Pandaemonium

WHAT DO BELIEVERS BELIEVE? (NOT WHAT YOU MIGHT EXPECT)

religion praying

Linda Woodhead is professor of sociology of religion at Lancaster University and Director of the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society research programme. She is also one of the most acute observers of contemporary religion and religious identity. She has been conducting a series of surveys with YouGov on social and personal morality for the Westminster Faith Debates, of which she is the organiser. Linda is writing an essay for Pandaemonium on the changing character of religious identity, which I will publish that next week. In the meantime, here is a sneak preview of some of the data from her polling.  (The survey was conducted by YouGov in Britain in June, with a sample size of 4018.)

What is striking is the divergence between the picture of religious belief that has been painted in recent political debates and media discussions and that depicted by the YouGov data.  Recent debates on social morality – for instance over questions of abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage and assisted dying – have suggested a dramatic division between believers and non-believers. With certain notable exceptions, that is not what the data reveals.  Certainly, believers are more conservative than non-believers on these issues. But they are also far more liberal than politicians, journalists or religious leaders are willing to acknowledge.

Take for instance the question of abortion. Respondents were asked whether the time limit on abortions (currently set at 24 weeks) should be changed.  Forty per cent wanted to keep the time limit as it is, 6% wanted to increase it, 29% to lower it and 6% to ban abortion altogether. Non-believers are slightly more liberal, believers slightly less so. But the differences are not huge: (the survey broke the figures down into many more denominational categories; I have selected just a few. I have also contracted the wording of the choices to make it easier to fit into a table on a blog; the actual choices presented to respondents were ‘Increasing the time limit to above 24 weeks’, ‘Keeping the time limit at 24 weeks’, ‘Reducing the time limit to below 24 weeks’ and ‘Banning abortions altogether’):

All respondents

No religion

Anglican

Catholic

Jewish

Hindu

Raise time limit

6

8

5

5

7

9

Keep it at 24 weeks

40

46

39

32

48

35

Reduce it to below 24 weeks

29

26

33

31

23

15

Ban abortions altogether

6

3

6

16

3

9

Don’t know

18

17

17

16

18

33

The Catholic response is particularly striking. Sure, 16 per cent of Catholics want to ban abortions altogether. But two-thirds defy Vatican teaching by accepting abortion of some kind, a third want to keep the time limit unchanged, while an astonishing one in 20 Catholics wants a more liberal abortion law than exists now.

Equally striking are the figures for Muslims, a group that diverges from the norm:

All respondents

Muslim

Increase time limit

6

12

Keep it at 24 weeks

40

18

Reduce it below 24 weeks

29

17

Ban abortions altogether

6

20

Don’t know

18

33

Twenty per cent of Muslims want to ban abortion altogether, a much higher figure than the general population, and higher than any other religious group.  At the same time, 12 per cent of Muslims want to increase the time limit, twice the figure in the general population, and higher than in any other religious group.  Muslims, in other words, are highly polarised on this issue, which is perhaps why nearly third polled ‘don’t know’. So much for the idea of a homogenous Muslim community with a single set of beliefs.

prayers at mosque

On the question of assisted suicide, too, the differences between believers and non-believers are not as great as some might think. People were asked:

Euthanasia is the termination of a person’s life, in order to end suffering. Do you think British law should be kept as it is, or should it be changed so that people with incurable diseases have the right to ask close friends or relatives to help them commit suicide, without those friends or relatives risking prosecution?

Their response (Again, I have contracted the wording of the choices; the actual choices presented to the respondents were ‘The law should be kept as it is’ and ‘The law should be changed to allow assisted suicide in these circumstances’):

All respondents

No religion

Anglican

Catholic

Jewish

Hindu

Muslim

Keep law as it is

14

7

14

26

17

22

48

Change law to allow assisted suicide

76

85

77

63

71

53

30

Don’t know

11

8

10

12

12

25

21

Muslims are again significantly more conservative. But believers in most faiths, like the population as a whole, want a change in the law.

Similarly, on the question of same-sex marriage, believers are far more liberal than the current debate might have suggested. People were asked ‘Do you think that same sex marriage is right or wrong?’

All respondents

No religion

Anglican

Catholic

Jewish

Hindu

Muslim

Right

46

62

38

35

53

30

15

Wrong

37

21

47

47

33

40

67

Don’t know

17

17

15

18

13

30

18

Believers are considerably less liberal on this issue than non-believers, and (with the notable exception of Jews) less liberal than the general population, too, but in most cases not to an alarming degree. Most faiths are divided on the issue, just like Britain as a whole, not what you might have gathered from the recent public debate. Again, the one group that is strikingly more conservative are Muslims, but again not nearly so conservative as Free Presbyterians, not one of whom thought that same sex marriage was acceptable.

god and adam hands

What the data reveal is the growing divergence between the beliefs of most believers and the beliefs of those who are taken to represent their views. It also reveals the changing character of religious belief.

