Why ‘no religion’ is the new religion

A majority of white British people now identify as having ‘no religion’, a new YouGov survey, carried out by Lancaster University researchers, has revealed.

But we are not becoming secular – only a quarter of us are confident there is no God, and most ‘nones’ are not atheists.

Of the adult population as a whole, 46% now identify as having no religion (nones) and 44% with Christianity. The proportion of people reporting “no religion” is rising with every generation. The survey revealed in the under 40 age group there are twice as many nones as Christians, in the 40 to 59 age group there are equal numbers, and in the over 60 age group there are nearly twice as many Christians as nones.

Linda Woodhead, Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University, who carried out the poll, began surveying religion with YouGov in January 2013. Then 37% of the population of Great Britain reported having no religion. By February of 2015 that had gone up to 42%, and, in a survey undertaken last month with YouGov using the same questions, the figure had increased to 46%.

The findings support the British Social Attitudes survey which found 51% reporting no religion in 2013, against the census of 2011 which reported a lower proportion.

“No religion is the new norm,” says Professor Woodhead, “and there is every indication that its majority share will continue to grow.”

“In terms of upbringing, no religion is particularly sticky,” adds Professor Woodhead. “We can see that 95% of people with a ‘no religion’ upbringing retain that identity, whilst 40% of those with a Christian upbringing lose a Christian identity.”

Professor Woodhead’s research reveals that nones are not distinct from the rest of society in terms of class, educational level, or political leaning. They are, however, very liberal in their attitudes to personal morality, even more so than those who identify as religious.

Only 13% of nones hold anti-religious views in the style of Richard Dawkins. A quarter take part in some spiritual activity in the course of a month, and 11% call themselves “spiritual”. But 99% do not take part in any religious group or form of collective worship, and many have a negative view of religious leaders and institutions.

Professor Woodhead comments: “The rise of the nones may be due not only to the fact that people have become less religious, but that the churches have become more so – more set apart from society. It used to be quite common for people to identify as Church of England simply because they were English, but now they’re more to think of themselves as having no religion.”

The shift is more pronounced in Britain than in other counties with a similar or related religious history. The Scandinavian countries retain strong Christian majorities, as does the USA.

Overall, these findings reveal a revolutionary generational change in Great Britain’s religious identity from the default or norm being Christian to the default or norm being no religion.

Professor Woodhead will discuss the findings in detail at the British Academy Lecture Why No Religion is the New Religion on Tuesday 19 January 2016, 6pm to 7.15pm.

  • Survey designed by Linda Woodhead and fulfilled by YouGov. Nationally representative sample. Sample size 1668 GB adults. Fieldwork 21-22 Dec 2015.
  • A quarter of the population of England and Wales in 2011 (nearly a third if prefer not to state is included) and 37% in Scotland (44% if prefer not to state is included). One reason the Census may be undercounting nones is that it poses a potentially leading question - ‘what is your religion?’ - another may be that the head of household is allowed to fill in the Census on behalf of others.