Public Opinion, Polling and Cultural and Religious Change in Twentieth- and Twenty-First Century Britain

Speakers: Marcus Collins, Clive D. Field, Ben Clements

Chair: Laura Beers

Historians studying the mid-twentieth century and later periods are uniquely privileged to have access to opinion polls. These data provide snapshots of attitudes and reported behaviours of samples of the entire population and its constituent elements. When studied across time, polls can illuminate the ‘changing forms of self and subjectivity in the context of an emerging mass democracy and culture’ described in the Working Paper. Yet the analysis of polling data by modern British historians is underdeveloped, especially regarding the cultural and religious topics examined in this panel. The ‘cultural turn’ has taken historians away from the quantitative and social scientific approaches that accompany polling analysis, even though polls provide otherwise inaccessible insights into the issues of mentality and belief that most fascinate cultural historians. The three papers in this panel will explore what polling data can tell us about secularisation and changing religious beliefs and practices within the broader context of the significant but uneven growth of permissive attitudes over recent decades.

Paper 1 Abstract: Secularizing Selfhood? Polling Data on Religiosity as another Lens on Religious Change in Modern Britain
Clive D. Field, University of Birmingham and University of Manchester

Historians and sociologists continue to debate the nature, chronology, and causation of religious change in modern Britain. Their quantitative evidence has disproportionately derived from time series of church membership statistics, which are fairly continuous throughout the twentieth century, but of variable quality and comparability. Beyond that, the focus has often been on churchgoing trends, where figures are more discontinuous and less comprehensive. Unlike other countries, the British State has been relatively inactive in gathering religious data, until its belated adoption of a religion question in the population censuses of 2001 and 2011.

During the past quarter-century, there has been a growing realization that sample surveys of cross sections of the British public, generally as opinion polls, might extend the range of performance measures for quantifying religious change in modern Britain. Several scholars, for example, have investigated time series of ‘traditional’ religious beliefs, assisted by the inclusion of relevant questions in multinational studies such as European/World Values Surveys and the International Social Survey Programme. The present author has broadened the scope of investigation still further, examining, in a sequence of articles, the light shed by polls on religious change in terms of attitudes to religious festivals (Christmas, Lent, Easter), Sunday observance, religious minorities (Jews, Muslims, Catholics), and religious authority (establishment, Church and clergy, the Bible).

This paper will unlock another set of data, those which ask respondents how religious they actually feel, over and above whether they profess any religious allegiance or not. Several different religious self-rating questions have been posed in polls since the 1980s (and even a few before), for instance about perceived religiosity (or spirituality), the importance attached to their religion, the importance of God in their lives, and so forth. These metrics will be collated, with analysis by demographic sub-groups where appropriate and practicable, to determine whether there is a declining sense of religious selfhood running parallel with other indicators of secularization.

Paper 2 Abstract: Surveying the Religious Beliefs and Social Attitudes of British Catholics Across Time
Ben Clements, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester

This paper provides a long-term perspective on Catholics’ religious beliefs and social attitudes in Britain, a minority denomination which historically was socio-economically disadvantaged, and subject to institutional discrimination and anti-Catholic feeling. Earlier research in the post-war era showed that the ‘distinctive subculture’ of the Catholic community was evolving and dissolving in complex ways due to processes of social change and to developments within the wider faith, such as the Second Vatican Council. This research also demonstrated growing internal heterogeneity in religious engagement – beliefs and practices – and social attitudes.

This paper uses nationally representative surveys to contribute to scholarly inquiry into the nature and extent of religious change in post-war Britain, specifically in relation to the Catholic community. The paper has two distinct but interrelated parts, which have, respectively, a historical and contemporary focus. The first part uses a range of nationally-representative recurrent social surveys to assess in which areas Catholics have shown change or continuity in their religious beliefs and in their secular attitudes (in particular, ‘sanctity of life’ issues). The second part provides analysis of the contemporary socio-demographic sources of variation in the religious beliefs and social attitudes of adult Catholics in Britain using a denomination-specific survey.

The results engage with wider scholarly debates about the nature and extent of religious change and secularisation in Britain, while specifically focusing on attitudinal change and continuity within a religious minority population. The detailed analysis of grassroots’ beliefs and attitudes speaks to current debates affecting the Roman Catholic Church in Britain, including ongoing demographic changes, greater disaffection with official teachings on social issues and wider public criticism of the institutional response to recent controversies.

Paper 3 Abstract: Measuring Permissiveness in Postwar Britain
Marcus Collins, Department of Politics, History and International Relations, Loughborough University

Were the ‘swinging sixties’ confined to the young, the middle class and the metropolitan? When (if ever) did Britain become a ‘permissive society’? These questions have been a matter of debate within academic and popular circles ever since the 1960s, but remain fundamentally unresolved due to the source materials deployed. Those who identify a ‘cultural revolution’ largely base their arguments on canonical cultural artefacts of the period (music, films, writings, fashions). Revisionists such as Dominic Sandbrook either point to a series of other cultural artefacts that provide a more conservative view of the sixties or else contrast a minority permissive ‘culture’ with a broader ‘society’ displaying stronger continuities with the earlier twentieth century.

This paper seeks to further the ‘rapprochement between social and cultural history’ mentioned in the Modern British Studies Working Paper by examining the attitudes and beliefs exhibited by representative samples of the British population in opinion polls. Drawing upon polls conducted by Gallup, MORI and the BBC Audience Research Unit covering the period from 1945 to 1990, it argues that public attitudes towards permissiveness (broadly defined as a libertarian stance towards social and cultural norms) varied widely from issue to issue and across different sections of the population. Its working hypothesis is that there was a shift towards more acceptance of individual self-governance, particularly regarding heterosexual sexuality and relationships. Yet most people were still not prepared to sanction behaviours which they perceived to disrupt the stability of society. What united such disparate issues as pornography, illicit drug-taking, unregulated immigration, murder in the absence of capital punishment and male homosexuality with the advent of HIV/AIDS was the perceived damage caused by individual behaviour on others. Even when critical of permissive change, the majority did perceive such change as having taken place. In that sense, opinion polls suggest that people in postwar Britain tended to believe that they belonged to a ‘permissive society’ that they opposed in many crucial respects.


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