Is religion in retreat?


Exeter Cathedral, one of England’s great medieval churches, built in the days of plentiful church revenues and a religious population. Today the Church faces a struggle to maintain both its congregations and its buildings.

I did something very unusual for me last Sunday: I went to church.

I didn’t go to just any church; I went to an evensong service in Worcester’s magnificent cathedral, located at a site where Christian worship has been taking place since 680 CE. The structure I visited is the new cathedral; construction on it began in 1084, and took several centuries to complete. From the outside it is an imposing structure, with ornate Gothic spires, and a 62 meter high tower that dominates to town skyline.

The interior is even more awe-inspiring; its huge size and lofty ceiling made me feel small and insignificant as I sat waiting for the service to start  (and even smaller and more insignificant when I noticed  that I was sitting couple of meters away from the tomb of King John, who died in 1216.)   Then came the music: how could anyone not be humbled and moved by the sounds of this huge pipe-organ and voices of the Cathedral choir in a place as beautiful as this?

Despite the magnificence of the Evensong service,  I counted fewer than fifty people in the congregation, huddled together on a few pews in chancel of the vast building; at 55 years of age, I was certainly among the younger members of the group.  There is reason to believe that what I saw in Worcester is fairly typical; a 2008 survey by the Church of England (to which most English Christians belong) showed that attendance at its Sunday services had dropped to only 960,000, a small fraction of the 44 million people in the United Kingdom who identify as Christian. Other research has shown that the total number of churchgoers (of all denominations) dropped by about forty percent between 1980 and 2005 (see the chart below,) and that only about a third of British people say that religion place a very important role in their lives.

Dropping steadily, in England and in most of the rest of the developed world.
Dropping steadily, in England and in most of the rest of the developed world.

A week after my Worcester Evensong I was in Paris, where a young Parisian recommended that I go to a public square near Sorbonne University to watch people dancing after Mass as a local Catholic church. “Their are not very many of them,” he told me, “and they are quite old.” Statistics bear this out: only eleven percent of French people claim that religion is very important in their lives; I would imagine that members of France’s 5 million Muslims make up a significant part of this small minority, so that doesn’t leave too many churchgoing Christian

Prayer is free, but photograph in the cathedral will cost you $4.60.
Prayer is free, but photograph in the cathedral will cost you $4.60.

As I walked around Paris during my brief visit, I came across a number of church buildings that had been converted to other non-religious uses; the buildings remain, but they are no longer needed as houses of worship for the declining Christian population. This is a problem all over Europe: some of the region’s greatest architectural treasures were created for Christian worship and for the greater glory of God; many are as large and lavish and their church’s very deep coffers could afford at the time of their construction. Today, many cost a good deal more to keep open and standing than their diminished congregations can afford. This means that, unless your visit comes during the relatively small windows of time when formal services are held, going to go to an English cathedral is to subject oneself to frequent requests for donations, or seeing signs urging a visit to the cathedral coffee shop, restaurant, or gift shop. As I wandered around Worcester Cathedral the day before the Evensong service, looking at and photographing its tombs and monuments, a priest in red vestments came over to talk to me. “I’m sorry to bother you,” he whispered to me, “But I just wanted to make sure that you bought a photography permit.” Visitors to the Cathedral are welcome to take photographs, but only after paying £3 for permission, good for the whole day.

I am not a religious person at all. Despite twelve years of attending services six days a week at my Anglican church school in Johannesburg, and notwithstanding the valiant efforts of the school priests, I never got the religion thing. Although I found wisdom in some of the moral teachings of the church, the God part never made sense to me.

Views like mine are still outside the mainstream in the United States; a country where in a recent poll only 5 percent of respondents said that they do not believe in ‘God or a universal spirit,’ whereas 78 percent identified themselves as Christian. In a 2011 survey 67 percent of Americans said they would be uncomfortable with an atheist as president (ahead of the 64 percent would would not wish to have a Muslim lead the country.)

Americans are more religious – and more openly religious – than Europeans (From The Economist.)

My religious views would, however, put me well within the mainstream in much of Europe . In the Czech Republic, 75 percent of the population have no religious affiliation at all, and in Estonia the figure is 60 percent. In France and the United Kingdom, more than 6 out of every ten people are nominally Christian but, as the graph on the right shows, very few of them think of religion as being important in their lives;  it is part of their heritage and ancestry rather than their personal belief system. Moreover, there is evidence both in  Europe and in other parts of the developed world that the proportion of people without any religion is rising; in Australia, for example, their numbers increased from 15 percent of the population in 2011 to 22 percent in 2012. In most of the developed world (including the U.S.) the average age of believers in increasing and younger people are less likely to be religious; a sign that religious adherence will almost certainly continue to decline.

