Last Updated on October 29, 2018 by Karl Thompson
Secularization is the declining social significance of religion in society.
The extent of secularization is usually ascertained (for the purposes of A-level sociology) by using three broad indicators: belonging, behaving, and belief, and there are numerous specific measures associated with each indicator.
This post aims to provide brief revision notes on some of the contemporary evidence for secularization.
Evidence for secularization: statistics on religious belonging
According to a recent British Social Attitudes Survey (1) based on a sample of just under 3000 respondents (conducted 2016, published 2017):
- Only 15% of UK adults describe themselves as ‘Anglican’, compared to around 33% of the population at the turn of the century and more than 60% in the early 1960s (1)
- Just 3% of those aged 18-24 described themselves as Anglican, compared to 40% of those aged 75 and over (1).
- 53% of UK adults describe themselves as having ‘no religion’, up from 31% in 1983 (1)
- 71% of 18-24 year olds describe themselves as having ‘no religion’ up from
According to the United Kingdom Census of 2011 (3), which is based on a near 100% sample of the UK population:
- 59.3% of the population reported to be Christian, down from 71.7 per cent in 2001 to 59.3 per cent in 2011, and
- 25.1% of the population reported having ‘no religion’, up from 14.8 per cent of the population in 2001.
- There was an increase in all other main religions. The number of Muslims increased the most from 3.0 per cent in 2001 to 4.8 per cent in 2011.
NB – This final piece of evidence: the increasing reported popularity of all other religions besides Christianity cannot really be taken as evidence against secularization because the overall increase of all these other religions is smaller than the increase in the number of people reporting ‘no religion’ in the same period. It does, however, suggest increasing religious diversity.
Evidence for secularization: statistics on religious behaviour
According to the Church of England’s own data (4), both church attendance and attendance at ‘hatching, matching and dispatching’ (baptism/ marriage/ funeral) ceremonies are falling.
The 2016 figures show:
- Usual Sunday attendance at Church of England churches in 2016 was 740,000 people (86% adults, 14% children under 16).
- There were 120,000 Church of England baptisms and services of thanksgiving for the gift of a child – representing 10% of live births.
- There were 45,000 Church of England marriages and services of prayer and dedication after civil marriages – just 20% of marriages.
- There were 139,000 Church of England-led funerals during 2016, 57% of which took place in churches and 43% at crematoria/cemeteries – 28% of funerals. The higher percentage probably reflects the greater proclivity for people near death to ‘find’ ‘comfort’ in ‘religion’.
The church of England notes that most of its headline indicators show a decline of 10-15% over the last decade, since 2006.
Evidence for Secularization: Statistics on Religious Belief
Religious belief is a notoriously subjective concept: while the statistics in the first section above suggest secularization is taking place, it is possible to declare that you belong to ‘no religion’ while still having religious beliefs, so we need to dig a little deeper into the exact nature of individuals’ spiritual beliefs in order to properly assess whether secularization is taking place.
When we do this, most of the evidence suggests that secularization is occurring, although possibly not as quickly as the decline in support for traditional religion would suggests.
- A 2015 YouGov poll revealed that 33% of Britons ‘do not believe in God or a higher spiritual power’, up from 29% in 2012.
- The same poll revealed that younger people are more likely to not believe in any type of higher power compared to older people – only 25% of 18-24 year olds believe in God or some other kind of higher power compared to over 40% of over 60 year olds.
Evidence for secularization: Sources
(2) The Guardian (2017) – More than Half the UK Population has No Religion, Finds Survey.
(3) Office for National Statistics: Religion in England and Wales 2011.
(4) Church of England Research and Statistics (2016) – Statistics for Mission 2016.
(5) Daily Telegraph: Church of England Attendance Plunges to an All Time Low (2016)
(6) YouGov Poll on religious belief, 2015.