Field of Science

Did fornicating Farm Girls boost the rise of atheism in Britain?

These days, Britain is one of the most atheistic countries around. It wasn't always like that, of course, but one of the problems with trying to work out how the present state of affairs came about is that there are very few statistics on religion the stretch back far enough.

Stepping into the breach is Steven Bruce and Tony Glendinning, of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. They've put together a time-series from data collected by the Methodists Churches, who have been among the most rigorous in collecting data on their membership.

If you look at the raw numbers, it looks at first sight as though Methodist membership held up quite well - at least until recent decades. But over that same period of time, the total population of the UK nearly trebled.

When you plot membership as a percentage of the total population, a different picture emerges. Methodist membership has actually been declining since records began, with the decline accelerating in the post-war period decades.

Broadly similar patterns (with a few hiccups) can be seen in many other measures of religion in the UK (although inevitably more murky because the data are more patchy). Overall church membership peaked around 1904, Sunday School enrolment peaked in the same decade, and baptisms peaked around 1930.

What caused this decline? Well, membership goes down when the churches lose members - either to death or defection - faster than they can recruit. And the evidence suggests that the major reason for the decline is failure to bind children into the religion of their parents.

This really kicked off during the Second World War. Here's another graph, showing showing the percentage of people in Scotland who stopped attending, according to when they were born. Mostly these are people who went to church as children, but who stopped attending before they turned 21.

There was a sudden surge in the numbers of people who stopped attending, which started for people born during the war and persisted afterwards.

The Second World War caused an enormous upheaval in European society, and trying to trace any one factor as the cause of the rise in godlessness is problematic. However, one clue is that a major reason for young adults to abandon Christianity is having parents from different denominations.

In other words, its much more difficult to pass on religion to your children if parents have different views - even if those differences are as minor as the differences between Anglicans and Methodists.

Now, add to this the fact that the War brought a revolution in the social mobility of women. Young women broke free from their traditional roles, and by 1943 90% of single women aged 18-40 were employed either in the armed forces or in industry.

Many women found themselves posted to areas of the country far from home, often with others - both men and women - of very different social backgrounds. And with that came not only a broadened outlook but also sexual emancipation. One 'Land Girl' working in Romney Marsh recalled:

There were troops everywhere. You could just take your pick. You didn’t know how many were married; you just had to take their word for it. . . . I had several boyfriends during the war. . . . It was a case of a broken heart one night and the next night a new boyfriend’

One result of this freedom was that women born between 1914-1924 were twice as likely to have had sex before marriage than women born 10 years before. But, perhaps more importantly, both men and women were exposed to perspectives on the world that they would never have gained previously.

According to Bruce & Glendinning, the war weakened the community ties that help the successful transmission of any shared cultural characteristic:

With vast numbers of young men in the armed forces being moved around the country, one way or another, almost all single British women between 1939 and 1945 experienced an unprecedented degree of social mixing. A large part of the eligible population had a chance to engage in pleasant and positive social interaction with people from very different social, regional, cultural and religious backgrounds (Harris 2000: 113). Not all such mixing resulted in a broadening of horizons and a weakening of previous loyalties. The aliens – inner-city evacuees, servicemen, foreigners – could be handy scapegoats for those who saw no benefit from the disruption of old ways of life but for many of those whose children were to form the missing generation of church members in the 1960s, the war was a liberating experience.

As a result, women were less likely to marry the local lad from the same street and church. And it's the mixing together of different world views and perspectives that is fatal for the successful transmission of religion.

ResearchBlogging.orgBruce, S, & Glendinning, T (2010). When was secularization? Dating the decline of the British churches and locating its cause. The British Journal of Sociology, 61 (1), 107-126

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. the title certainly made me look at your review!

  2. Yeah, a shameless bid for readership :)

  3. Another study illustrating that one of the greatest cures for religion is social change as contrasted to theological debates.

  4. Just like the despicable promises of an "after life" that religion makes, you have joined their "club" by writing a headline that makes promises that your story doesn't keep. Shame on you!

