In spite of the deep-rooted religious differences that have played a key part in much of Scotland’s history, the last few decades have seen a significant drop in religious identity. According to the most recent data from ScotCen’s Scottish Social Attitudes survey, 58% of Scots now have no religious affiliation. This is the highest level ever recorded in Scotland, and represents a significant change from the picture in 1999 when only 40% expressed no religious identity.
These figures also highlight that whilst younger generations continue to be less likely to profess that they belong to a religion than their older counterparts, the general decline in religious identity in Scotland over the past two decades is pronounced across all age groups. Nearly three-quarters (74%) of Scots aged 18-34 now see themselves as having no religious affiliation, a 19 percentage-point increase on the 55% figure recorded in 1999. However, religious identity has also fallen by 19% during this period amongst those aged 35-49 and by 24% amongst 50-64s. One suggested driver for this trend is the principle of ‘generational displacement’ – the idea that each successive generation, influenced by a progressively more secular society, becomes less likely to express a religious identity than the previous generation. Their gradual rise through the age groups then fuels a change that is observable across society. Indeed, the age group most resistant to the decline in religious identity remains the over 65s, amongst whom an 11 percentage point drop has been witnessed over the past two decades. However, as the gradual trend towards secularism continues, we would expect to see the rate of change amongst this group increase over time.
The fall in religious identity continues to be driven by a decline in the number of those who identify as belonging to the Church of Scotland. Although levels of affiliation with other religions have remained relatively stable during the past two decades, identification with the Kirk now stands at 18% – a figure which represents the continuation of a downward trend in affiliation with the national church since the early part of this century when around a third of people stated that they belonged to the Church of Scotland. This shift has been mirrored south of the Border where the British Social Attitudes survey has identified a sustained decline in identification with the Church of England over a similar period, suggesting that, as society continues to become more secular, the traditional ‘default’ position of asserting some level of identification with the national church may be weakening.
But what is it about today’s society that nurtures an increasingly secular environment? At the same time as witnessing a decline in the prevalence of religion, Scotland has seen a number of significant changes in how people think about a whole host of social issues including same-sex marriage, parenthood, and pre-marital sex. These changes in public opinion have often been reflected in legislation, which has the effect of reinforcing the legitimacy of such views by acting as a moral endorsement by the state of a more socially liberal outlook on life. In contrast, religion is perhaps seen by many as a socially conservative endeavour – indeed, we know from previous analysis of Scottish Social Attitudes data that those who express a religious identity are more likely to hold socially conservative views than those who don’t. There is now a significant (and often highly publicised) difference between the stance of a number of religious organisations and that of both the state and the majority of public opinion on many social issues. Therefore, if an increasingly liberal population find that they are unable to square their views with the views of any given religion, they may be less likely to feel like they identify with that religion.
Whilst these figures may make for disappointing reading amongst those for whom religion remains an integral part of their lives, the pace at which this trend will continue is far from certain, and may at least in part be contingent upon the readiness of the Kirk and others to reflect in some way the societal changes that have occurred over the last few decades. That many within the Church of Scotland are supportive of taking steps towards liberalisation was once again highlighted during this year’s General Assembly, at which officials were instructed to consider making the necessary changes to church law that would enable ministers to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies (such a move would see the Kirk follow in the footsteps of the Scottish Episcopal Church, which recently became the first major Christian church in the UK to allow same-sex unions). Should the Church of Scotland overcome the vocal opposition to such moves offered by some ministers, its appeal may begin to extend once more to those who have disregarded it in increasing numbers.
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A shorter version of this blog was originally published in The Times.