Congregations are losing their religious belief even faster than churches are losing their congregations, according to research published today.
David Voas of the University of Manchester and colleagues report that the number of people who have a real faith is now smaller than the number of people who passively “belong” to a religion. That undermines a cherished tenet of churches in Britain: that many people implicitly “believe” even if they don’t explicitly belong.
The study, based on a 14 years of data from 10,500 households, found that parents played a powerful role in the transmission of religious belief. But even if both parents held strong beliefs, there was only a 50-50 chance that their children would carry on believing.
In houses where only one parent had strong feelings about faith, children were much less likely to believe. On the other hand, two non-religious parents had no trouble passing on their lack of faith. In effect, attendance fell away steadily with each generation.
The only factor likely to slow the decline – congregations and ordinations have begun to dwindle in both the Catholic and Protestant traditions – is that devout households tend to have more children than non-religious ones.
Whatever the parents’ beliefs, one child in 12 will join a denomination not supported by either parent. Women in their 20s are more likely than men to attend church, especially when only one of their parents did the same.
“How children are brought up has an enormous impact on whether they will identify with a religion. Once people become adults, their religious affiliation is less likely to be affected by influences around them,” Dr Voas said.
“Many people start or stop regular church attendance. Although absolute numbers are roughly balanced, the risk of churchgoers stopping is much greater than the possibility of non-worshippers joining the Sunday congregation.”
The study found that older people described themselves as religious, though not necessarily orthodox. The middle-aged saw themselves as spiritual rather than religious. Younger people most often held beliefs as part of a view of life that they did not recognise as spiritual.
The research also identified growing divergence in attitudes to homosexuality: an issue that has begun to divide congregations and clergy. “Attitudes towards homosexuality of a young, female Christian and an elderly male Christian are likely to be at opposite extremes – even if they belong to the same generation,” Dr Voas said.