Believers who are most conservative on issues of social morality are, unsurprisingly, also those who possess the greatest certainty in the existence of God and who make moral decisions primarily on the basis of explicit religious sources. ‘This “moral minority” of strict believers’, Woodhead suggests, ‘amounts to almost 4% of the population, and is spread across religious traditions, with a greater concentration among Baptists and Muslims.’ Only a minority of believers, however, look to scripture or to religious institutions for moral guidance. The poll asked people about the source on which they most relied for moral guidance. Here is how they answered (the respondents were given more choices in the survey, but I have eliminated some of the less relevant categories):

All respondents

No religion

Anglican

Catholic

Jewish

Hindu

Muslim

Own reason  & judgment

35

41

34

29

40

17

12

Own intuition or feelings

21

21

23

21

17

13

11

Family

18

18

21

20

14

25

8

Trusted friends

4

4

4

4

5

0

1

God or ‘higher power’

4

0

4

8

3

13

22

Tradition & teachings of my religion

3

0

3

8

8

4

12

Science

3

5

2

0

2

7

1

Scripture or Holy book

2

0

1

1

0

1

17

Religious group to which I belong

1

0

1

2

1

2

0

Religious leaders, local & national

0

0

0

0

0

0

3

Don’t know

3

2

3

3

7

7

10

Some of these categories may seem confusing. For instance, the categories ‘God or “higher power”’, ‘Tradition and teachings of my religion’ and ‘Scripture or holy book’ would seem to overlap to a large degree. Nevertheless, the patterns revealed in the data are clear. Most people, religious or non-religious, look to themselves and, to a lesser degree, to their family and friends for moral guidance. Few believers these days seem to find moral authority in religion itself.

Even among Muslims, who from this survey are the most rule-bound or book-bound of believers, the impact of these changes are visible. A quarter of Muslims looked to their ‘own reason or intuition’ as the means of making moral decisions, and barely half the sample looked to religion in whatever form, whether the Qur’an, the imam or tradition. Virtually no one, of any faith, according to this survey at least, look today to religious leaders when making up their moral minds.

We can read these shifts in different ways. They reveal, on the one hand, a greater willingness to think for oneself, and to use reason as a means of moral decision making; on the other, they reveal also, perhaps, a more individualized society, and the erosion of collective mechanisms for coming to moral decisions. However we read the figures, the data point to a significant change in the way that believers think about religious belief and a growing convergence between believers and non-believers in forms of moral decision-making. They suggest, too, that we need to rethink ideas of religious identity, of the relationship between believers and religious institutions, and of whom we take to be representative of religious views on moral issues. These questions, I suspect, will be at the heart of Linda’s upcoming essay on this issue.

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32 comments

  1. Wow. Thanks for stealing her thunder for our benefit! Great to: 1) flip me 180 degrees, to a default from now on to questioning even formal mandates to speak accurately for the religious; and 2) get way less binary about who believes what. Especially that last, for a centrist-ish liberal like myself: that we’re suddenly revealed as not so different. That there are greys in the world. That reaching out to the right might be invisibly, secretly, even inexorably influential. Notwithstanding demonization, denials, and assumed difference.

  2. emmi

    “raise time limit” on the first question was confusing for me at first. Only in context of the other options did it sort of start to make sense. I wonder how many of the respondents understood really that this option meant letting women wait longer to decide, i.e., let fetus develop to a later stage and still be aborted. Just a thought to explain the results.

    Why “raise” what about “lengthen”. or “extend”. “Raise” for something linear is weird.

    • That is my fault not the survey’s. In constructing a table that would easily fit on a blog, I have contracted the wording. The actual choices presented to respondents were ‘Increasing the time limit to above 24 weeks’, ‘Keeping the time limit at 24 weeks’, ‘Reducing the time limit to below 24 weeks’ and ‘Banning abortions altogether’. I think that wording makes the different choices clear. Thanks for pointing it out – I have added a note to the post so that there is no confusion.

  3. All the issues discussed (in this post and backed by the data) rarely comes under the knife of society b/c they are dealt strictly privately and with highly confidentiality, especially in Muslim society. Individuality in such matters is most of the time is a compelling necessity. People will keep thinking such matters going away of the religion b/c religions are not changing/evolving.
    cut long story short is ‘ these matters (homosexuality, suicide and abortions) are already dealt on individual basis and no one ask others for indulging in such matters.
    for me, religion in private matter as far as one is not harming society by ‘misusing this word’.

  4. Keylem Murray

    Those who defy the teachings of the Catholic Church are not Catholic, even if they profess to be one!

  5. Chris Routledge

    Interesting data, which, as an Anglican priest, matches up largely with what I encounter day-to-day..

    One comment, however: the last question “asked people about the source on which they most relied for moral guidance.” The key word here is “most”. It is inaccurate to say that “few believers these days seem to find moral authority in religion itself” – rather one should say that it is not the primary source of moral authority.

    Bear in mind, too, that one’s reason/judgement and intuition/feelings are affected/influenced by one’s environment (whether one has religious faith or not), so I suspect that more people’s moral decision-making is related to their faith (not their religion) than this survey suggests.

