The mysteries of religion and the lifecourse

Publication type

Research Paper

Series Number



CLS Working Paper Series


Publication date

January 15, 2015


The 1970 British Cohort Study offers an important opportunity to test the consistency of responses to questions on religion for a single cohort over three decades. In addition, the 2012 sweep asked questions on belief in God and life after death as well as religious affiliation and practice, allowing us to explore the complexity of religiosity.

The sweep at age 16 was the first to collect any data on religion. On the one hand, 93% of cohort members said that they had been born into a religion. On the other hand, only 30% said that religion was either very important or quite important to them. The tension between having a religious heritage and not having much personal investment in religion colours all of their subsequent responses from young adulthood into middle age.

Evidence from cohort analysis using repeated cross-sectional surveys suggests that religious affiliation and practice are fairly stable over the adult lifecourse. In panel studies, however, many individuals go back and forth between the religious and non-religious categories, because the boundaries are fuzzy, responses are sensitive to question wording and context, and many people are relatively indifferent to the issue.

A close examination of the multiple waves of the BCS70 reveals a large amount of uncertainty in measurement, making it hard to detect whatever genuine change might have occurred. Specifically, there is a high degree of unreliability about reported past and present affiliation. Most of this movement results from the difficulty of pinning down something that respondents themselves find hard to define unambiguously. The real changes that are most evident are those between age 16 and adulthood. A substantial proportion of teenagers who reported that religion was an important part of their lives became relatively unreligious adults.

The addition of questions on religious belief in 2012 allows us to classify the respondents by religiosity with a great deal more confidence than previously. The complexity of this topic is apparent; some cohort members seem wholly non-religious and a smaller number are actively (and consistently) religious, but the majority fall into intermediate categories that are defined by nominal allegiance, unorthodox belief, or belief in the absence of affiliation or practice. Belief – or disbelief – in God and in life after death do not always go together. A quarter of agnostics believe in life after death; among people who say that notwithstanding occasional doubts they believe in God, nearly a third do not. Gender differences in religious belief are very substantial: 54% of men, but only 34% of women, are atheists or agnostics, and 60% of women but only 35% of men believe in life after death.

There is a great deal of interest in religious identity and commitment, but it is clear that multiple survey items covering affiliation, practice and belief are needed to obtain reliable data in this domain.





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