Women much more likely than men to say ‘I’m a believer’, study finds

21 January 2015

Next week another significant step on the road to gender equality will be taken with the consecration of the Rev. Libby Lane as the Bishop of Stockport – the first female bishop to be appointed by the Church of England.

But a less talked-about gender divide in religion, which arguably supports the case for more women clergy, remains yawningly wide. It is the huge disparity in the proportion of men and women who say they believe in God and life after death.

A new study of more than 9,000 British people in their forties, published today by UCL Institute of Education (IOE), shows that 60 per cent of the women but only 35 per cent of the men believe in life after death.

More than half (54%) of the men surveyed said they were atheists or agnostics, compared to only a third (34%) of the women.

The survey involved members of the 1970 British Cohort Study, whose lives are being followed by the IOE’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies. The study is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Almost half of those surveyed did not identify with any religion. Most of the remainder said they had a Christian background. A small number of respondents described themselves as Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim or Sikh.

Professor David Voas, who analysed the survey responses, commented: “Among believers, women are also much more likely to be definite than men, and among non-believers, men are much more likely to be definite than women.” For example, not only are men twice as likely as women to say that God does not exist, but male atheists are far more likely than female atheists to say that they definitely do not believe in live after death (63% versus 36%).

Why should this be so? Like so many other questions relating to religion there appears to be no obvious answer, according to Professor Voas, of the Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex.

What he can say with more assurance is that it is unhelpful to think simply in terms of ‘believers and non-believers’. When it comes to religion, the labels that are attached to individuals need to be far more carefully worded.

“Belief – or disbelief – in God and in life after death do not always go together,” Professor Voas explained. “A quarter of those who said they were agnostic also said they believe in life after death. However, nearly a third of the people who said that they believe in God — despite occasional doubts – do not believe in an after-life.”

Professor Voas concludes that it would be more meaningful to allocate people to one of seven categories:

Non-religious (28% of the 1970-born cohort): Does not have a religion or believe in either God or life after death.

Unorthodox non-religious (21%): Does not have a religion or does not attend services. Believes in God or life after death but not both.

Actively religious (15%): Has a religion and believes in God and life after death. Attends services.

Non-practising religious (14%): Has a religion and believes in God and life after death. Does not attend services.

Non-identifying believers (10%): Does not have a religion, but believes in God and life after death.

Nominally religious (7%): Identifies with a religion. But believes in neither God nor life after death.

Unorthodox religious (5%): Has a religion and attends services at least occasionally. Believes in God but not life after death (or, in a few cases, vice versa).

“Members of this 1970 birth cohort have been asked about their religious affiliation before but the decision to add extra questions on religious belief to the age 42 survey has enabled us to classify people with a great deal more confidence than previously,” Professor Voas said. “Every level of belief or disbelief can be found among this cohort. In this respect, they are characteristic of Europeans generally.”

Professor Voas adds that a healthy level of scepticism is required when assessing statistics on religious affiliation. For example, nearly a quarter of those surveyed changed their minds between 2004 and 2012 about whether or not they had been brought up in a religion.

“Some things are clear, however,” he says. “One is that a substantial proportion of teenagers who reported that religion was an important part of their lives at age 16 became relatively unreligious adults. There is some movement in the opposite direction, but not nearly enough to compensate for the losses to religion.”

Professor Voas also points to the very high level of belief in both God and life after death among Muslims. Almost nine in ten (88%) of the small number of Muslims in this survey – only 82 were interviewed – said they knew God really exists and had no doubts about it.

“A high proportion (71%) of those who described themselves as ‘evangelical’ — Baptists and certain other Christians were included in this category – also had no doubts about God’s existence,” he said. “However, only 33 per cent of those who identified themselves as Roman Catholics had no doubts. And the figure for those affiliated with ‘mainline’ Christian denominations — Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian and United Reformed Church – was even smaller. Only 16 per cent of them said they had no doubts that God exists.”

Read the full paper

“The mysteries of religion and the lifecourse”, by David Voas, is the latest working paper to be published by the IOE’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies.

Further information

David Budge
020 7911 5349
07881 415362

Notes for editors

  1. The 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70) is following the lives of more than 17,000 people born in England, Scotland and Wales in a single week of 1970. Over the course of cohort members’ lives, BCS70 has collected information on health, physical, educational and social development, and economic circumstances, among other factors. Since the birth survey in 1970, there have been eight surveys at ages 5, 10, 16, 26, 30, 34, 38 and 42.
  2. The fieldwork for the age 42 survey was carried out by the social research company TNS BMRB.
  3. The UCL Institute of Education is a world-leader specialising in education and the social sciences. Founded in 1902, the Institute currently has more than 7,000 students and 800 staff. In the 2014 QS World University Rankings, the Institute was ranked number one for education worldwide. It was shortlisted in the ‘University of the Year’ category of the 2014 Times Higher Education (THE) awards. In January 2014, the Institute was recognised by Ofsted for its ‘outstanding’ initial teacher training across primary, secondary and further education. In the most recent Research Excellence Framework, 94% of our research was judged to be world class. On 2 December 2014, the Institute became a single-faculty school of UCL, called the UCL Institute of Education. www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe
  4. Founded in 1826, UCL was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. We are among the world’s top universities, as reflected by performance in a range of international rankings and tables. UCL currently has over 35,000 students from 150 countries and over 11,000 employees. Our annual income is over £1bn.
  5. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 it celebrates its 50th anniversary. www.esrc.ac.uk


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