Sunday’s census is likely to show a massive decline in Christianity, an expert studying people’s religious views has predicted, mainly because post-war generations regard the Church as increasingly immoral and irrelevant.
For 20 years Professor Abby Day of Goldsmiths, University of London has been studying the Baby Boomer generation of Brits born post-war into religious families, who were baptised and confirmed in the Church of England and then left the church, and organised Christianity, in their teens, never to return.
According to her latest research, the permissiveness of the 1960s allowed the Baby Boomer generation to reject the Christianity of their church-attending parents in favour of values they found more relevant, inclusive and humane. The Baby Boomers then raised a generation of Millennials who are those most likely to choose ‘No Religion’ on the census.
Her findings suggest the census will show that the UK has entered a ‘Post-Christian’ era.
Professor Day said: “Post-Christians are motivated by ethics concerning gender and sexual equality, social justice, climate change and compassion. The churches failed to deliver on those moral issues and so lost moral authority. Today’s younger generations have a different sense of soul, meaning and morality and it’s one that rejects the church’s record of abuse, racism, homophobia, and sexism.”
However, Professor Day says that her research, which recently involved interviewing Baby Boomer ex-Christians on Zoom, does not mean that these ex-Christians are ‘ex-spiritual’.
Professor Day said: “Modern Millennials and Baby Boomers may not believe in God, but a surprising number believe in ghosts, mainly of their deceased loved ones. I’ve interviewed 15, 50 and 55-year-olds who tell me about feeling close to a departed grandma, or dad. It’s not the hereafter that has changed, but the where-after. For many ex-Christians, there’s no such thing as heaven or hell, but there is a space somewhere for the continuing spirits of the people they love.”
Just under one percent of the population now attends the Church of England weekly, and all other measures of Christian practice, such as baptism and confirmation, are declining. While a small percentage of people may tick the ‘Christian’ box on the census, most are older and are not being replaced in the churches.
Professor Day said: “Millennials were raised by Baby Boomers who did not believe in forcing their children to attend church, as they had been when young. Because religion is mostly transmitted through family, this loss of church habits became ingrained and is unlikely to be reversed.”
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With Covid interrupting her planned research field trips around the UK and North America, Day found instead that Zoom and WhatsApp provided good interview platforms and has been able to interview almost 50 of the Baby Boomer ex-Christians. With access to other databases and archives of interviews and surveys, she has built a picture of a generation determined to lead more ethical, ‘authentic’ lives and raise children sharing those values.
Although Day expects Census data on Christians will show decline, she suggests there are still some who choose the ‘Christian’ category because it conforms to a sense of identity. Day categorises these non-religious Christians in three ways: 'natal' (because it's about baptism and family); 'ethnic' (because it's about culture and country) and 'aspirational' (because being Christian is being good).
A YouGov poll sponsored by Humanists UK confirms her analysis, showing that most British adults who ticked ‘Christian’ on previous censuses said they either never attend a place of worship (27%), outside of pandemic times, or do so less than once a year (24%). Similarly, 29% of those who ticked another religious answer said they never attend a place of worship, while 14% said they do so less than once a year’. Further, when asked how religious they are, 26% of those ticking ‘Christian’ said that they are very or somewhat non-religious, as did 20% of those ticking another religious option. 30% of those ticking ‘Christian’ and 14% of those ticking another religious answer said they are neither religious nor non-religious.
Professor Day’s research on the census and generational change began when a question on religious identification was placed on the UK decennial census in 2001, for the first time in its 150-year history. She is a Professor of Race, Faith and Culture at Goldsmiths, University of London and has also been an Academic Advisor for the Office for National Statistic, that designs and administers the census.
Day’s previous research explored the lives of older, religious laywomen - the so-called ‘silver ladies’ who cleaned churches, baked cakes and never missed a Sunday. That generation, in their 80s and 90s when she interviewed them five years ago, are now dying off and not being replaced by their Baby Boomer children or Millennial and Generation Z grandchildren.
Photo: Worcester Cathedral by More Than A Game via Flickr.