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[Image] BBC Head of Religion and Ethics Aaqil Ahmed speaking at the event

WFD 6 Trends

02 May 12

Watch the highlights from and listen to podcasts of the debate here: http://www.religionandsociety.org.uk/faith_debates/trends

Press Release

British religion has changed dramatically, and the implications for policy and practice are far-reaching

Summing up findings from the £12m Religion and Society Programme at the final Westminster Faith Debate this week, Professor Linda Woodhead argues that research shows that religion in Britain has changed more rapidly since the 1980s than our ideas about it.

She speaks of a ‘de-reformation’ of religion, which has changed the basic shape of religion in Britain which had held sway since the 16th Century Reformation.

Consider our national and personal rituals. From Hillsborough onwards, the church ceased to be in control. By the time of Diana’s death, popular practices had taken over. Similarly, the churches’ hold over birth, marriage, and death has weakened dramatically.

Beliefs have changed too. Belief in a personal God is down by a third since the 1950s (to 26%), and belief in the divinity of Jesus down by almost a half (to 40%). Yet belief in God as Spirit has risen (to 44%), as has belief in angels (41%), and a soul (70%). This is not simply a growth of 'superstition', as belief in fortune telling and astrology have not risen. Rather, religion has returned to the core business of sustaining everyday life, supporting relations with the living and the dead, and managing misfortune.

The way people participate in religion has changed too. It is no longer a matter of participating in a neighbourhood church – regular attendance has halved since the 1970s to 6% of the population. Instead, people belong to real and virtual networks which transgress local and national boundaries.

Religious identity has also shifted. Although most still call themselves Christian or Muslim or Hindu etc, they add ‘in my own way’. Religious identity is more diverse, more individual, more chosen. It is only a part of most people’s identity. It no longer makes sense to think in terms of six or nine ‘world religions’ into which individuals can be pigeonholed.

The implications for how we teach RE, deal with terrorism, manage state-religion relations, treat disputes over religious identity, and report religion are immense – but not yet taken seriously.

Linda Woodhead said: “we’ve got to stop talking as if religions are packages of unchanging conservative dogmas, rituals and values. They are for a few people – but not for most. The majority are a bit religious and interested in exploring things for themselves. They want religion to give meaning to their lives – they don’t want to give their lives to a religious system.”

Charles Clarke said: “as governments struggle to deal with controversial issues like multiculturalism, RE in schools, and religious representation in the House of Lords, it’s vital that they understand what religion really means these days. It’s no good letting outdated ideas dictate how we make policy for the future.


  1. Details about the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Programme, which consists of 75 separate research projects, at http://www.religionandsociety.org.uk/
  2. All statistics as compiled on the Religion and Society Programme-funded website ‘British Religion in Numbers’ http://www.brin.ac.uk/figures/#ChangingBelief
  3. The Westminster Faith debates are designed to bring the best academic research into the public eye, making the very topical debates on the role of religion in society more informed on subjects from extremism to multiculturalism, welfare reform to religious freedom. All details are available on the website: http://www.religionandsociety.org.uk/faith_debates 
  4. The Westminster Faith Debates are organised by The AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society programme, Charles Clarke and Theos.
  5. The papers delivered by the two academics, Linda Woodhead and Grace Davie, are available here.

Media Coverage

  • Stephen Evans 'The need for secularism in a superdiverse society', National Secular Society blog post about the 2 May WFD 10 May: http://www.secularism.org.uk/blog/2012/05/the-need-for-secularism-in-a-superdiverse-society  
  • Linda Woodhead 'Mind, body and spirit: it's the de-reformation of religion' based upon her 2 May WFD paper, The Guardian Comment is Free Belief 7 May: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2012/may/07/mind-body-spirit-dereformation-religion
  • Nelson Jones 'Face to faiths' New Statesman blog about the Westminster Faith Debates, 2 May: http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/religion/2012/05/face-faiths
  • Charles Clarke discussing the final WFD on the Today Programme, 2 May, 8.50am: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01gvqnd#synopsis

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