‘Noneship’ is about non-believing and non-belonging: 84 per cent of British “nones” don’t believe in God, according to new YouGov poll

British adults “nones” (with no religion) are now clearly both non-believers as well as not belonging to a church or religious tradition. The results of a YouGov of 8,455 people, published today, indicate that British secularisation has a comprehensive non-religious character to it.[1]

Whilst 41 per cent of Britons identify as Christian, 38 per cent respond as being of “no religion”. In age groups terms, “nones” are in the majority amongst 18-19 year olds, with 47 per cent amongst those in their 20s, and 44 per cent of those in their 30s. This evidence supports the 2001 and 2011 censuses, and the British Household Survey data since 1983, which show dramatic growth in the proportion of the people not identifying with any religion.

But the most interesting aspect of the poll is the quality of “noneship” that emerges – the character and qualities of those without religious affiliation. Only 12 per cent of “nones” self-describe as “a spiritual person” (and only 15 per cent of all Britons), and only 1 per cent as “a religious person” (and 8 per cent of all). Instead, amongst “nones”, 43 per cent describe themselves as “atheists”, 40 per cent as “agnostic” and only 16 per cent say they believe in God. This affirms that no religionists are very far from retaining a religious character despite abandoning their churches. With 84 per cent not believing in God, and 88 per cent not describing themselves as “spiritual”, this demonstrates that the character of  “noneship” has acquired a distinctly secular hue.

This is important because much work in religious sociology, the sociology of religion and religious history has, since the 1990s, emphasised the supposed “religious” nature of those who identify as “nones”. Terms such as “seekers”, “liminals” and “fuzzy fidelity” have been in vogue amongst some scholars to suggest that secularisation has been a redefining of faith rather than its rejection.[2]  Recent surveys in the USA have been interpreted to show that of those who professed “no religion”, only one-third were atheists.[3] Likewise, three scholars opined that “the apparent irreligiousness of many people in the United States, Sweden and Japan is an illusion caused by a failure to define religion with sufficient breadth and nuance”.[4] The British evidence has been equally open to such down-grading of the quality of secularisation.[5]

What this new YouGov poll does, certainly for Britain, is to provide much firmer evidence of the secular nature of secularisation. Not only are “nones” shown to be deeply indifferent to believing and to belonging, even amongst those who identify as having a religious identity only 47 per cent describe themselves as “religious” and/or “spiritual”. As much as 33 per cent of Christians self-describe as atheists or agnostics (plus 63 per cent of Buddhists 42 per cent of Jewish identifiers and 11 per cent of Muslims). Only 2 per cent of “nones” go to church and only 3 per cent pray – though 18 per cent meditate, a practice which is clearly not widely regarded amongst them as “spiritual”.

The results of this survey add to the weight of evidence that secularisation in mainland Britain has, since the 1960s, become deeply entrenched, profound in its historic undermining of religiosity, and without indication of any slowing in pace. “Noneship” is not a religion, but is proving to be an intensely secular condition.

[1] Linda Woodhead for Westminster Faith debates, surveys available at http://faithdebates.org.uk/research/ The survey excluded Northern Ireland.

[2] Amongst the wide literature on this subject, see Chaeyoon Lim, Carol Ann MacGregor and Robert D Putnam, ‘Secular and luminal: heterogeneity among religious nones’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion vol. 49 (2010), pp 596-618; David Voas, ‘The rise and fall of fuzzy fidelity in Europe, ‘ European Sociological Review vol. 25 (2009),. Pp. 155-168.

[3] Rodney Stark, What Americans Really Believe: New Findings from the Baylor Surveys of Religion (Waco, Baylor University Press, 2008, pp. 141-4.

[4] Rodney Stark, Eva Hamberg and Alan S Miller, ‘Exploring spirituality and unchurched religions in America, Sweden and Japan’, Journal of Contemporary Religion vol. 20 (2005), pp. 3-23 at p. 20.

[5] See especially Jane Garnett, Matthew Grimley, Alana Harris, William Whyte and Sarah Williams (eds.), Redefining Christian Britain: Post 1945 Perspectives (London, SCM Press, 2006). For a wider review of the literature, see Callum G Brown, Religion and the Demographic Revolution: Women and Secularisation in Canada, Ireland, UK and USA since the 1960s (Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2012), pp. 60-70

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