By Jessica Elgot | 4 November 2014
The Huffington Post
More than half of Britons believe that religion does more harm than good, with less than a quarter believing faith is a force for good, the Huffington Post UK can reveal today.
Even 20% of British people who described themselves as being ‘very religious’ said religion was harmful to society, and a quarter of said atheists were more likely to be moral individuals than religious people.
The exclusive poll for the HuffPost UK reveals that just 8% of Britons describe themselves as very religious, with more than 60% saying they were not religious at all.
The eye-opening survey, that will reopen debate over the role and worth of religion to British society, found of the ‘non-religious’ people polled, more than 60% said they thought religion caused more problems than it solved.
The poll shows that more people believe being an atheist is more likely to make you a good person than being religious. In fact, one in eight Britons said atheists tend to be more moral, compared to just 6% who say atheists are less moral, challenging widely held beliefs that religion is one of the last remaining bastions of British morality.
The pioneering study results come as HuffPost UK launches Beyond Belief, a groundbreaking series on the fearless Britons who’ve have used their faith to create positive change within their religion.
Other major findings revealed:
- Of the 2,004 people surveyed in the HuffPost/Survation poll, 56% described themselves as Christian, 2.5% were Muslim, 1% were Jewish and the remainder were of another faith or none
- The majority of Brits believe religion is not more likely to make you a moral person. More than 55% of those surveyed said that atheists are just as likely to be moral people than religious people
- Young people are actually more likely to have a positive view of religion. Around 30% of 18-24 year old believe religion does more good than harm, compared to just 19% of 55-64 year-olds
The strong evidence of a British society which is largely secular and multicultural has led to some call for a rethink of the role of religion in public life. Linda Woodhead, professor of the sociology of religion at Lancaster University, said it was “striking” to see the number of people professing no religion.
“This confirms something I’ve found in my own surveys and which leads me to conclude that religion has become a ‘toxic brand’ in the UK,” she told HuffPost UK. “What we are seeing is not a complete rejection of faith, belief in the divine, or spirituality, though there is some to that, but of institutional religion in the historic forms which are familiar to people.
Woodhead said the reasons for a retreat from religion are “numerous”, from sex scandals involving Catholic priests and rabbis, to conflict in the Middle East and Islamist terror attack.
“I’d add religious leaderships’ drift away from the liberal values, equality, tolerance, diversity, [which is] embraced by many of their own followers and often championed by non-religious and atheist people more forcefully,” she said.
“This survey just confirms what we know is the common sense of people in Britain today – that whether you are religious or not has very little to do with your morality,” said Andrew Copson chief executive of the British Humanist Association.
“Most people understand that morality and good personal and social values are not tied to religious belief systems, but are the result of our common heritage and experience as human beings: social animals that care for each other and are kind to others because we understand that they are human too.
“Not only that, people understand that religious beliefs themselves can be harmful to morality: encouraging intolerance, inflexibility and the doing of harm in the name of a greater good. We only need to look around us to perceive that fact.”
Copson said there were “lessons” for what role religion should continue to play in public life. “It is unsustainable for religious leaders, politicians and others to seek to make the idea of Britain as a ‘Christian country’ the basis of our national character,” he said.
“We need an inclusive shared society and an end to the privilege of religious institutions that allows a third of our state schools to be controlled by religious groups, unelected clerics to sit in our Parliament, and discriminatory religious organisations to provide what should be secular public services.”
Christianity is on the decline in Britain, with In the 2011 Census finding 33.2 million people identifying with the religion, a decrease of 4.1 million from 2001, from 72% to 59% of the population.
Islam is on the rise, with the number of people identifying as Muslim growing from 3% to 5% of the population within a decade. But the 2011 census showed a huge increase in the number of people with no religion, currently 14.1 million people, an increase of 6.4 million since 2011, which is a growth of 10%.
In the HuffPost poll, Christians and Jews both expressed negative opinions on the role of faith in society. Around 45% of Christians thought religion was, on balance, a negative force in modern life, with around a third believing it does more good.
Jews view religion even more negatively, with 70% saying religion does more harm than good, and 27% believing the reverse.
Muslims were most likely to described themselves as very religious, around 20% of those surveyed. Almost 50% of Jewish people surveyed said they were not religious at all, compared to just 7% of Muslims.
Both Jews and Christians mostly believed that atheists and religious people are just as likely to be moral, at 69% and 60% respectively. Muslims surveyed were more unsure, with 53% saying they “didn’t know”.
Only a third of young people think religion is more likely to be a negative influence, but that rises to just under two-thirds in the 55-64 age bracket.
Older people also dismissed the idea that atheists are less moral people, just 3% of over 65s believe that to be true. It is young people with a more negative view of atheism, with 12% of 18-24-year-olds believing that atheists are less moral people.
More women described themselves as religious, with 43% calling themselves very or somewhat religious, compared to 36% of men.
Survation surveyed 2004 people for HuffPost UK in Britain in October 2014.
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