I knew Christianity that had been on the ropes in Britain for some time. But I didn’t know that it was so close to being knocked out.
That’s right—that land that gave the world Westminster Abbey, Friar Tuck, Saint George, Methodism, the Quakers, John Knox, the Salvation Army, Presbyterianism, the Book of Common Prayer, Anglicanism, and Aslan, is now one of the least Christian societies within all of Christendom. And if these demographic trends continue as they are, it looks like Britain will soon be the Seat of Seculardom.
According to the latest statistics as published in the new report The “No Religion” Population of Britain, authored by Professor Stephen Bullivant, and drawing from of both the British Attitudes Survey and the European Social Survey, the following results are in:
* Those who identify as having “no religion” now comprise 48.6% of the British adult population, which is approximately 24.3 million people. In other words, nearly half of British adults say they have no religion. This is unprecedented in British history – and in all of Western civilization; only a handful of other European societies have reached this level of widespread secularization/de-Christianization, such as Estonia, the Czech Republic, and the Netherlands.
* Back in 1983, 67% of British adults identified as some kind of Christian, but in 2015, it was down to 43% -- a staggering drop in just about 30 years.
* Three-fifths of the non-religious say that they were brought up with a religious identity, but less than one in ten of those brought up nonreligiously now identify with a religion; in other words, religious socialization is losing its efficacy, but secular socialization is quite strong. Or said another way: a majority of those raised with religion have since abandoned it as adults, but only a tiny fraction of those raised without religion went on to adopt it later in life.
* For every one British adult brought up without religion who has since become a Christian, twenty-six adults brought up as Christians now identify as non-religious. That’s some serious secularization of society.
What is going on? Why is Britain becoming so secular?
There is no one single cause, to be sure. But below are some clear contenders:
First off, Britain is the home of some of the world’s most pioneering and piercing critics of religion. For example, Scottish beacon David Hume (1711-1776) was perhaps the most brilliant voice of the Enlightenment. In his various writings, Hume eviscerated religion, revealing its many immoralities and absurdities. Britain is also home to one of the greatest minds to ever walk the earth, Charles Darwin (1809-1882), who’s scientific insights did more to dislodge theism and debunk Biblical accounts of creation than ever previously thought possible. There was also John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), the brilliant ethicists, himself raised without religion and ever-dubious of its claims. The ideas of these men were born and first broadcast in Britain, and they clearly seeped into the collective intelligence successfully, over time.
Additionally, Britain was the cradle of some of the most vigorous public secularists of the modern world, with activists such as Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891), George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906), and Harriet Law (1831-187), spending years publicly promulgating secular ideals and arguing against religious faith. And they were part of a much larger anti-religious movement, with various secularist organizations percolating throughout Britain in the 19th century, such as The National Secular Society founded in 1866. Clearly, this activist secularism has born some societal fruit over its 150 year history.
But there are other, more modern/sociological factors at play, as well. According to British historian Callum Brown, author of The Death of Christian Britain, the dramatic increase of women in the paid labor force has played a role in religion’s demise. According to Brown, when more and more women work outside the home, their religious involvement—as well as that of their families—tends to diminish. This is because it has been women who have historically kept their children and husbands interested and involved in religion, and yet as more of them began working outside of the home—starting in significance in the 1960s—this socializing role weakened. And as a majority of British women starting earning an income through work outside the home, their interest in—or time and energy for religious involvement—waned. And as these women grew less religious, their husbands and children followed suit. Also, as Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris have explored in their solid book Sacred and Secular, when societies become more existentially secure, religion tends to wither. That is, when more and more people within a given nation have access to education, health care, housing, work, etc., and when society becomes relatively stable in terms of a democratic government, and when a vibrant capitalism is mixed with a solid welfare state—so that society becomes not only wealthier but more egalitarian—fewer people need religion to get through their lives. This is exactly what has happened in Britain since World War Two: a decent social security net has been put in place, democracy has thrived, and most people live much more existentially secure lives than ever before in British history. And as a result, religion has become quaint.
Of course, it could also all simply be attributable to Ricky Gervais. His atheism, mixed with the sharpest of wit, is a true historical force to be reckoned with.