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Are we really heading for militant secularisation?

Posted on 15 February 2012 .
Tags: society

Prayers cannot be said as part of council meetings. ‘Militant secularisation’ is threatening society. Courts are limiting religious freedom. In recent days the debate around the place of religion in British society today has been livelier than usual. Indeed, battle lines are being drawn.

British Social Attitudes, founded and run by NatCen Social Research for nearly 30 years, has long tracked attitudes to religion in British society, providing trusted and useful data, as seen in Channel 4’s FactCheck yesterday. In 2009 we saw, for the first time, the proportion of people saying they were of no religion, outweigh the proportion saying they affiliated to a religion: 51% compared with 31% in 1983. This decline is attributable mainly to a decline in the number of Christian affiliates, with older, more religious generations being replaced by younger, less religious ones, as well as younger generations increasingly opting not to bring up their children in a religion, as explained in ‘Losing faith?’ in our latest report. Our most recent results from 2011 bucks the trend towards increasing secularisation and actually shows a slight decline, to 46%, in the proportion who say they are not religious. It’s too soon to say whether this is a blip in the data or a shift in perceptions during a period of austerity. Even so, this is still a hefty proportion of the population. Of those who do affiliate, 57% in 2011 said they never attended religious services or meetings.

These two groups – the religious and the non-religious – are not, however, pitted against each other on either side of the battle lines Baroness Warsi seems to be drawing. Ipsos Mori research conducted last year found the majority of Christians prefer religion be a private rather than public matter. This supports British Social Attitudes analysis, with Voas and Ling writing in our 26th Report (2010) that ‘most people are pragmatic: religion has personal and social benefits, but faith should not be taken too far’.

It would also be misleading to treat this ‘religious’ segment of the population as homogenous. As the Ipsos research showed, support among Christians for faith schools declined when non-Christian faith schools were included. And we see from British Social Attitudes that attitudes vary by religion with, for example, 59% of Church of England affiliates believing there to be nothing wrong at all with a man and a woman having sexual relations before marriage, compared with 17% of non-Christians. Or as seen with 58% of Church of England affiliates thinking a woman should be allowed an abortion if she decides that she does not wish to have a child, compared with 46% of non-Christians.

Baroness Warsi’s battle-cry against the secular half of Britain’s population is a little alarming, and is not one, as the above might suggest, that is likely to find unanimous support among the country’s religious affiliates.

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