As congregations shrink, half of children with two religious parents reject church


Findings of a new study by Dr David Voas of The University of Manchester, funded by the ESRC, suggest that religious belief is declining faster than attendance at services in the UK, and that parents' beliefs, practices and affiliations have the biggest impact on children.

The catchphrase 'believing without belonging' - found in much European research over the past decade - is wrong, at least in its usual interpretation, says the team led by Dr Voas.

Far from religious belief being relatively strong and robust, fewer people now have real faith than passively 'belong' to a religion. While ethnic minorities are increasingly important to religious life in Britain, the trend for them is similar, albeit from a much higher starting point.

However, one factor which might yet slow the decline, says the report, is that religious parents have more children than others. The report argues that institutional religion now has a 'half-life' of one generation. In other words:

  • two non-religious parents successfully pass on their lack of faith
  • two religious parents have roughly a 50-50 chance of passing on their beliefs
  • one religious parent does only half as well as two together

However, whatever the parents' beliefs, roughly one child in 12 will opt for a denomination not mentioned by either parent, especially women. And women in their 20s are more likely than men to attend church, particularly when only one of their parents did the same.

Dr Voas commented: "How children are brought up has an enormous impact on whether they will identify with a religion. Once people become adults, their religious affiliation is less likely to be affected by influences around them."

However, his team also found that even where evidence appears to demonstrate that religious allegiance has been passed down from one generation to another, this conceals a lot of differences among individuals.

He said: "Many people start or stop regular church attendance. Although the absolute numbers are roughly balanced, the risk of churchgoers stopping is much greater than the possibility of non-worshippers joining the Sunday congregation."

Secularization has also changed the environment in which children are raised, says the report, reducing the likelihood of their socialising with religious people.

Looking at the effect of views on homosexuality, the study found that while the proportion of people saying it is not at all wrong has grown substantially, this overall trend masks a persistence and even sharpening of divisions.

Dr Voas said: "There is a large and growing generation gap and gender gap and, most importantly for the churches, a large and growing gap between liberal and conservative Christians.

"Attitudes towards homosexuality of a young female Christian and an elderly male Christian are likely to be at opposite extremes -- even if they belong to the same denomination."

Among those with non-traditional beliefs, people most likely to call themselves spiritual are those who once went to church, often as children. Older people mostly describe themselves as religious, though not necessarily orthodox, whilst the middle-aged see themselves as spiritual rather than religious. Younger people most often hold their beliefs as part of a view of life which they do not even recognise as spiritual.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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