Secularism and socio-political attitudes in the UK

A guess post by Ben Clements and Peter Gries

Since the publication of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in 2006, there has been much public debate over atheism among intellectual elites in the UK. For instance, in his 2007 The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, Alister McGrath argues that Dawkins misrepresents the bible and Christianity out of a ‘deep insecurity about the public credibility of atheism’. In the decade since, many highbrow articles and books have joined the fray from both sides of the debate.

But what do we know about the opinions of secular groups within the wider public? What do they think about religion and politics compared to those belonging to Christian and non-Christian traditions? The growth of the ‘religious nones’ within the UK adult population is an obvious sign of strengthening secularization and the declining social and cultural relevance of religion in the UK. Indeed, the UK has been described as one of the ‘most secular nations on earth today’. Yet while the religiously-unaffiliated form the plurality — if not necessarily the majority — in most surveys today, there has been little scholarly investigation into atheists, agnostics, and other groups with no religious affiliation.

There is a growing need for scholars of religion in the UK to look within the ‘black box’ of secularism. Smith and Baker observed that ‘One of the major directions that future research can pursue is to emphasise and outline the nuance present among secular segments of the population’. Taking the UK as our case study, we took up their call, seeking to contribute to a better scholarly understanding of the religiously unaffiliated and to wider debates about religious change and secularization.

In an article recently published in Politics and Religion, we analysed a 2014 nationally-representative survey of the UK adult population to explore how those who identify as ‘agnostic’ or ‘atheist’ differed both from each other and from the religiously-affiliated (e.g. Anglicans, other Protestants, Catholics, and ‘other religion’). We explored how these groups differed in (1) religiosity, (2) left-right ideology, and (3) policy preferences on a range of sociopolitical issues. The results revealed notable differences both between agnostics and atheists and between them and religiously-affilated indivduals.

Not surprisingly, our analysis of three dimensions of religiosity (behavior, belief, and the personal salience of religion) revealed large differences between atheists and agnostics on the one hand and the religiously-affiliated on the other. Across all three facets of religiosity, atheists and agnostics scored by far the lowest, and those with a Christian affiliation scored the highest. These findings follow common sense and are consistent with findings from the United States, where atheists are also the least religiously-engaged, followed by agnostics.

In terms of left-right ideology, secular groups in the UK were more to the ideological left than the religiously affiliated. Amongst the religious groups, Anglicans were the furthest to the right.

In terms of policy debates, we found that the smallest differences were on increasing welfare spending and reducing taxation. On these socio-economic issues athiests were the most ‘statist’ and Anglicans least ‘statist’ in their views. The groups differed slightly more on immigration and European integration. Anglicans were the most supportive, and atheists the most opposed, to a toughening of immigration laws. On Europe, Anglicans were the most opposed to further European integration and here they differed significantly from both atheists and agnostics.

The groups differed the most on the issue of legalizing gay marriage – an archetypal ‘culture wars’ issue in the USA. Of course, recent legislation in Britain promoting equality for same-sex couples in different areas of social life has often been strongly opposed by religious denominations and their leaders. As Baker and Smith have observed, this particular issue is clearly ‘religiously-charged’, as debates over economic policy, immigration or Britain’s relations with the EU gnerally tend not to be. Precisely the issue, then, on which we might expect secular groups to hold views distinct from those held by religious groups. Accordingly, atheists and agnostics were the most in favor of, while Anglicans and Other Protestants were the most opposed to, legalizing gay marriage.

The findings which emerged from our study invite other scholars to undertake further research to shed more light on secular groups in the UK population, further investigating the sources of social and attitudinal heterogeneity within the broader ‘religious nones’ grouping, and developing and refining classifications of secular and religious phenomena. They also reveal that atheism and agnosticism in the UK are not just the stuff of highbrow intellectual debate; the rise of secularism in the UK is affecting the sociopolitical views of the public.


Ben Clements is a Lecturer in Politics at the University of Leicester, and Peter Gries is the Harold J. & Ruth Newman Chair in US-China Issues and Director of the Institute for U.S.-China Issues at the University of Oklahoma. Find him on twitter @PeterHaysGries.

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