A new study by a senior theologian at St Mary’s Catholic University in Twickenham has revealed, in a historic shift of seismic proportions- that those who identify as non-religious outnumber those who identify as religious in England and Wales.
The study, ‘Contemporary Catholicism in England and Wales’, launched in the British House of Commons Tuesday, found that those who identify as atheists, agnostics and ‘nones’- the umbrella term for those who identify with no organised religion- number 48.5% of the population of the two countries in 2014.
This is in contrast to those who identify with religion, who made up 43.5% of the population of the two countries.
Stephen Bullivant, the lead lecturer on the study, analysed data collected through British Social Attitudes surveys, going as far back as three decades.
Other crucial findings of the survey included the fact that 40% of people raised Anglican (Church of England) shed their faith at some point as they grow older. It also found that for every person recruited into the church by an Anglican and a Catholic, they lose 12 and 10 followers respectively.
The seismic shift is big, and it is not going the way of religion.
In 2011, the number of people who identified as ‘nones’ was at 25%, nearly half what the recent survey found. It echoes a trend across much of the developed world, where organised religion is losing its grip on increasingly secular, well to do societies- far from the death grip it has over most of the developing world, from Asia to Africa to Latin America.
Even in the United States, which really is the outlier in the Western world for still retaining a huge influence of religion on most aspects of life, the tide is gradually turning, though certainly not as much as it is in Europe. A Pew study from 2014 found that ‘nones’ have grown from 16.1% in 2007 to 22.8%. That might not sound impressive, until you realise that is more than the share of US Citizens who identify as Catholic (20.8%) and Protestants (14.7%). Only the uber rabid evangelicals of the Christian right number more than ‘nones’, at 25.4%.
Numerous surveys in the past have shown that generally well to do people practice religion at a lesser rate than people in dire straits, a nod to the famous Marx line about religion being an opiate. It points to the role religion plays psychologically, in keeping despairing people with some sort of hope for a better world in the afterlife.
But the shift towards a world with less religion is not just fuelled by people leaving religion due to intellectual or philosophical reasons, but also by people disgusted with organised religion. A significant chunk of ‘nones’ across the world retain a kind of belief in a God, or spirituality, but are just not interested in the trappings of organised religion, which has become outdated for its innate promotions of patriarchy, misogyny, oppression of minorities (women and LGBT especially), hypocrisy and amassing vast wealth to the detriment of their followers.
And there is no denying the advent of the information age plays a huge role in that. Nothing is driving the move to leaving religion and becoming a ‘none’ more than the millennial- the tech savvy, social media obsessed yet enormously informed generation of people who grew up with the internet age, and who very soon would be running the world. Pew found that over a third of US millennials are already ‘nones’, deserting religion in droves. Millennials are more socially liberal than any generation before them, and consequently, despise the authoritarian, conservative leanings of organised religion.
But it’s not all doom for religion worldwide, of course. There’s still the Middle East, which should remain religious for at least the next century- infact, Pew finds Islam might overtake Christianity as the world’s most patronised religion in a few decades– and religion is not losing its stranglehold on Africa (soon to become the Christian capital of the world) or Latin America anytime soon.
But the signs are there, that people make the switch from religion quite easily than they did in the past. The institution has all the advantages, from childhood indoctrination to promising a cure to humanity’s most primal fear, that of death- but whilst it might never be done away with, it’s clear its future is very much in jeopardy from an increasingly informed and enlightened populace.