Just over half the population of Britain now consider themselves Christian after a “sharp decline” in religious belief over the past quarter of a century, concludes a new academic study from the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen).
The full results will be made available in January 2010, but preliminary analysis of the data has been made available by Professor David Voas.
He told the Daily Telegraph yesterday: “More and more people are ceasing to identify with a religion at all. Indeed, the key distinction in Britain now is between religious involvement and indifference. We are thus concerned about differences in religiosity - the degree of religious commitment - at least as much as diversity of religious identity.”
The research utilises the results of 4,486 interviews conducted by the respected 2008 British Social Attitudes survey.
A little over 50 per cent of respondents now call themselves Christian, down from 66 per cent in 1983. NatCen said this was a “sharp decline in religious faith in Britain.”
The last census, often quoted by the Church of England and others, comes up with the figure of 71 per cent, but analysts say this is more an indicator of "cultural attachment" than actual adherence or belief.
The proportion of people in Briton who say they have “no religion” has increased from 31 per cent to 43 per cent. Those who are religious but not Christians, including Muslims and Jews, are now 7 per cent of the population, up from two per cent 25 years ago.
Professor Voas said: “The declining Christian share is largely attributable to a drift away from the Church of England.”
Those who say they worship in the Established Church are down from 40 per cent of those who call themselves Christians to 23 per cent.
Official Church of England attendance figures show that average Sunday attendance was 978,000 in 2007, compared with 1.2 million in 1983.
The proportion of Roman Catholics has declined slightly from 10 per cent to nine per cent.
Further questions, the Telegraph reports, show that 37 per cent of Britons either do not believe in God or are unable to say if God exists, while 35 per cent have a definite belief in God or believe with occasional doubts.
Only 7 per cent described themselves as "very religious", and 62 per cent said they never attended services in a place of worship.
Even 49 per cent of those who said they were Anglicans claimed never go to church, while eight per cent go every Sunday.
The study suggests that the decline in faith is largely attributable to children no longer being brought up in a particular religion.
Professor Voas commented: “The results suggest that institutional religion in Britain now has a half-life of one generation, to borrow the terminology of radioactive decay. Two non-religious parents successfully transmit their lack of religion. Two religious parents have roughly a 50/50 chance of passing on the faith. One religious parent does only half as well as two together.”
He believes that the population can be categorised as religious, non-religious or “fuzzy faithful” – the 36 per cent who “identify with a religion, believe in God or attend services, but not all three”.
Despite the survey showing falling belief in God, 65 per cent of those questioned still thought that religion helps people to find inner peace while 79 per cent thought it provided solace.
An additional 44 per cent said it was a shame that the influence of religion on British life was declining, while 18 per cent claimed both that faith is becoming more influential and that this is a bad thing.
"This latest data confirms the continual decline of institutional Christianity and the emergence of a mixed belief society in which fresh patterns of adherence are developing, belief is mutating, and we are gaining a more realistic picture of what it means to live in a plural, post-Christendom era," said Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia.
He added: "The challenge for the churches now is to transition away from the old 'Christendom order', which depended upon residual cultural power and mutual accommodation with governing authority, and to discover instead a more creative role based on 'living by good example' rather than clinging on to a false 'majority mindset', demanding privilege and seeing pluralism as a threat."