Public Release: 

As congregations shrink, half of children with two religious parents reject church

University of Manchester

Findings of a new study by Dr David Voas of The University of Manchester, funded by the ESRC, suggest that religious belief is declining faster than attendance at services in the UK, and 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 the team led by Dr Voas.

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. 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 commented: "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 and 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.


For more information please contact Jo Grady, Media Relations Officer at The University of Manchester on 0161 275 2018, or at

Notes for Editors
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, The University of Manchester M13 9PL.

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.

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

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