The proportion of the total population who see themselves as belonging to a particular religion has been on the decline – from around two-thirds (65%) back in the mid-1980s to just over half (53%) by 2011. That’s not particularly surprising or new – the Census figures released last year show a similar decline, although differences in the question mean the proportions are different. 1
This is quite a fall – the sort of change that would raise concern for the long-term survival of religious attachment. But as the chart above shows this decline is almost entirely related to changes in the generational make-up of the population, similar to the patterns we've seen with political attachment.
As with political identification, there is very flat affiliation with a religion within each generation over time – and each has a lower level of religious attachment than their elders. But having said that, the gaps between generations are getting successively smaller, so that there is little difference between generation X and generation Y, and in fact it is the pre-war generation that stand out as particularly different.
Of course, generational effects are far from all that’s going on in religious trends. As the Census highlights, it’s actually Christianity that’s declining, while all the other main religions are increasing (mostly related to immigration). But given these make up a very small proportion of the overall religious community, the aggregate trend has still been firmly downwards.
However, as the chart below shows, there has actually been no change in attendance at religious services or meetings over this period. One in five people (21%) claimed to attend religious services once a month or more in 1989, and exactly the same percentage (21%) claimed to do so in 2011 – and there was remarkable consistency throughout the intervening years. These contrasting trends of decreasing affiliation and stable regular religious attendance are in line with other studies that show that much of the decline is among cultural or nominal Anglicans, while the number with an active faith remains steady.
And this is partly down to the shifting generational patterns of attendance. Up until the mid-2000s there was a very similar generational pattern to that seen with affiliation, with each successive generation less likely to attend than the previous. But this has changed significantly, if somewhat erratically, for the two youngest generations – so that by 2011, these generations were actually more likely to say they regularly attend services than baby boomers.
As Grace Davie outlines, this all seems to support the view that the church is moving from a conscript to a professional army. 2 And this seems to be playing out generationally, as a simple comparison of the ratio of affiliation to attendance suggests; there are much lower “conversion rates” from affiliation to attendance among the pre-war generation than you get among younger generations.
Of course this raises the question of why we’re seeing this shifting pattern - and in particular whether it is driven by the higher proportions of younger people with attachment to non-Christian religions (for example, as a result of the age profile of recent immigrants).
Unfortunately this is difficult to answer definitively with the data here, as the sample sizes are too small to break down by religion within generation. However, it seems likely to be at least part of the explanation. As the table below on the most prevalent religions shows, non-Christians make up a significantly greater proportion of the religious within this youngest age group. This means that the gap between generation Y and generation X is greater on Christianity than overall religious attachment.
| No religion
So the overall picture of religious attachment and attendance looks perhaps more stable in the long-run than many would expect: it seems inevitable that we will see further declines in belonging, but at a slowing rate – and attendance figures may actually continue to hold up remarkably well. However, unfortunately for Christian churches, this is not incompatible with Lord Carey’s suggestion today that Christianity is just “a generation away from extinction” without concerted action to bring young people back in.