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DAVID VOAS [Essex] – Setting the statistical scene

20 April 12

Duration: 17.55, access the accompanying visual presentation below [Note that the final slides have been removed for copyright reasons]

David Voas is a leading expert on the statistics and measurement of religious adherence in Britain, and co-hosts the website British Religion in Numbers (set up with funding from Religion and Society). He introduced the topic of measuring non-religious adherence as a contentious one. For instance, does one measure religious practice, belief or self-identification, in establishing adherence or identity?

In a succession of slides he presented an analysis based on ethnicity, age and gender as significant variables which need to be taken into account. [England and Wales, 2001 census, is the most recent census data available]

• Ethnicity: Chinese exhibit the highest non-religious self-identification, at 53%. White British are 15%. Other ethnic groups are across a range, 11% Black Caribbean to 0% among Pakistani and Bangladeshi.

• Age: Charted across decades of birth from 1910 to 1990, all aspects of religious identity exhibit decline – identity, belief and practice. Each aspect halves over that 8 decade period. Identity falls from over 80% to c.40%. Belief falls from c.80% to c.30%. Practice halves from c.40% to below 20%.

• Gender: [European Social Survey 2002] Across the decades, females are consistently higher in religiosity than males. This holds true across all measures.

• Education: Higher levels of educational achievement show the highest levels of polarisation of religious identity, exhibiting either overt religious scepticism or clear religious adherence. Other levels of education show attitudes to be more “fuzzy”.

According to the most recent British Social Attitudes Surveys averaged over 2008/2009/2010, there is a very even spread of responses to the gradations of religious belief.

In answer to the core question, what fraction of the population is non-religious, David proposed defining non-religious as

• Doesn’t regard self as belonging to a religion

• Atheist or agnostic

On this definition, about 28% of the British population is non-religious, and among people less than 60 years old, a third are non-religious. In the 18-24 age group he suggests a figure of greater than 35% as non-religious.

He showed an interesting contra-indication. In answer to the question “Do you believe in life after death?”, there is a higher level of belief among younger people than older. Among men of 65+, 60% say No. This compares to less than 40% among the 18-24 group. Among women there is a corresponding difference, but not so marked.

Adding in the criterion of not believing in life after death, he numbered the rigorously non-religious as about a quarter of the British population, slightly weighted to those people under 60.

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Associated file:

Voas Senate House abbreviated.pdf

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