  5. I am a bit concerned that you may be conflating two issues and what you say about the results does not clarify the problem for me. When talking about decreasing religiousness we can be talking about two different kinds of things. First of all, we can be talking about falling numbers of adherents to a particular religion, measured in whatever terms (that's what your first graph is clearly about). Secondly, and more abstractly, we can talk about falling adherence to religious beliefs in general. The first kind of phenomenon can cover any number of changes including people swapping over to a different religion. The second is more fundamental, from the point of view of an atheist, in that in that case you have people moving from theism of some sort to agnosticism/atheism. Different causes can underlie these two kinds of phenomena. From what I have seen, it seems like the only thing that does lead to secularisation is security, such as is made universal by the existence of a welfare state. Rational critiques and other such cultural pressues, on the other hand, seem to generally lead to the destabilisation of particular faiths, without affecting the underlying propensity to religious thought. A prime example where the second process may be seen to work without the first also taking place is modern US, with its continued religiousness and without a monolithic church that people maintain adherence to. From what you write, however, it might be interpreted that a cosmopolitan social milieu also leads not just to instability in religious beliefs but to their negation. This is what the second graph seems to suggest, with the additional surprise that the time of war would have been a time of great insecurity so increased religiousity would have been expected! All of what I write ignores, of course, the distinction between religious practices and religious beliefs so it may be that the answer to my question is to be sought there.

  6. Konrad, These data are all about religious practice - inevitably, because we don't have any records on beliefs that go back far enough.

    It could be argued that Methodists are switching into other religions. But the restricted data for Anglican Protestants suggests a similar pattern. The key point is that religiosity, in terms of religious practices across the board, seemed to peak much earlier than is generally believed.

    Bruce does deal tangentially with the idea that secularization doesn't mean all indicators of religion moving in tandem, or even in the same direction (at least, in the short term).

    What's more, I would say that Church attendance is probably more sensitive to insecurity than religious beliefs. The mismatch between beliefs and attendance is greater in poorer countries, for example (because non-believers go to Church).

    Furthermore, pluralism is linked to reduced intensity of belief. The critical factor (and Bruce provides some evidence although the best is from Voas 2008) seems to be intermarriage.

    Of course, in an insecure society intermarriage would decrease as well, so it's hard to unpick affiliation, attendance and beliefs.

    Hi paper is actually a response to an earlier work by Callum Brown. He puts a late date on the decline in Christianity, and has an explanation based on feminisation of Christianity followed by permissive culture in the 1960s.

  7. Interesting post! I think it is true that people with parents from different religions are more likely to be less religious themselves. Especially when these are two monotheistic religions. When you grow up with two mutually contridictory religious viewpoints both being held by people that you admire as the Truth, you tend to be a) less likely to follow one over the other and b) generally more tolerant of other peoples religious beliefs.

    That was all anec-data by the way!

    "minor as the differences between Anglicans and Methodists" I think back in the day that was quite a major difference, for class and social reasons as much as religious ones.

  8. Tom, trying to work through the implications of everything you say. Any which way you look at it, the WWII bump looks surprising from the point of a Malinowski-style insecurity thesis. I wonder how the graph as a whole would correlate with various measures of security. I am not sure that it would. Mind you, normal measures such as unemployment would not work over over a period during which social security provisions changed how stressful being unemployed would be. Most interesting.

    The Brown feminisation thesis sounds like pure bunkum, I have to say. What the hell could he mean by that? Would he consider the traditional Marian worship that plays a central role in countries such as Poland, Italy and Ireland to be masculine? Sounds like A-grade tosh to me, not too far from the "liberals made priests rape little boys" line.

  9. Konrad, I think you should probably look at the effext of WWII in the UK in Durkheimian terms. The population was caught up in vast social projects (the armed forces, for example), and these simply supplanted religion as the focal point for society. Plus, many people were displaced, and formed new social groupings within these new, secular structures. After the war, there was a dramatic increase in the role of government (a national health service, for example).

    As a result, the social role for religion was undermined. People stopped going to Church because they could get the same services elsewhere. If you believe that learning about invisible entities is promoted by observing actions, then beliefs too would begin to be undermined.

    (that's in addition to the pluralism and intermarriage).

    I agree Brown's thesis is probably wrong. But variants of it are popular among those seeking to revive religion. The idea is that the solution is to create a more masculine christianity, to attract men back to the fold.

  10. Did the study control for the proportion of former congregation who were not able to attend due to the fact that they were, you know, away from home, fighting a war?

  11. James, I just realised that my post was confusing. Those are birth cohorts. The rise in non-attendance is for people who were born during the war. It's not non-attendance by time period. I'll fix that to make it clearer.


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