What is the prevalence of religion among modern student communities in the UK?

To what extent can patterns of religiosity in this social context be said to differ from other and previous contexts?


The past half century has seen dramatic social change in which changes in religiosity are only a small part. Modern British society is multi-cultural and multi-ethnic; women routinely work outside the home; education is freely available and most forms of discrimination, including discrimination on religious grounds, have been outlawed. From the 21st century standpoint, it seems incredible that women were once denied the right to a university education,that third-level access was almost exclusively the preserve of the elite or, indeed, that universities ever demanded conformity to the Established Church. In light of such social development, it is unsurprising that the UK's student community has a markedly different attitude towards religion than its predecessors.

This brief essay has a great deal of material vying for space. Consequently, there are inevitable omissions, such as an assessment of religions such as Islam which are bucking the secularisation trend. However, it will examine the function of religion as observed by Durkheim, Parsons and Marx before reflecting on Weber's insights to place discussions in a sociological context. The essay will also outline and engage with the concept of 'community' and explore how Tonnies' (1887) observations are relevant when considering the motivations and affiliations of a transient student cohort. This essay will seek to establish the facts about religious affiliation and observance as revealed in historical and contemporary studies. Finally, it will assess the extent of changing societal norms on religious observance – not only among students, but also among the wider British community.

Religion and Sociology

Christians view God as omnipotent, eternal, and assert that God must be worshipped. In contrast, the Dugum Dai of New Guinea believe the spirits of the dead cause sickness and death and must be placated by ritual. The Sioux invoke benevolent powers to make rain fall and crops grow. What is evident from these few examples is that defining religion is challenging. However, sociologists have offered two possible approaches: a functional perspective and a substantive viewpoint (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004).

The substantive viewpoint examines what is believed and, as such, is beyond the scope of this essay although it is worth noting that Durkheim (1961) argued that all societies divide the world between the sacred and the profane, and, by attaching mystic symbolism to certain things, set them apart. However, he also took a functionalist standpoint, positing that the shared beliefs and values thus created form the collective conscience which enforces social order, while emphasising the importance of group ritual to enhance societal bonds (Durkheim, 1961). Functionalists, therefore, analyse religion in terms of how it contributes to meeting societal need (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004). Talcott Parsons (1964) also examined religion from a functionalist perspective, arguing that human behaviour is regulated by the norms applicable in that society. In his view, religion not only offered standards against which acceptable human conduct could be measured; it also provided a mechanism for dealing with life-changing events such as bereavement. However, as society developed, Parsons foresaw religion losing many of its functions (Parsons, 1964). The functionalist position is that values which are no longer functional, i.e. no longer fulfil the needs of society, do not survive (Haralambos and Holborn, 2014).

Marx also saw religion as functional, but he deemed it 'an illusion which eases the pain produced by exploitation and oppression' (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004:409) Furthermore religion, in Marx's view, helped the ruling class to justify their wealth: 'The parson has ever gone hand in hand with the landlord' (cited in Haralambos and Holborn, 2004:410). Marx believed that religion would lose its function and disappear as a classless society emerged.

Insights offered by these scholars suggest that religion helps to maintain the status quo and that change in religious belief is driven by change in the wider society. However, Weber took a different view, arguing that religion had driven societal change. The ascetic Calvinist sect he described believed that those chosen to go to Heaven were selected by God before their birth. They reasoned that only God's chosen people would be able to lead a good life on earth, a belief which produced people who were focussed on work, as wealth indicated 'chosen' status: 'In short, religion provides the theodicy of good fortune for those who are fortunate.' (Weber, in Gerth and Mills (eds) 1946:271) Coupled with a frugal Protestant lifestyle, this led to the accumulation of capital, investment and reinvestment and ultimately capitalist society itself: 'Only the methodical way of life of the ascetic sects could legitimate and put a halo around the economic 'individualist' impulses of the modern capitalist ethos'. (Weber, in Gerth and Mills (eds) 1946:322)

According to Haralambos and Holborn (2004:419) Weber asserted that the pursuit of profit triggered an emphasis on rational calculation. However, Weber distinguished between formal rationality, involving numerical calculations, and substantive rationality, involving action towards specific goals such as justice or equality. Substantive morality, including the morality demanded by religious beliefs, held less significance in capitalist societies. Weber saw rationality as being incompatible with religious faith and Protestant religion as the inevitable precursor of secularisation. (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004).


The modernisation, rationalisation and secularisation of society also impacted on the concept of 'community'. Tonnies (1887) first drew attention to the contrast between Gemeinschaft, which he saw as the intimate, private community, and Gesellschaft, which more closely equated to the wider society associated with the world of work and public life: 'In Gemeinschaft (community) with one's family, one lives from birth on bound to it in weal and woe. One goes into Gesellschaft (society) as one goes into a strange country.' (Tonnies, 1887, in Worsley (ed) 1978:409) The transition from home to higher education is, indeed, similar to going into a strange country with different rules and expectations. This inevitably leads to the formation of new forms of 'Gesellschaft' as students create associations and make decisions based on substantive rationality in order to achieve personal goals. This is significant because the diminished influence of Gemeinschaft may cause students to reflect on previously unquestioned religious beliefs.