American views on religion and its role in public life are very different from those of most Europeans, and this is something I had not thought about much until I traveled in Europe. In the United States, a written constitution makes the separation of church and state explicit and unambiguous, and guarantees citizens the right to practice any religion of their choosing. Yet candidates for political office frequently talk about their own religious beliefs, swear oaths of office on a religious book, and their deliberations open with a prayer. Paradoxically, just about every European country has a history of close connections between church and state, and some still do, at least theoretically; Queen Elizabeth II, for example, is head of the Church of England today, just as Queen Elizabeth I was more than five hundred years ago. Despite this religion has a much lower profile in European affairs than it used to or than this U.S. does today, and most European states avowedly secular.

This difference is important and I think it is interesting because it affects the way Europeans and Americans see the world, and how they view one another. As geographers, and as people trying to understand what makes regions different from or similar to one another, I think that it is unhelpful to leap to judgement on which perspective we find ‘better.’ Such judgements obscure our understanding of other places and cultures rather than clarifying it. Far more useful – and interesting – is to try to figure out why these differences exist, and how or whether they matter.

The changing geography of Christianity. In 1910, most of the world’s Christians lived in Europe (defined in this poll as including Russia and some former Soviet republics.) A century later, Europeans account for only about a quarter of Christians.

21 thoughts on “Is religion in retreat?

  1. This is such a timely post for my Study in England students as we look at the role of religion in different countries as part of our Intercultural Seminar class. Thank you!! I’ve suggested they all read your blog entry here as they prepare to do presentations on a country of their choice (part of their presentation has to be about religion in that country)

  2. Religion played an important role in society in the past. In the dark ages church and state were one in the same and to go against the church was to go against god. For the citizens of developing nations, religion was often a tool to help unite and control it’s citizens, served as motivation for exploration, and comforted people by explaining events which at the time were inexplicable. As society continues to advance in technology and science I feel it shall continue to down play the importance of religion, and make it more of a personal choice to celebrate heritage.

    1. David: Your view is one that is apparently quite common in Europe, where many people see religion as the place where we put those things we do not understand or cannot explain. As science helps us explain more and more, so the mysteries of the unknown grow less and less, and religion loses ground to science. While I was researching this post, I came across a transcript of an interesting discussion in which this very argument comes up; you can find the article here.

  3. I have always been curious as to why there are so many religous things have been associated with the U.S. Government. I personally believe that religion is on a decline as previously mentioned by David Nunez, rulers such as Hammarabi’s code was derived from his devine right. Many religious practices have been extinguished simply because of their impracticality. Rarely I think you will hear of a human sacrafice to apease the “Gods”. I do find the differences in European relgious beliefs compared to American’s very interesting and I would love to look further into it to see why that discrepancy exists.

    1. Gerald: A very interesting place to look for the kind of insights you are after is the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life ( Polling makes up a lots of its work, abd it contains some really interesting comparative studies of religious beliefs, adherence, and attitudes toward religion in various countries around the world.

      Levels of religiosity in the United States are not at all unusual in a global context, but the are unusual in the developed world.

  4. I also agree with David about the influence science and technology has on religion in our society these days. But what I am wondering is how does this differ from or compare to less developed countries who may not have as much of a technological influence? And do you think this is why church attendance is on a decline? I also have a few questions for you, Professor Rallis. First off, What is an Evensong service? And what made you decide to go after not going to church for so long? Also, why do they have to pay to take pictures in the Cathedral? Is that normal there? Don’t they want people to come and share in its beauty?

    1. Evensong is an evening or afternoon service held in Anglican churches (aka Church of England, or the Episcopal Church in the U.S). Music is an important part of the service, which is the main reason I went. I really wanted to experience church music sung by a good choir in a great cathedral (and, as I note in the blog, I wasn’t disappointed on this score.) As I noted in my response to Gerald’s point, the importance of religion in the lives of most Americans is not out of line with that in many developing countries, although there is quite a lot of evidence to show that religion is in decline in the US as well, particularly among younger people (see for example the article ‘“Noees” on the Rise”

  5. Holy cow! Looking at the geography of Christianity from 1920 to 2010 just shows a dramitic change! The amount of growth in North and South America, Africa, and Asia-Pacific is a significant amount. The growth really shows how much a religon can spread into other regions and the fact that different cultures on different continents can really connect with a religion. It shows that just because you live on the other side of the globe does not meant that you arent that much different than you thought. Religon can really connect people and the fact that people say that they are different, when actually in reality they have the same beliefs you have just they live in a differnt region on OUR world. We all share the world, why not accept others with the same beliefs? Just because they live geographically different doesnt mean they are different.

