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A Britain that is losing its religion, has faith in science and is adopting more liberal ideas about sex and relationships

11 July 2019

This year’s British Social Attitudes Survey finds a nation displaying multiple and sometimes rapidly changing identities, with Brexit continuing to divide.

This year’s British Social Attitudes Survey finds a nation displaying multiple and sometimes rapidly changing identities, with Brexit continuing to divide.

As Leave and Remain emerge as strong identities and challenge those of party politics, what implications do these overall shifts hold for policymakers and how can traditional parties best speak to the nation?

The report, by the National Centre for Social Research, examines how we identify ourselves and how these identities connect with our attitudes.

Losing religious identity, having faith in science

Religious identity has fallen drastically since the British Social Attitudes Survey began. 52% of the public say they don’t belong to any religion at all (31% in 1983), with the number of people identifying as Christian falling from 66% to 38% in the same time frame. People are also less likely to believe in God, with 26% of respondents saying they don’t believe compared to 18% in 2008. Religious identity and belief are strongly related to age. 1% of 18 to 24 year -olds regard themselves as belonging to the Church of England against 33% of those aged 75 and above. 33% of the youngest age group (18-34) believe in God against 42% of those aged 55 and over.

Our latest findings for religious identity and belief are mirrored by relatively low levels of confidence in the church. Despite Brexit, more people hold "no confidence at all" in churches and religious organisations than in parliament (21% vs 16%).

In contrast, trust in scientific institutions is very high. Although more people have trust in university scientists than corporate scientists (85% vs 67%), the figures are still substantial. Graduates and those in managerial and professional occupations have a particularly high level of trust in university scientists (90%) compared to just 73% of those with no qualifications. Nevertheless, only 9% of people say they have no trust in university scientists and 28% say the same about scientists working in the private sector.

The reporting of high trust in scientific institutions comes alongside a strengthening of public support for science as a way of understanding the world. In 1993, 46% of Brits thought that "we believe too often in science and not enough in feelings and faith" while now just 27% agree. However, agreement is far higher (49%) among those who attend religious services at least once a month.

Religion also matters when it comes to attitudes about specific scientific procedures such as prenatal testing for a child with a serious mental disability. Widely supported by the general population (67%), there are significant differences associated with religious identity. While rates of support among those belonging to the Church of England are as high as for those with no religion (both at 74%), rates are lower among Roman Catholics (50%). However, they are still relatively high considering the Vatican’s stance on abortion, a procedure linked to prenatal testing.

A similar pattern is observed when it comes to attitudes to stem cell research with those having no religion most inclined to support it (79%), followed closely by Christians who identify as Church of England (77%) and other Christian groups (70%). Those who identify with non-Christian faiths and Roman Catholics are least likely to support the use of stem cells from human embryos in medical research.

Sex

Alongside declining religious identity, worldviews about personal and public morality have become increasingly liberal. Some of the most notable shifts are in attitudes towards same-sex relationships and the changing place of traditional marriage.

Two thirds (66%) of Brits see nothing wrong with sex between two adults of the same sex and 74% of us don’t see anything wrong with premarital sex, a significant increase from 17% and 42% respectively in 1983 when BSA was first carried out. Equally, respondents have expressed more progressive views on gender identity and partnerships, moving away from conventional norms and ideals. 83% say they are not prejudiced towards transgender people and two thirds of the British public (65%) agree that heterosexual couples should be able to form a civil partnership as an alternative to getting married.

Nevertheless, religion remains a prominent factor in the shaping of attitudes to sex, sexuality and relationships. When looking at opposite-sex civil partnerships, support is higher among the non-religious (73%) than among the religious. Anglicans, Roman Catholics and those of other Christian faiths are more likely to support it (67%, 59% and 58% respectively) than those who identify with religions other than Christianity (34%). And while an overwhelming majority (93%) of adults who describe themselves as non-religious take no issue with pre-marital sex, this falls to 82% of people who identify as Anglican or Roman Catholic, 66% of other Christian faiths and 35% for followers of non-Christian religions.

New political identities replacing the old

As Brexit continues to divide the nation, this year’s report reveals the continuing relevance of political identity in the emergence of Leave and Remain as new political and social fault lines. These identities - which did not exist prior to the 2016 referendum - are perhaps the most striking illustration of the power of identity in modern Britain, with three quarters (74%) of the public describing themselves as having a "very strong" or "fairly strong" identification with Leave or Remain - a significantly stronger allegiance than to traditional political parties.

There are marked differences between age groups with nearly half (47%) of those aged 65 and over describing themselves as a very strong Remainer or a very strong Leaver, compared to only three in ten (30%) of those aged between 18 and 24, the age category least likely to identify strongly with either side.

Like religious belief, identification with traditional political parties has declined over recent decades. Now, 35% of Brits describe themselves as a fairly strong or very strong identifier with a political party. In 1987, this figure was 44%. Our most recent BSA data suggests that despite this decline, party identity remains capable of shaping wider social attitudes in an instrumental way. Labour party supporters are far more likely than Conservatives to take a broad view of poverty. More than a third (36%) of Labour supporters now support the idea that poverty is when people have ‘enough to buy the things they really needed, but not enough to buy the things most people take for granted’, compared to a fifth (20%) of Conservatives. In the past Labour and Conservative supporters have had a shared interpretation of what poverty is, now we can see a significant difference between the two.

Download the British Social Attitudes report from our dedicated website.