The discourse on Britain’s developing nonreligious majority has focused on the increase in younger generations leaving or being raised without religion. Much of my writing on humanist community building has focused on improving groups’ offer to younger more diverse generations and families. However, while age and religiosity remain strongly correlated, older age groups are also becoming steadily less religious. What impacts might this have on organised nonreligious communities and wider society?
Between the 2001 and 2011 Census (usual caveats apply) the nonreligious population figure for England and Wales went from 16% to 27%. Most of this rise was driven by younger less religious generations. However, between the 2001 and 2011 Census the proportion of nonreligious over 65 year-olds rose from 5% to 9%, among over 75 year-olds the nonreligious proportion rose from 4% to 7%, and those over 85 went from 3% to 6% nonreligious.
The British Social Attitudes Survey has shown a steady rise in the nonreligious population from 31% in 1983 to 52% in 2018. I don’t have a UK Data Service ID to download the full data including age breakdowns for all surveys, but would be happy to update this post with that data. The ever useful British Religion in Numbers website’s analysis shows that in 2015 people aged 65-74 were 34% nonreligious, and people aged 75+ were 24% nonreligious.
1. Service needs (wider society)
Government policymakers and civil society continually fail to engage with the UK’s demographic shift towards nonreligion. Much of my professional focus in this regard has been on education, but this failure also has specific impacts on older people.
Religious organisations remain important voluntary providers of social services and support for older people. But these are institutions in decline and these levels can’t be relied upon forever. Rather than investing more in the secular delivery of public services, successive governments have increased state funding for religious organisations’ service delivery, despite all the problems this can bring.
Research shows that older LGBT people in care homes are finding themselves forced back into the closet due. Could older nonreligious people reliant on religiously affiliated services and a continuing assumption of elderly religiosity from service providers, face a similar experience?
While older people will on average continue being more religious for some time, public services need to move on from the casual assumption of (at least passive) religiosity. Very little is being done to challenge this assumption, but a good example may be the government’s 2019 guidance on making civic crematoria less exclusively Christian.
2. Service needs (organised nonreligious communities)
As someone who speaks at or has been involved with a lot of humanist and other AHS+ groups over the years, I am well aware of the (often misleading) stereotype of these being small groups of retirees. While groups absolutely need to attract younger members, they also need to consider their offer to increasingly nonreligious older people. They may need to invest more in accessible venues, social activities during otherwise working hours and social support. Demand for humanist funerals is also likely to continue increasing.
This could be seen as conflicting with support for younger members, if we think of a one size fits all approach to organised nonreligion. But there is no reason that strong nonreligious communities can’t have multiple distinct and overlapping offer to different groups.
3. The end of ‘doing it for the grandparents’ religiosity?
Parents engage in a large range of religious sustaining activities and faith formation, often not based on their own personal beliefs or preferences. It’s a bit of a cliché, but how often do you hear that a church wedding, christening, choice of a faith school, or even circumcision would “make grandma happy” or is “what grandad would have wanted”? Because of the correlation, there is often an assumption that older people are more religious potentially at the expense of their actual wishes.
As those grandparents become less religious, that inter-generational expectation is likely to diminish, or be replaced with a less salient more amorphous sense of tradition. We may even see a nonreligious expectation affect – “let’s get a humanist naming ceremony for the baby, it would make grandma so happy”.
Twenty years ago there was virtually no literature on humanist or other nonreligious parenting. Where grandparents are mentioned in this increasing genre, the focused is often on managing conflict between nonreligious parenting and religious grandparents. There may be a shift in the literature towards more positive nonreligious grandparental models.
4. Sustainability of organised nonreligious communities
Often humanist and other AHS+ groups fail to attract volunteers particularly in the 25-50 age range because they are simply so busy with work and family commitments. Groups should be working to make it easier for all age ranges to participate. However, realistically retired people and those without fulltime childcare responsibilities, have far more availability for volunteering. More older nonreligious people, particularly in the 50-70 age bracket could dramatically increase the volunteer pool for such communities.
Legacy income is crucial to the whole of the UK’s third sector including both religious and nonreligious organisations. This is worth £3bn a year in England and Wales, and is rising. Yet according to Smee and Fords’ Legacy Trends Report 2021, “the proportion of bequests left to religious organisations is beginning to decrease year on year.” Without being insensitive, AHS+ organisations need to recognise that more nonreligious old people, combined with younger people shying away from paid membership, means that legacy income will be an increasing proportion of their funding. Managed right (remembering that legacies are more likely to be left to well established, well run institutions) this could provide serious long term investment in the movement’s sustainability.
5. Impact on religious privilege issues
A lot has been written on the challenges posed to institutional religion by societal secularisation. So much focus has been on how the churches are losing younger generations, that the loss of adherence among the older generations has had far less specific attention.
People generally remaining nonreligious, despite fluctuations, as they transition into older age brackets, continues to dash British Christianity’s three quarters of a century long hope that the rise of nonreligion is just a young people’s fad to be grown out of. The established Church of England operates as an increasingly geriatric tontine, and should start seriously considering what to do with its billions when its membership ages out.
This goes beyond simple demographic replacement driving mainstream British Christianity towards extinction. Secularisation is taking place within those older demographic brackets. Returning to the British Religion in Numbers analysis above, in the 2015 BSA Survey, the 65-74 and 75 demographics showed the largest proportional difference between being nonreligious and being raised nonreligious.
Christian churches will be running out of the predominantly older volunteers needed not only to provide for their religious and social services, but those services most focused on maintaining those churches institutional and state privileges.
Partly due to our disastrous housing market, and partly as older people are more active voters, they have disproportionate political power. The political establishment’s extreme deference to institutional religion may be more transformed by rising nonreligion in these demographics than the much higher levels of nonreligion among younger less active voters. This could also affect media including printed newspapers and BBC radio, with disproportionately older demographics and a similar bias towards religious privilege.
This could impact the whole industry based on selling Christian persecution fantasies to predominantly older religious people uncomfortable with the speed of social change and nostalgic about an imagined homogeneous past.
Thanks for reading
Let me know what you think. Are humanist and other AHS+ communities doing enough to respond to the needs of increasing nonreligious older generations? How are civil society and other social services responding to this shift? How can this be balanced against attracting younger members? Do you expect currently majority nonreligious generations to remain so into older age?
Photo information: Silhouette Photography of Group of People Jumping during Golden Time, Belle Co