    • Fair point. However, the fact that the moral stance of most believers on issues such abortion or same sex marriage appears closer to that of non-believers than to that of religious leaders or to the formal demands of religious institutions suggests that, insofar as religion shapes people’s moral views, it does so differently than it did in the past. Faith, it is true, remains important to most people but the meaning of faith has changed considerably, as Linda Woodhead points out in her essay. One interesting snippet from the survey is that equal proportions of believers define themselves as ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’. In the past this might have suggested a distinction between those who supported organized religion and those were ‘alternative’ in some way. Today, there appears to be no such distinction (members of organized religions also call themselves ‘spiritual’). It suggests, rather, that the meaning of organized religion to believers is changing.

  6. Hi Kenan, I wanted to comment on your excellent deconstruction of Ramadan’s new book. But comments seem to have been closed on that thread. What is the reason for that?

    • I’m glad you liked the review. However, comments automatically close on posts that are more than a month old. If there wasn’t such a cut-off point, I would be spending all my time responding to comments rather than writing new posts.

  7. The whole survey rather begs the question of how you define belief or denomination. If I claim to be C of E or Catholic, does that make it so, even if I never attend?

    Far more interesting would be the results for “believers” who attend a meeting of that group at least once a month.

    • The survey does break down the data according to the frequency of attending service (there is a huge of amount of information in the survey, only a small portion of which I presented above). Attendance does affect attitude, but not greatly. Take the question of abortion. 25% of those (of all denominations) who attend services at least once a week want to keep the limit at 24 weeks compared to 28% of those attend less than once a year. 23% of weekly attenders want to ban abortion altogether, compared to 13% of those who attend less than once a year. On the question of same-sex marriage, 23% of those who attend services once a week think it is acceptable, as compared to 21% of those who attend less than once a year. The survey also disaggregates the data for every denomination by frequency of attendance, and by strength of belief, though I do not have those figures.

  8. Note that the study reflect what believers believe IN BRITAIN. An important qualifier that seems to evade most who are sharing this article and/or commenting on it.

  9. Jon

    Careful about how you interpret that last set of results. Just because people rely on their own reason and judgment doesn’t mean that religious authorities are irrelevant. In fact, religious people’s judgment is almost certainly shaped in part by religious authorities and sacred texts.

    • I don’t disagree with that. However, as I suggested to Chris Routledge above, what is important is the shift in the meaning of religion and in the relationship of believers to religious institutions and traditions, and the growing indivdualisation of faith, themes explored by Linda Woodhead in much of her empirical work, and in the essay she has written for Pandaemonium.

  10. John Ross Martyn

    I think it is unfortunate that those of a conservative bent rely on authority and tradition to question such things as same sex marriage and assisted dying, rather than rational, evidence based argument. I suspect that rational, evidence based argument would be a more effective support for conservative views on these matters than authority and tradition.

    • What conclusion one get from rational, evidence-based, logical argument depends on what moral/ethical principles one accepts. In the most obvious case, there is no scientific evidence for the beginning of truly human life in a developing fetus, so how one treats abortion depends on whether one has a priority on avoiding harm to a possible human being or a priority on autonomous decision making by adult humans. The selection of these priorities has a major prejudicial effect in one direction or the other. So calling for rational decision making does not ensure that people will agree with you.

      • John Ross Martyn

        If I may say so, I think this rational and logical post is some support for my view. If the application of the different principles is a matter of priority, then it is difficult to argue that one should apply to the complete exclusion of the other. A priority on avoiding harm to a possible human being does not prevent autonomous decision making by adult humans prevailing in certain cases, for example where the continuation of a pregnancy will cause great harm to the health of the mother.

  11. completely misleading to present this as anything other than an opinion piece. the word evangelical does not appear in this report once. this alone guts this ‘report’ of any validity. it lacks controls…and thoroughness.

    • To be honest, I am not sure what your beef is. I have taken a small part of the dataset from a large and rich survey, conducted by YouGov for Linda Woodhead and the Westminster Faith Debates, and commented upon it. I have not suggested that this is an academic paper (I will leave that to Linda), merely a blog post, nor that it is a comprehensive report on the survey. The survey, as I have already mentioned, breaks the data down by many more categories than I have presented. As for controls, it was a survey, not an experiment. Pollsters use a number of sampling, wording and statistical techniques to try to control for bias. What methods YouGov used in this particular case, I don’t know. But these kinds of surveys are frequently employed in academic research.

  12. Honestly, I find this completely UNsurprising. Yes, as with almost anything, individual variation outweighs global trends. The most conservative atheist is much worse than the most liberal believer. We already knew that.

    We also already knew that religion very heavily skews people towards hateful (yes, I’m going to come right out and call it that) beliefs, like restricting reproductive rights and discriminating against gay people. It’s not absolute, but nobody ever thought it was.

    There are a few individual surprises, e.g. like Muslims having such a high percentage of people who are very liberal on abortion. And as usual, American Jews seem to be slightly more liberal than American unbelievers, something that I found a little surprising when I first learned it, but which I have known for years from other surveys.

    The fact that many (most, even) believers are not assholes does not mean that religion doesn’t have a strong potential to make people into assholes. This does not temper my views on religious belief one iota.

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