Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Sociologists and faith

I've been reading some very interesting work by a sociologist called David Voas. He and a colleague, Alasdair Crockett, have been looking at data from the British Household Panel Survey and British Social Attitudes Survey searching for insight into Christian belief and church belonging in contemporary Britain.

For many years lots of us have been attracted to Grace Davie's suggestion that while church attendance is falling, Christian belief is still important in British society. More people believe than belong and Davie's 1994 book Religion in Britain Since 1945 was subtitled Believing without Belonging.

It is this notion that Voas and Crockett set out to challenge. And their article in the February 2005 issue of the Journal Sociology 'Religion in Britain: neither believing nor belonging' is pretty convincing. I have to add that as a working pastor, it's also pretty sobering and thought-provoking.

One of their key findings delivered using a telling image from the science of radioactivity is 'in Britain institutional religion now has a half-life of one generation.' This is based on data that indicates that children from families where two parents go to church are around 48% likely to become church-going adults themselves. Where only one parent attends church regularly (by which they mean once a month), the outcome is halved.

This gives our church's current thinking about and search for a youth worker a certain edge!

But another comment in the article also caught my eye. Talking about data that suggests levels of belief mirror those of belonging, Voas and Crockett say: 'If people choose not to belong it is a clear sign that they do not believe religious doctrine. Whether or not they are confident that God exists, it is apparent at the very least that they doubt the Almighty much minds whether they spend Sunday in church or in the shops.'

This assertion seems to contradict the findings of Richter and Leslie in Gone But not Forgotten and Alan Jamieson in A Churchless Faith. But I wonder whether it's an observation we need to take seriously. It's possible that what these guys are writing about is a transitional phenomenon. Some people leave church for relational and institutional reasons with their faith in core doctrines in tact but over time if they don't re-engage with a Christian group or church, those beliefs decay (to use the radioactive image).

It is, of course, possible that church leavers are being polite when they suggest that they still believe in Jesus, it's just Christians they can't stand. And, of course, mission thinkers have for a generation asserted that people find Jesus attractive but don't want the church. But Voas and Crockett might have unearthed something we don't want to accept: that there is a much closer correlation between belief and belonging and that when people choose not to belong, they are saying that they have ceased or are ceasing to believe - at least in the way they used to.

This has some implications for post-church groups. I'm going to a meeting on Friday about those, so I'll blog more on this over the weekend.

There is good news hidden in all this, however. Bob Mayo from Ridley Hall, Cambridge, has researched the beliefs of generation Y and found they don't have any - at least, they don't have beliefs or views about the Christian faith. This is good news. They are not disillusioned spiritual searchers who've tried Christianity, found it wanting and are looking elsewhere. They are people who don't know the story, are not hostile to it and if told it in language they understand, will give it a fair hearing.

That too has implications for our search for a youth worker...


Anonymous said...

Simon, I've been following your direction with fascination for some months now on these issues. They are things that are close to my heart. I must admit that I find myself slightly shocked by the comment made by the researchers: "If people choose not to belong it is a clear sign that they do not believe religious doctrine" This is a new thought to me and as I haven't belonged to a church for nearly two years now it disturbs me!
I don't want to reject it out of hand though, it needs serious consideration!

Paul W said...


Thank you for presenting this research. As a sociologist myself, the one thing I miss is access to professional journals! I personally believe the likes of Pete Ward, James Thwaites, Alan Jamieson and Pete Tomlinson have been more sanguine about a "churchless faith" or whatever than the evidence allows.

One of the most questionable assumptions of the "believing without belonging" argument is that it is ironically a very anti-sociological claim since it disembeds religious conviction from any significant kind of interaction with religious communities.

(By the way, I'm going to post a discussion of the second chapter of your _Why Bother With Church_ soon at my blog.)