The Rise of the Nones

Feb 14, 2022 | Big Ideas for RE

These days we have access to more evidence of people’s attitudes to religion than ever before. For example from the national census, held every ten years (the next census will be in 2021).  Another important source of information are the British Social Attitudes Surveys. These are annual statistical surveys conducted in the UK since 1983 by the National Centre for Social Research since 1983.  Then there is privately commissioned research using specialist market research companies such as YouGov.

There are also a small number of academic researchers who have taken an interest in trends in people’s religious affiliations. Particularly important for  RE is the work of Professor Linda Woodhead. The census and other companies provide statistics – that is, they generally provide answers to questions beginning ‘how many’. We can take their data a little further, for example by recording trends.

Woodhead took a particular interest in the ‘nones’ – that is the people who when asked to select from a range of descriptions (e.g. Christian, Hindu, Muslim, no religion…;) choose ‘no religion’.  Her research went much further than investigating numbers and addressed questions such as ‘what is the gender, social, educational, age-related…profile of the nones? What do they believe? Why are they growing so rapidly now?

Click on this icon to read an article by Linda Woodhead.

Click on this icon to see research data from 2018.

BSA surveys and Woodhead’s research were regarded as significant for the development of Big Ideas by the original working group. How was it going to be possible to make RE relevant and ‘transferable’ to the lives of young people for whom religion was largely an irrelevance? To answer this question we turned to Woodhead’s findings. 

What does Linda Woodhead tell us about nones?

  • In Britain, they are as likely to be female as male, uneducated as educated, and they come from all social classes and every part of the country.
  •  In terms of ethnicity the census tell us that they are disproportionately likely to be “white British”.
  • If you are younger (18-25) being non-religious is the norm.
  • They have a ‘strong and unvarying commitment’ to making up their own minds.
  • Regarding specific  moral issues they are liberal/independent. They believe that everyone should be free to decide how they want to live their own lives so long as they don’t harm others.
  • Over 40 percent are convinced atheists, with a larger proportion being less definite: open-minded, sceptical, undecided, or just “dunno.” About one in twenty are firm believers in some kind of God.
  • Only 13% share Richard Dawkins’ negative antireligious views. 
  • A quarter of nones take part in some kind of personal religious or spiritual practice in the course of a month, like praying.
  • They have nothing to do with communal religious practices.
  • They are generally  tolerant of organized religion and its leaders though they take no notice of what they say.

How do the Big Ideas respond to nones?

  • The Big Ideas curriculum is designed to be for all.
  • Non-religious worldviews are included.
  • Since the majority have no interest in the features of established religions or formal beliefs taught by religious leaders, Big Ideas offer a broader experience of religions than the traditional elements of theology and religious studies.
  • A lot of thought was given to how the non-religious are likely to encounter religion in their lives and to what extent they may be inadvertently affected by it.
  • All pupils would be encouraged to become better informed about religions and religion and to make considered judgements about their value.