Field of Science

Three puzzles of non-religion in Britain

Britain, like many countries in the West, has been undergoing a decline in the numbers of religious believers. The patterns of change, however, throw up some curious anomalies. Three of these puzzles have recently been investigated by David Voas, a demographer at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex - all quite different, each of them quirky, and all of them shedding a little fascinating insight into the trends and patterns of non-belief in the UK.

First off, why are baby girls more likely to be religious than baby boys? If that question at first sounds nonsensical, it's because the UK census asks parents to state the religious affiliation of their children. The result is a small sex difference - one or two extra girls out of every hundred are labelled as being 'Christian' compared with boys.

The reason, Voas found, is probably because dads are less likely to be religious than mums. The child is given the religious affiliation that matches their same-sex parent. And so the gender gap is the biggest for families with a non-religious dad and a religious mum.

For the second puzzle, just take a look at this graph. It shows the change in religious affiliation since 1915 among graduates and non-graduates.

Affiliation has declined in both groups, but it's been much faster among the non-graduates. As a result, although non-graduates were more religious than graduates at the start of the last century, now they are actually less religious!

It seems that this is probably because graduates are much more passionate about their beliefs - either religious or non-religious. Non-graduates are more likely to be in the fuzzy middle - nominally religious but not really devout.

Now, both nominal and devout religious will put themselves down on the census as 'Christian'. However, as society as a whole becomes less religious, those who were formally nominally religious will now be completely non-religious. Those who once would have been strongly religious (many of whom are graduates) will now more likely be nominally religious - but still list themselves as Christian.

In other words, this is another artefact of the crude measure of religion used in the UK census. Because it only records broad affiliation, it misses the subtleties.

The last puzzle surrounds the patchiness of religious affiliation in Britain. If you look at a very fine level (at the level of individual local council wards), the percentage of people saying that they don't identify with a religion ranges from 1.9% all the way up to a most godless 42.4% (this godless epicentre is actually a place in Brighton, just down the road from where I live).

Voas found that this variation can only partly be explained by factors such as average age and professional status. An additional major factor was the number of religious people in neighbouring wards.

So it seems that religion and non-religion tends to aggregate into clusters, although what causes this aggregation is hard to say, but Voas suspects that factors like social history and local economic factors probably play a large role.

On top of this, some areas have a strong local culture. Brighton, for example, has a long tradition as venue for a bit of escapism from the moral straitjacket of London soceity - as a result, the place is now full of counter-cultural Bohemians of all types! (And me...)
Voas, D., & McAndrew, S. (2012). Three Puzzles of Non-religion in Britain Journal of Contemporary Religion, 27 (1), 29-48 DOI: 10.1080/13537903.2012.642725

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


  1. The difference between graduates and non graduates has to do with the lower suggestive power of less intelligent individuals. People that are less intelligent are less able to think for themselves and are therefore a lot more likely to be swept up by popular trends. More intelligent people are more able to think for themselves and are less impressionable, they are also probably more aware that the "New Atheist" dialogue is not any more intellectually honest than a lot of the religious gibberish they condemn.

  2. Does anyone remember this post: The difference between being religious and being a believer

    The first anon comment is mine.

    It was about the US, which seems to display different behaviour: less educated people are more affiliated.

    My explanation was that church was used as a source of welfare; but in the UK the state had been a very good welfare provider (at least, until the Blair's third way). So, for the point of view of uneducated people, being member of the church had not provided substantial benefit (unlike the US). Futher, in the UK there's a peculiar problem with placing kids on good schools, which are usually religiuos. But giving a kid a good place in school is usually a high-middle-class problem, so this may explain why educated people seem to retain religiuos affiliation.

    It will be interesting to see if Cameron's big society will give an US style outcome.

  3. The second puzzle is the one I find most interesting. I have obviously not conducted a study here in the U.S., but feel it safe to say that the opposite trend would pan out. It seems the largest clusters of atheists are in the heavily populated northeast and west coast--the areas known for their universities and general "academic" snootiness. The areas that are most religious tend to be in the south/rust belt, an area that is more economically depressed and where there are less university grads. I would be very curious to see a study explaining the differences between the U.K and U.S.---the good news is that if Santorum wins the election here, I now know to add Brighton as potential place to live...

  4. I suspect that the US is just at an earlier part of the curve - where Britain was earlier in the century. To be nonreligious in the US at the moment is an active stance - something that only accurs if you think deeply about these issues. In contrast, many non-religious in the UK today are simply 'don't cares'.


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