Turning to the available information on religion in the UK, Bruce (1996, 2002), who has written extensively on religion and secularisation, observed a significant decline in religiosity. Whilst it is worth noting that official statistics only date back to the 2001 Census, several major organisations including the British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS) and British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) have researched religious affiliation since the 1970s. However, the 2011 UK census figures confirm that the number of people stating that they had no religion increased across all age groups since the 2001 census, now forming the second largest grouping after Christianity, and particularly so among the 20-24 and 40-44 age groups (Office for National Statistics [ONS] 2013). The 20-24 age group is significant for this essay as it would contain much of the student population, but comparison with other surveys is problematic. YouGov (2011) working on behalf of the British Humanist Association (BHA) found that only 9% of people reported having attended a place of worship within the past week. They also found that when asked directly 'What is your religion?' 39% of respondents said they had none. However, when the same sample group was asked, as a follow up question, 'Are you religious?' 65% said they were not. This apparent contradiction suggests that nominal religious affiliations may outlive faith or religious practice. According to the BSAS Report (2014), the percentage of the population claiming to have no religion rose from 31.4% in 1983 to 50.6% in 2013 and among the 15-24 age group the figure rose to almost 70% (BHA, undated). A study of the student population reveals that around one third say they have no religion - which is slightly more than the Census indicates but still in line with most other surveys - while 27% indicate membership of a faith society in their institution, surely indicating a significant religious commitment. This figure rose to 63% of Jews, 48% of Muslims and 44% of Sikhs (Weller et al, 2011). However, as this was a self-selecting sample for an online survey, accessed through unspecified 'gatekeepers', the results should be viewed with caution. Nevertheless, assuming that most students come from a (nominally) Christian background, their need to retain distinct ties to their faith in the college environment appears weaker than that of other religions.

It is notable that not all universities are secular or non-denominational, a potentially significant factor in sustaining religious observance. Many institutions are faith-based, such as Blackfriars Hall in Oxford and Roehampton University in London which have a Roman Catholic ethos (Catholic Links, 2015). Non-Christians can also study in culturally-appropriate environments such as that of Cambridge Muslim College (2015). Students in these and similar institutions may be inherently more religious than their counterparts in secular/non-denominational colleges and universities and see religious observance as an important part of their college life. However, it could also be argued that if these students come from families or ethnic groups with a strong religious ethos, then parental preference could have influenced selection of their place of study.


Several early commentators, including Wilson (1966) and Bruce (1996) noted the secularisation process taking place in the UK, with Bruce (2002) asserting that as society fragments into a plethora of cultural and religious groupings, religion becomes a matter of personal choice. In Durkheim's view, society and spiritual belief were intrinsically intertwined: 'Primitive man comes to view society as something sacred because he is utterly dependent on it' (Durkheim, 1961, cited in Haralambos and Holborn, 2004:407). MacIver and Page once said that 'The mark of a community is that one's life may be lived wholly within it' (MacIver and Page, 1949, cited in Worsley, (ed) 1978:410). In contrast, students leaving home to enter higher education are distanced from their 'Gemeinschaft' and exposed to new ideas and codes of behaviour, including, one presumes, alternative belief systems or, indeed, agnosticism or atheism. As noted earlier, Weber claimed that, in a modern society, motivating forces were no longer spiritual or supernatural; they were rational, involving a personal assessment of how to attain specific goals (Weber: in Gerth and Mills, 1948). The student's goal is presumably to succeed academically, which may necessitate forming new alliances outside the community of shared religious observance.

In today's diverse, multi-cultural, and inclusive student population, patterns of religiosity reflect the wider community in that they differ significantly from previous generations (ONS, 2013). Nevertheless, the available Census statistics suggest that this may be related to age rather than educational status, as many students fall into the 20-24 age group (ONS, 2013). Whilst Bruce (2002) acknowledges that religion can remain an integral part of one's beliefs despite diminished political and social significance, Weller (2011) noted that certain religious groups were more likely to join faith-related student societies. Seeking out the familiarity of a religious community may be related to cultural or ethnic origins, or the religious ethos of the educational institution attended. The discussion, therefore, must consider other factors which could influence student religiosity.

With an estimated 22% of students continuing to live with their family while they study (Marsh, 2014:np) almost four out of five young people entering college live independently, probably for the first time. The student community is an excellent example of Gesellschaft, with its own rules and norms, and for that reason membership of college groups or societies could fulfil many of the functions previously filled by the home-town religious community. However, Bruce (2002) noted the persistence of individual religious belief, even when it no longer held political or social significance. While patterns of religiosity may differ - and it is entirely credible that even a committed religious student's attendance at faith ceremonies may be infrequent - that does not prove that they have completely abandoned the faith in which they were reared.

On reflection, the available data suggests that the student population is not markedly less religious than the wider community and that changes in British religiosity shown in the 2011 Census (ONS, 2013) are mirrored in trends revealed among a predominantly young student population. Certainly, the evidence suggests that secularisation, although advancing steadily, is proceeding at roughly the same pace within and without the student community. This essay has already noted the functionalist argument, applying equally to the Marxist analysis as it does to views expressed by Parsons and Durkheim, which posits that values which cease to serve a function do not survive (Haralambos and Holborn, 2014). Nevertheless, despite the rise of secularism and the secular influences which students face, there is evidence suggesting that they are not consigning religion to history without considerable soul-searching. Early in 2013, noted atheist Richard Dawkins was the guest of Cambridge Union for a high-profile debate against former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, current Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. The motion 'This house believes Religion has no place in the 21st Century' was defeated by 324 versus 138 votes (Jing, 2013,np). The secularisation debate among the student population is, it seems, not over yet.


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