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British religion has changed dramatically and the implications for policy and practice are far reaching

Date: 09/05/2012

Summing up findings from the £12m Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)/Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Religion and Society Programme at the final Westminster Faith Debate last week, Professor Linda Woodhead argued that research shows that religion in Britain has changed more rapidly since the 1980s than our ideas about it.

Professor Woodhead, Director of the Religion and Society Programme, spoke of a ‘ de-reformation’ of religion, which has changed the basic shape of religion in Britain which had held sway since the 16th Century Reformation. From Hillsborough onwards, the church ceased to be in control of our national and personal rituals. By the time of Diana's death, popular practices had taken over. Similarly, the churche's hold over birth, marriage, and death has weakened dramatically.

Professor Woodhead (Lancaster University) set the debate: What are the main Trends in Religion and Values in Britain?, in the context of many sociologists' expectations that religion would fade away in an age of secularisation.

However, the new research findings under discussion at the debate show that belief in a personal God is down by a third since the 1950s (to 26%), and belief in the divinity of Jesus down by almost a half (to 40%). Yet belief in God as Spirit has risen (to 44%), as has belief in angels (41%), and a soul (70%). This is not simply a growth of superstition, as belief in fortune telling and astrology have not risen. Rather, religion has returned to the core business of sustaining everyday life, supporting relations with the living and the dead and managing misfortune.

In addition the way people participate in religion has also changed. It is no longer a matter of participating in a neighbourhood church - regular attendance has halved since the 1970s to 6% of the population. Instead, people belong to real and virtual networks which transgress local and national boundaries.

Also of importance is that religious identity has also shifted. Although most people still call themselves Christian or Muslim or Hindu etc, they add &psquo;in my own way’. Religious identity is more diverse, more individual, more chosen. It is only a part of most peoples' identity. It no longer makes sense to think in terms of six or nine ‘world religions’ into which individuals can be pigeonholed.

The implications for how we teach Religious Education, deal with terrorism, manage state-religion relations, treat disputes over religious identity, and report religion are immense – but not yet taken seriously.

Professor Grace Davie (Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Exeter) argued from events of the last six decades that religion never went away, but we are losing the ability to discuss it intelligently.

Aaqil Ahmed (Commissioning Editor for Religion, and Head of Religion and Ethics at the BBC), responding to the research findings, demonstrated how religious broadcasting attempted to respond to the rapidly changing interests of audiences.

Finally in his response, Cole Moreton (newspaper journalist, and author of Is God Still an Englishman?), highlighted events and attitudes which revealed major shifts in religious awareness and practice.

Linda Woodhead said: we've got to stop talking as if religions are packages of unchanging conservative dogmas, rituals and values. They are for a few people – but not for most. The majority are a bit religious and interested in exploring things for themselves. They want religion to give meaning to their lives – they don't want to give their lives to a religious system.?

Charles Clarke, who chaired this debate, said: ‘as governments struggle to deal with controversial issues like multiculturalism, Religious Education in schools, and religious representation in the House of Lords, it?s vital that they understand what religion really means these days. It?s no good letting outdated ideas dictate how we make policy for the future.

Notes to editors:

  • AHRC Media contact: Jake Gilmore, Communications Manager, Tel: 01793 416021 / Email: j.gilmore@ahrc.ac.uk
  • The Westminster Faith debates are designed to bring the best academic research into the public eye, making the very topical debates on the role of religion in society more informed on subjects from extremism to multiculturalism, welfare reform to religious freedom.
  • The papers presented by Professor Woodhead and Professor Davie, audio podcasts and video of the debate are available on the Religion and Society website.
  • Linda Woodhead is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University and Director of the Religion and Society Programme. Her publications include A Sociology of Religious Emotion, with Ole Riis (2010).
  • Grace Davie is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Exeter. Her publications include Religious America, Secular Europe? with Peter Berger and Effie Fokas (2008) and she is a member of the Religion and Society Programme's Steering Committee.
  • Cole Moreton is a freelance journalist who writes pieces for The Mail on Sunday, The Independent and other titles. His books include Is God still an Englishman? (2011).
  • Aaqil Ahmed is Commissioning Editor Religion and Head of Religion and Ethics at the BBC. He is also a member of the Religion and Society Programme's Steering Committee.
  • The Westminster Faith Debates are organised by The AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society programme, Charles Clarke and Theos.
  • Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC): Each year the AHRC provides approximately £98 million from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities, from languages and law, archaeology and English literature to design and creative and performing arts. In any one year, the AHRC makes approximately 700 research awards and around 1,000 postgraduate awards. Awards are made after a rigorous peer review process, to ensure that only applications of the highest quality are funded. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK.
  • The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. We support independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. At any one time, we support over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.
  • The Religion and Society Research Programme is a collaborative venture between the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Economic and Social Research Council. Together, these UK government funded research councils have contributed £12m to fund research of the highest quality on the interrelationships between religion and society. The Programme started in January 2007 and finishes December 2012. It has funded over 70 original projects across the arts, humanities and social sciences in three phases, with Phase 2 focused on Youth and Religion. Four types of projects (large grants; small grants; collaborative studentships; networks and workshops) have been funded. These awards are held across UK universities. Research is historical as well as contemporary in focus and many projects are investigating international contexts.


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