This morning, Ligonier Ministries released their State of Theology in the UK Survey. They commissioned pollsters ComRes to survey a nationally representative sample of more than 2,000 adults and then, in addition, more than 500 practising Christians. Respondents were shown several statements and asked whether they agreed. There’s a great website where the results can be interrogated at thestateoftheology.com/uk.
I was given early access to the survey’s results. Over the next couple of days, I plan to share some things that particularly struck me from the survey, with a particular eye on what it might mean for those of us in student ministry. Today’s blog considers what the survey reveals about the beliefs of the general public in the UK; tomorrow’s blog will have a look at the beliefs of practising Christians.
Here are five things the survey reveals about the UK population’s spiritual and theological beliefs.
UK is a post-Christian nation. A discernible remnant of Christian thinking and theology shapes the way that Britain’s adults see the world – but we are also kicking against it.
Three in five UK adults still describe themselves as Christian, and a similar proportion deny that Christians should be silent on issues of politics. More than one-third hold the view that God is concerned in our day-to-day decisions. 29% agree with the statement that there is one God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In common with Jesus’ own teaching, nearly a quarter deny that people are good by nature.
Yet this Christian outlook is clearly weakened – and weakening. More than half of respondents agreed that the Bible was ‘helpful’ but ‘not literally true’. Only 15% agree that the Bible has authority in telling us what to do, and just 12% agree that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches. Only a small percentage agree with statements related to the Bible’s teaching on sexuality.
Britain is also religiously pluralistic: of those who expressed a firm opinion, more were likely to agree than disagree with the statement that God accepts the worship of all religions. Two-thirds of respondents agreed with the statement that ‘religious belief is a matter of personal belief; it is not about objective truth.’
Substantially more Britons disagree with basic statements of Christian theology than those that agree. As we’ll see below, ‘don’t know’ was a common answer in response when those surveyed were asked whether they agreed with the various statements. But those who express an opinion are much more likely to disagree than agree with most statements of Christianity orthodoxy. In our evangelism, we cannot assume that our hearers will start from a position of agreement, and we’re unlikely to win a hearing for the gospel through mere assertion. This table shows the statements where disagreement with Christian teaching is especially exaggerated amongst the UK adult population.
Agreement with Christian orthodoxy is particularly low among younger people. 18-34s are consistently those least likely to agree with historical Christian theological formulation. For example, for the statements:
- There is one God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit – only 20% of 18-34s somewhat or strongly agree, compared to 29% of the UK’s broader population.
- God is a perfect being and cannot make a mistake – 17% of 18-34s somewhat or strongly agree, compared to 22% of the total adult UK population.
- God created male and female – 29% of 18-34s somewhat or strongly believe, compared to 37% of all UK adults.
18-34s are also the demographic group most likely to believe that modern science disproves the Bible; nearly half either somewhat or strongly agree with this statement.
But younger people are more likely to agree with Christian teaching on judgement. Whilst the majority (67%) of British 18-34-year olds disagree with the statement that ‘even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation’, fewer young people disagree compared to the overall UK percentage who disagree (75%). They are also more likely to believe in the reality of hell as a place where certain people will be punished forever (18% to the overall UK figure of 15%). Surprisingly, 18-34-year-olds were also more likely to disagree with the statement that the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality no longer applies today.
A sizeable proportion of people claim that they don’t know whether they agree with Christian theological statements. At least 30% of respondents said that they don’t know whether they agree with more than half of the theological statements posed to them. This phenomenon that is exaggerated amongst 18-34, who were particularly likely to say that they don’t know. This chart shows the five statements to which 18-34-year-olds were especially likely to say they don’t know if they agree:
Whilst the common response of ‘don’t know’ may indicate that – in various areas – 18-34s in our country are more open to Christian teaching than we think, I suspect that the response predominantly indicates just how irrelevant Christianity is in their eyes. Most have never even given more than a cursory thought to the Holy Spirit, let alone whether he might tell me to do something forbidden in the Bible. They genuinely don’t know because they’ve never given the question more than a second’s thought. Surely the onus is on Christians to demonstrate the objective relevance of the gospel to young people so that it is subjectively seen.
Come back tomorrow where we’ll look at the theological beliefs of practical Christians – and what they might mean for student ministry.