British Social Attitudes 36

Britain's shifting identities and attitudes

This year's BSA report charts a continuation of a long-term decline in religious identity, religious observance, and religious belief in Britain.
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Crowded train station in the UK


In this year’s British Social Attitudes report (BSA), we see a continuation of one of the most important trends in post-war history: the steady decline in religion and belief among the British public. This decline is not simply a private matter for individuals and families, but rather a trend with profound implications for our social norms as well as our public institutions.

Today, following decades of secularisation and social change linked to industrialisation and the rise of liberal democracy, we can see clearly not only a shift away from religious worldviews, but also the strengthening of confidence in science and technology, which not only permeate our day-to-day lives in practical ways, but also provide an alternative way of interpreting and understanding the world (Wilson, 2016). While trust in religious institutions is waning, trust in science and scientists is high. If there is indeed a crisis of trust in Britain today, it is far from being in evidence everywhere.

Since the 1960s, this secularisation, along with the women’s and LGBT movements has brought about fundamental changes in our moral framework for sex and relationships, as well as a decline in traditional, religiously informed understandings of the proper role of men and women in society (Brown, 2012). Marriage has been transformed on all levels, with the institution now open to same-sex couples and no longer the only socially validated form of sexual relationship. Sexual morality is almost unrecognisable from its post-war starting point, with homosexuality and sex outside of marriage viewed resolutely through a liberal lens and even older generations and the religious shifting their views.

So, are we now a nation of secular, liberal rationalists, with beliefs, attitudes and behaviours driven by empiricism and logic?