Public Release: 

Families at prayer? Half of children with two religious parents reject church

Economic & Social Research Council

Religious belief is declining faster than attendance at services in the UK, according to a new study funded by the ESRC which found that parents' beliefs, practices and affiliations have the biggest impact on children.

The catchphrase 'believing without belonging' - found in much European research over the past decade - is wrong, at least in its usual interpretation, says a team led by Dr David Voas of the University of Manchester.

Far from religious belief being relatively strong and robust, fewer people now have real faith than passively 'belong' to a religion. While ethnic minorities are increasingly important to religious life in Britain, the trend for them is similar, albeit from a much higher starting point.

However, one factor which might yet slow the decline, says the report, is that religious parents have more children than others.

Unlike most previous research, the study looks at people over time and includes detailed information from parents, partners and children.

It found that when it comes to religion, parents are the most important influence. The report argues that institutional religion now has a 'half-life' of one generation. In other words:

  • two non-religious parents successfully pass on their lack of faith;
  • two religious parents have roughly a 50-50 chance of passing on their beliefs;
  • one religious parent does only half as well as two together.

    However, whatever the parents' beliefs, roughly one child in 12 will opt for a denomination not mentioned by either parent, especially women. And women in their 20s are more likely than men to attend church, particularly when only one of their parents did the same.

    Dr Voas said: "How children are brought up has an enormous impact on whether they will identify with a religion. Once people become adults, their religious affiliation is less likely to be affected by influences around them."

    However, his team also found that even where evidence appears to demonstrate that religious allegiance has been passed down from one generation to another, this conceals a lot of differences among individuals.

    He said: "Many people start or stop regular church attendance. Although the absolute numbers are roughly balanced, the risk of churchgoers stopping is much greater than the possibility of non-worshippers joining the Sunday congregation."

    Secularization has also changed the environment in which children are raised, says the report, reducing the likelihood of their socialising with religious people.

    Looking at the effect of views on homosexuality, the study found that while the proportion of people saying it is not at all wrong has grown substantially, this overall trend masks a persistence and even sharpening of divisions.

    Dr Voas said: "There is a large and growing generation gap, a large and growing gender gap and, most importantly for the churches, a large and growing gap between liberal and conservative Christians.

    "Attitudes towards homosexuality of a young female Christian and an elderly male Christian are likely to be at opposite extremes -- even if they belong to the same denomination."

    Among those with non-traditional beliefs, people most likely to call themselves spiritual are those who once went to church, often as children. Older people mostly describe themselves as religious, though not necessarily orthodox, whilst the middle-aged see themselves as spiritual rather than religious. Younger people most often hold their beliefs as part of a view of life which they do not even recognise as spiritual.



    Dr. David Voas on 0161 275 4836; 01433 659823 or Email:

    Or Lance Cole, Lesley Lilley or Becky Gammon at ESRC, on 01793 413032413119/413122


    1. The research project 'The British Household Panel Study and key issues in religious change' was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Dr. Voas is at the Cathie Marsh Centre for Census and Survey Research, School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester M13 9PL.

    2. Methodology: The research was based on the British Household Panel Study, carried out by the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER), incorporating the ESRC Research Centre on Micro-Social Change, at the University of Essex. Begun in 1991, the panel now consists of some 10,500 households throughout the UK. Data are collected annually to provide information on UK household organisation, employment, accommodation, tenancy, income and wealth, housing, health, socio-economic values, residential mobility, marital and relationship history, social support, and individual and household demographics. Data was combined with cross-sectional information from the British Social Attitudes surveys of 1983 to 2002.

    3. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £93million every year in social science and at any time is supporting some 2,000 researchers in academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences to nurture the researchers of tomorrow. More at 4. ESRC Society Today offers free access to a broad range of social science research and presents it in a way that makes it easy to navigate and saves users valuable time. As well as bringing together all ESRC-funded research (formerly accessible via the Regard website) and key online resources such as the Social Science Information Gateway and the UK Data Archive, non-ESRC resources are included, for example the Office for National Statistics. The portal provides access to early findings and research summaries, as well as full texts and original datasets through integrated search facilities. More at

    5. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peer review. Sometimes the ESRC publishes research before this process is finished so that new findings can immediately inform business, Government, media and other organisations. This research is waiting for final comments from academic peers.

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