important role to play in public life.’

It did not explain what ‘religious values’ or ‘public life’ or ‘important role’ mean, and did not mention Christianity specifically.

The British Humanist Association has pointed out that while general religious values such as "do as you would be done by", which are also supported by the non-religious, may have substantial public backing, specific prohibitions - such as a ban on stem cell research - do not.

Neither hardline anti-religionists nor hardline religionists can take comfort from this decidedly mixed picture, say researchers.

On the one hand, the BBC's religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott, writing on the Corporation's website today, says that "our poll tallies with other research findings - that the proportion of people identifying themselves as atheists has not grown from its low base," despite the growth of what are seen as secular social values.

On the other hand the 72 per cent of people who told the last census that they were "Christian" represent a very uncertain and wavering number, says Professor David Voas of the Cathie Marsh Centre for Census and Survey Research in Manchester.

He suggests that a full half of the population of Britain qualify only as "fuzzy faithful" with "only a vaguely defined notion of a 'divine entity' [which] makes "little difference to their lives". The other half are non-adherents.

Voss's research suggests that many continue to pray but have relinquished specific Christian beliefs and tend to believe in a general "higher power" rather than a personal God.

They go to church, if at all, only occasionally or for the main festivals or life's rites of passage - a finding borne out by the ongoing research being done by aid agency Tearfund.

The religion and society think-tank Ekklesia argues that this complex picture fits with a society in transition from an established settlement where Christianity dominated public life ("Christendom") to a mixed belief society where convictions are more contested - as recent public rows about religion show.

Ekklesia's Simon Barrow commented: "A dispassionate look at accumulated research over the past few years would indicate that institutional religion is on the decline, that strong belief commitment has devolved into less established forms, that the "spiritual but not religious" constituency has grown, that a majority are vague and uncommitted in their beliefs, and that a secular mindset has grown without a significant increase in affiliation to explicitly non-religious groups."

He added: "People want faith and belief to be beneficent. They dislike extremism and domineering forms of religion, but neither do they want to see it simply excluded from public life. Perhaps the positive message to Christians and others is that they need to show the value of what they have to offer through practical example, not through trying to grab power and influence for themselves."

Ekklesia has argued that the demise of a top-down "Christendom" order should not be seen negatively by the churches, but as an opportunity to rediscover a more authentic, liberating Christian message and practice - one that Barrow says "has often been obscured or defaced by the collusion of official religion and governing authority."

For more background on the changes taking place, see: Jonathan Bartley, 'Faith and Politics After Christendom' (Paternoster, 2006), available from Ekklesia here: http://tinyurl.com/d2n99k

EHRC survey - http://tinyurl.com/8zh9hj

BBC survey - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7783563.stm

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.