Conventional thinking has thought religion to be on the decline over recent decades. A more careful look at the data, however, suggests the story is a bit more complicated than a straightforward decline of religion and increase of secularization. “Polarization” and “restructuring” are the labels used by the pre-eminent Canadian sociologist of religion, Reginald Bibby. He suggests that it is nominal religion that is being squeezed. While there is a faithful core of 30% of the population that attends religious services at least once per month, on the other hand there is a sharply increasing number of those who self-identify as having “no religion.” This number, only a few percent in the sixties, has dramatically increased to about 25% of the population.
A 2012 report by the British think tank Theos looked more carefully at the belief systems of Britons who self-identified to pollsters as having no religion, which is also at approximately 25% there. The report suggests that “the proportion of people who are consistently non-religious—i.e. who don’t believe in God, never attend a place of worship, call themselves non-religious, and don’t believe life after death, the soul, angels, etc.—is very low at 9%.” Interestingly, the British surveyors found a wide range of beliefs that commonly would be characterized as religious among those who said they had no religion. They concluded that “non-religiosity is a complex phenomenon—perhaps as complex as religiosity.”
There is no intended polemic within these findings: atheist apologists will no doubt point towards the fact that the British social attitudes survey finds that atheists tend to be, on average, better educated and better off than the population as a whole; religious apologists, by contrast, will draw attention to the fact that a sizeable minority of nonreligious people profess some form of belief in a range of spiritual ideas.
Bibby’s research suggests that the Canadian “no religion” category is similarly complex.
The research tells us that they—along with many “alumni” who tell the pollsters that they have “no religion”—actually show up for services at least once in a while. Large numbers also surface when they want rites of passage carried out—notably, weddings and funerals. Still further, a good number surface when they have specific needs relating to their children or marriages or health.
These data have many implications for church leaders. These days, religion is not so much adhered to in light of its truth claims but rather by its utility. There is a consumerist mindset towards religion. Many are quite content living lives that would seem to be filled with contradictions.
This also has implications beyond the walls of organized religion. Why would we be surprised that a society which seems contented to live with contradictory opinions regarding what will happen to them after they die are comfortable living with similar contradictions regarding how they should live? Although the debate about faith is often framed in light of a contrast between faith and reason, those who self-identify as having “no religion” are not the embodiment of logical consistency.
Cardus’ promotion of “2,000 years of Christian social thought” makes clear that forcing a choice between faith and reason, as if they are somehow in contradiction, is a framework we reject. Faith involves reason and indeed, one can defend the Christian faith as a reasonable faith. We believe that those who sometimes speak as if they have reason on their side and reject faith, show by their lives that they really don’t believe the non-religious conclusions which they think are reasonable. There is both faith and reason on either side of the religious divide. The challenge isn’t about choosing between them but understanding how they work together, in our personal lives but also in our public lives together.