By Matt Barnwell and Amy Iggulden
Organized religion is in near-terminal decline in Britain because parents have only a 50-50 chance of passing on belief to their offspring, a study claimed yesterday.
By contrast, parents without faith are successful in producing a new generation of non-believers, it said.
The report identified institutional religion as having a “half-life” of one generation, as children are only half as likely as their parents to say that it is important in their lives.
The generational decline is too advanced to reverse, the report suggested, as the proportion of people who believe in God is declining faster than church attendance.
Dr David Voas, who oversaw the study at the University of Manchester, said religion would reach “fairly low levels” before very long.
“The dip in religious belief is not temporary or accidental, it is a generational phenomenon — the decline has continued year on year,” he said. “The fact that children are only half as likely to believe as their parents indicates that, as a society, we are at an advanced stage of secularisation.”
The findings appear to contradict the commonly accepted theory that people “believe without belonging” — the idea that religious belief is robust even though churchgoing is in longer-term decline.
According to the survey, which was based on 14 years of data from 10,500 households, the importance of belief in God fell by 5.3 per cent to 32.5 per cent between 1991 and 1999.
This compared with a fall of 3.5 per cent in the proportion of people who attended church services over the same period and a 2.9 per cent decrease in the proportion who said they were affiliated to a particular religion.
The Church of England reacted with disbelief at the suggestion that faith was declining, and said that parental influence was not the only factor in preserving inter-generational belief.
“There is an assumption that people ‘catch’ religion from their parents, but many people come to faith through the grandparents, schools, and their friends,” said Steve Jenkins, a spokesman.
He said that the study had not released “proper evidence”.
“There is nothing to back up the claims, and our recent statistics show that congregations are actually increasing, as is the number of ordinations.” Last year 564 people were selected to become new clergy, the highest figure in six years. And congregations in 2003 had increased in size by 1 per cent.
But the National Secular Society, which has 3,000 paid-up members, welcomed the survey results.
“We find [belief] embarrassing as a country and it is time we accepted that,” said Terry Sanderson, the vice president. “People may say they believe in Christianity but if you question them even slightly it becomes clear that they cannot accept the central tenets of its faith — they don’t believe in its supernatural explanations.”
The study, which used figures from the British Household Panel and British Social Attitudes surveys, found that parents had the greatest influence on children’s beliefs, and that although a child with only one religious parent was half as likely to inherit their faith as a child with two religious parents, the decline could be slowed by the fact that religious parents tended to have more children.
The study also found generational decline evident throughout the Islamic and Jewish faiths, but from a much higher starting point.