Guest editorial by Linda Woodhead
from Modern Believing Vol 55:1

What do people in Britain really believe?

This special issue of Modern Believing is designed to answer that question by pulling together salient research and debate from the Westminster Faith Debates. I am grateful for the opportunity to do so, and I have tried to select findings and themes which may be of particular interest to readers of the journal.

Let me begin with a brief word of explanation and background. Despite the importance of the subject of belief and values in Britain, research to date has been patchy. Within academic circles, the secularisation of many fields of study has inhibited research. Within journalism and the media more generally other topics, like political attitudes, have seemed more important. And religious bodies in Britain, including the richest, namely the churches, have shown little interest in serious research.

The result has been a gap in our understanding of the values and beliefs of the British population, both religious and secular. When speaking about the subject, many people just guess or make it up. I have lost count of the number of sermons I have heard, and pieces of theological writing I have read, which make assertions about social values like ‘we live in a secular society’, ‘selfishness rules’, ‘there is a deep spiritual longing’ - without checking whether they’re true. The problem has been compounded by the difficulty of doing so.

Recently, however, a number of strands have come together to create a new opportunity for greater understanding and truthfulness. One is the growth of the internet and related marketing tools which make it possible, and normal, to find out what ‘ordinary’ people really think about a whole range of issues. In-house company research teams and out-source polling companies now offer highly effective means of gathering information on public attitudes. They work with a public which expects to be asked what it thinks about anything from soap powder to politics, and which can easily make its voice heard by means of new forms of electronic communication. This makes the whole process of data gathering vastly easier, cheaper and faster - studies which used to take years can now be undertaken in weeks.

Another important ingredient has been growing interest in religion and investment in research about it. In 2007 two of the British research councils, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), invested £12m in a new research initiative called the Religion and Society Programme. Its aim was to train new researchers and stimulate new research across the arts, humanities and social sciences - not least in subjects whose horizons had become narrowly secular. The result has been a vast programme of research involving 240 academics and researchers from 29 different disciplines working on 75 separate projects. The Programme ended this year, and the results are still appearing (see www.religionandsociety.org.uk for more details).

Finally, there is a growing recognition that belief and ‘culture’ in the widest sense really matter. Since 1989, or perhaps 1979, it has become clearer than ever that societies are not merely shaped by political power and economic interests, and that individuals aren’t just self-interested rational agents intent on maximising their own economic wellbeing. Religion is not a fading and purely private concern. Culture matters, and the ability to tell the stories and shape the symbols which inspire us and frame our lives and priorities is as real and important as ‘harder’ forms of power. There is a growing recognition that beliefs and values are central to both social and personal identities, and that they help drive both peace and conflict.

For the past couple of years I have been involved in a project which capitalises on all of these developments - the Westminster Faith Debates. The debates were founded and are organised by myself and Charles Clarke, the former Home Secretary. For me, the spur was the fact that the Religion and Society Programme, of which I had been appointed director in 2007, was producing an array of important new findings which merited wider circulation. For Charles, the incentive was experience as a local and then national politician which had led him, despite being an atheist, to think both that religion was a vital part of the social fabric, yet misunderstood and mishandled in political circles - and that engagement with good research could help. When Charles was appointed visiting professor at Lancaster University where I lecture in the sociology of religion, it gave us the opportunity to devise a new forum in which the latest research on religion could be brought academy into wider discussion and so raise the level of public understanding and debate.

We held the first series of debates in Spring 2012, on the subject of Religion in Public Life. We did so with trepidation, fearful that no-one would be interested and no-one would come. But we were able to attract prominent speakers, and the large room we had booked in Whitehall filled up fortnight by fortnight with a genuinely interested and engaged audience. In each debate, two academics would present their findings about a topic - for example, religion in schools - and two public figures would respond - in this example, Richard Dawkins and John Pritchard the Anglican bishop with oversight for Church of England schools.

The 2013 series of Westminster Faith debates took as its theme the complementary subject, ‘religion and personal life’. Having gained some momentum with the whole initiative, I was now able to commission a large, nationally-representative poll. This was another means of bringing good research into each debate. When we dealt with a topic like same-sex marriage, for example, it was illuminating to see what proportions of the population were for and against, who they were, and why they thought like this.

I devised two extensive surveys, one on religion and personal ethics, one on religion and public ethics. The first probed beliefs about issues of life, death, sex and the family, the second asked about people’s deep-seated political and economic values. Both began with a barrage of questions about religion and belief - not just how do you self-identify, but what do you believe about God, spirit or no God, to what groups do you belong, how do you practice in private and public, what influences you now and influenced you in the past, from whence do you take authority, and so on. I worked with YouGov (strapline, ‘what the world thinks’) to administer the surveys, each of which was completed in 2013 by over 4,000 adults aged over 18 in England, Wales and Scotland (not Northern Ireland). YouGov maintains a panel of about half a million people willing to answer questions through the internet. The findings are remarkable. They have already helped to influence debate, and there is more analysis and dissemination to be done.

It is this entire initiative – surveys and debates – which informs this special issue of Modern Believing. My role has been to orchestrate this rich wealth of material - and the many voices involved - into a coherent presentation of contemporary British beliefs and values. The voices and opinions are not my own, but those of the speakers, participants and thousands of people who filled in the surveys.

What it adds up to is intended not just as a distillation of scholarly and public opinion on various topics. I have tried to do more than simply offer a briefing on ‘What Britain Believes’ which might for example, inform reflections about the culture in a sermon or theological discussion. I hope it will do that, but I hope it will also do more. For me, the Westminster Faith Debates and the approach they represent is not just about new information, it is about a new way of doing theology and being a church which allows greater participation by much larger numbers of people.

Until recently, scholarly and clerical elites had a monopoly on culture and religion in this country. Since the 1980s, the explosion of further and higher education, the deregulation of the media, and the advent of internet and all the information if makes available, have changed this forever. Now we all know more, and we expect to have a greater say. We’re not happy at being preached at - we want some comeback. We want our leaders to be more accountable, and we want our views to count. Social research is no longer something which only ‘experts’ do, in the mode of white-coated scientists undertaking a study of research ‘subjects’ from another planet. Research happens in many more locations, and the most successful institutions and businesses are those which invest well in it, and operate a constant feedback loop of information and decision-making.

The churches and theology are inevitably affected. They have to become more accountable, more participatory. Theologians often speak about being accountable to the church - but how? It’s no longer enough to do theology ‘for the church’, it makes much more sense to do it with it - but that involves knowing what Christian people think. The same for the running of the churches. Their leaders still guess what people believe, and make unfounded statements on the subject (for example, Justin Welby recently told the House of Lords that a majority of religious groups were opposed to same-sex marriage - as our survey shows, that’s factually inaccurate).

A church come of age, as Bonhoeffer might call it, includes men and women with informed opinion which should count - and the research and debate summarised here is a way of allowing it to do so. It’s by no means the only way, but I hope it’s a step in the right direction as we move towards more modern ways of being Christian.


Linda Woodhead is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University. Her main interest is in documenting and analysing  religious change in modern societies, relating it to wider social changes, and thinking through practical  and political implications.