Dr Christopher Cotter from the University of Edinburgh is not entirely convinced that Britain is no longer a Christian country and wonders how Christian Britain was in the first place.
Sputnik: According to new data, only 1% of individuals aged 18-24 and one third of adults aged over 75 consider themselves Christian. On the back of this, is Britain now no longer a Christian nation?
Christopher Cotter: A lot of the assumptions that will come with these figures are the just demonstrating that Britain is no longer a Christian country, but I would always want to challenge that narrative. How Christian was Britain to begin with? I mean, when we see these figures, it seems like people are no longer very Christian, but what it is demonstrating is that institutional forms of religion, particularly in the UK context where we have Christianity, Church of England, Church of Scotland, are unappealing. What this actually says to people's subjective religiosity, their beliefs, behaviours, privacies and so on is much more complex, but certainly there is a distancing from this category of religion which is being seen as something more traditional, backwards, something that belongs in the past. And that's something that is a change that has definitely happened in recent decades, is this disassociation from taking a stance, which might say I’m part of that club.
Sputnik: Year on year we’ve seen a growing number of people rejecting religion, particularly Christianity, in the UK. Is this new research surprising?
Christopher Cotter: It's been a growing trend in recent years, but it comes along with what I would say would be a general distancing from institutions, from signing up to identity packages, onto labels and so on. It's a sort of very postmodern condition in which we're finding ourselves in the 21st century. You could argue there was a thesis put forward by a sociologist called Robert Putnam in a book called "Bowling Alone," which is focusing upon how people were starting to not gather together in groups so much, so they were rather than being part of bowling leagues, they were going and bowling on their own. We can see this throughout society, and I wouldn't say it's necessarily something just connected to religion. Are people members of political parties, other community groups and so on? That could be connected to a whole host of things, you know, the rise of online communities and how much is the online world providing rather than religious groups. But there's definitely this sort of trend, [of] disaffiliating from large groups which come with their own sort of identity packages and value commitments and things, I would very much fit with what we have seen happening over recent decades.
Sputnik: What positive and negative effects could these movements away from organised religion have on British society? Is it something that should worry people?
Christopher Cotter: The positives and negatives sociologically, for me are, are quite connected. In a positive sense, you have individuals decoupling themselves from these large groupthink type thing, where identities and morals and values and rituals and practices are more sort of prescribed for them and that they participate in. So it's really a positive thing that people are perhaps thinking even more critically about what they're doing, making more active choices, not just toeing the party line as it were, which had positive impacts, but also there are negative impacts that come with that as well. Whilst [some] pulling this may see that development as a positive with people making certain more autonomous small decisions and so on, it can lead to really more of a relativism, people looking around and again as I mentioned online, the sort of packages that we may assume that people have worked with in the past are becoming a lot less easily definable, and who knows where people are going to for their beliefs values, and so on. That's not to say that they were always going to religion in the past, far from it, but it makes it certainly sociologically a lot more difficult to try and pin down where people were raised and which makes it potentially a lot less easy to predict then [how] people might act in certain situations.
There's been a big research project recently called the Understanding Unbelief program, which has looked at populations in at least six different nations. And their UK research, but also the research across all these nations, found that when they took the general population and ... parts of the population [who] were identifying as say atheist, agnostic, the beliefs and values across the whole population and across this subgroup were basically the same beliefs in family, freedom, truth, compassion and so on. So actually, this division of people between the religious and the non-religious, it may be more of the result of survey categories than really telling us very much about what people are doing on the ground.
Views and opinions expressed in the article are those of Christopher Cotter and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.