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Religious and secular morality in Britain and Europe

This research project has been completed. Please contact a team member for further information.


The 2008-2011 period has witnessed a number of crises: financial collapse originating in the mis-selling of credit; the expenses scandal among parliamentarians; the telephone hacking scandal and the English riots of 2011 which caused national and international shock.

Many commentators and politicians have linked these events to a decline of traditional moral values. David Cameron coined the phrase “Broken Britain” and subsequently this vision of a collapsing society was associated with family breakdown, substance abuse, crime, and disengagement from social and political life.

Many argue that the decline of organised religion as a political and social force over the past few centuries is linked to a decline in moral values and behaviour.

It’s generally thought that religion and the maintenance of moral standards are linked. Religious codes and religious education set rules and standards, prohibit certain behaviours and encourage commitment to shared values, altruism, self-denial and deferred gratification.

Secular society, on the other hand appears to be at a comparative disadvantage: punishment for wrongdoing depends on being caught rather than divine justice; altruism, self-sacrifice and service to others appear to go unrewarded.

Given the interest in raising the level of discussion on moral issues from both the Cabinet Office and sections of the media, an investigation of the relationships between religious decline and other social outcomes makes this project extremely timely.

Project aims

The project will firstly investigate how much evidence, if any, there is for the popular view that religious decline in a society leads to moral decline.

Secondly, the researchers will try to identify the links that exist and their causes and consequences by examining:

  • the relationship between various aspects of religiosity and morality at the individual, regional and national levels;
  • the possible causes of these associations and the differences found at regional and national levels;
  • the social and political consequences of moral and religious change in contemporary Europe.

The principal objectives of the project are to:

  • test existing hypotheses and also to develop a new theory of moral and religious change, according to which shifts in morality are causes rather than effects of secularisation
  • organise a major programme of public engagement to discuss what values are or are not shared by people in Britain, the foundations on which they rest, and what substitutes for religion secular societies have found or may develop for regulating behaviour and promoting civic virtue

Data sources and methods

Both the European Values Study (EVS) and the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) collected data on religion and morality in 2008.

The EVS is a large-scale, cross-national, longitudinal survey research programme on basic human values. It provides insights into the ideas, beliefs, preferences, attitudes, values and opinions of citizens all over Europe.

The ISSP Religion studies have been designed to test the effect of religious beliefs and involvement on socio-political attitudes and behaviours, for example those relating to political orientation, cohabitation, marriage and divorce, immigration, social welfare policies, and sexual morality.

In addition to the individual-level data from the EVS and ISSP surveys, the researchers are using aggregate-level statistics from other sources in order to include variables such as inequality, unemployment, corruption, crime, fertility, welfare provision, and ethnic diversity.

The aim is to investigate the causal connections between religion and morality at and across the individual, regional and national levels. Does religion affect morality or does morality affect religiosity – or are both affected by a common factor, such as general value change?

In the absence of data on individuals over time, no firm conclusions are possible, but statistical analysis may suggest tentative answers.

Team members

Professor David Voas

Professor of Social Science, head of department - University College London

Project Leader

Dr Siobhan McAndrew

Marston Research fellow - Institute for Social Change (ISC)

Associate Researcher

Dr Ingrid Storm

Marston Research Associate - Institute for Social Change (University of Manchester)

Ingrid Storm is responsible for the design of experiments in moral psychology; recruitment of participants for experiments, focus groups, and expert seminars

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Photo credit: Tim Green