    I agree completely. Religion is declining. I feel like a major factor is our generation and the generations after us. People are not taking hours out of the day to go to church because people are always on the go. We never stop and fill our lives up and therefore we are busy. Im not saying that people dont want to go. Just the fact that because our society is always going and never taking a break we dont stop and think lets go to church. Once we have a break we think lets lay on the couch and watch tv and relax. This is creating the decline in religion I feel like.

    Any thoughts?

  6. I find it very interesting that you visited the cathedral in Exeter. I visited the cathedral in highschool with one of my friends, and as you said i remember the pipe-organ, and how well it was played. i also find it interesting how the number of church-gowers is decreasing, and how there arent many younger people who go to the church

  7. Could the decline in religion be due to pressures developing in countries to deny religion? In the article ‘“Nones” on the Rise” it says that “one-third of the unaffiliated say religion is at least somewhat important in their lives…(and) Two-thirds believe in God.” So does the fact that they define themselves as unaffiliated necessarily mean that there is a decline in religion. It sounds like they still have religious beliefs although they are not part of a particular religious denomination.So could it be that the decline is in the number of “affiliated” religious rather than in the religion itself?

  8. In “The God Delusion,” Richard Dawkins proposes that as people become better educated (literate and more informed) religion begins to fade. If we are to consider Dawkin’s argument, it may be possible to discern that with an increase in globalisation and advancement in technology, people are becoming more knowledgeable, confident and self-sufficient. These attributes structure an inner and external security that substitutes the need for religion. In the same vein, statistical evidence shows that the United Kingdom has a literacy of 99%, 12 compulsory years of education, and near 100% attendance of educational institutions ( This high percentage of educated people may be an indicator of why people choose to refrain from religion. Knowledge replaces religion. Logic replaces faith. When faith is removed, religion becomes ephemeral. Nonetheless, even though the prevalence of religion (based on surveyed claims) may be declining, remnants of religion are very much engrained in the founding history (as in the case of the U.S.), literature, art, music, modern theatre/cinema, and even architecture. In other words, although people may choose not to affiliate with a religion or think of themselves as religious, the existence of physical/external representations of religious ideas, rituals, and images may still maintain religion in the long run.

  9. Dr. Rallis,

    I am also not a very religious person. My father’s family was fairly religious and my mother spent her middle and high school years in catholic school. Neither of them really seemed to absorb religion and definitely did not put any sort of pressure on my sister or myself to believe/ identify with any sort of religion. They took us to church a few times but I never took interest so they let me be. I was amazed when I moved here to the United States to see how much religion did play a part in people’s lives. I had known people who practiced different religions before moving here but I never thought of it as something that would come between people such as I have seen here, like you mentioned the politicians using it in speeches. When I was driving up to Virginia from Honduras, I saw in the news about the bombing of mosques and was horrified. Sometimes the people in this country confuse me.

    Thanks for the article!

    1. I share your confusion, Alexandra. But confusion can be good; I am always confused when I visit a place for the first time and try to understand its cultures and ways of life, and I find it fascinating to try to identify what, exactly, I find confusing and why. The place each of us comes from is the place we consider ‘normal,’ all others are different, and difference is often a source of confusion.

  10. I also agree that religion has suffered a great decline. My parents also attended catholic schools and for many years we went to church every Sunday morning when we lived on a military base but when we moved to VA away from military bases we just stopped going. In my opinion we stopped going because we were not being watched by all the military families that went to church to be looked down on.. also my mom worked at the church for a period of time in the financial department. I started attending church with a friend and they did not seem interested in going anymore and I slowly stopped going as well. I still believe in God but I do not feel that I should have to attend church to prove that.

  11. I have always felt that religion in the United States is sort of an open book for many. We have many freedoms that other nations around the world dont get to experience, and that is the freedom of religion. I know I relate to my half Egyption side a lot in this class, I feel like it helps me better portray the points I am trying to make. In the Middle East and Egypt itself many of the countries are leaning towards becoming Islamic states if they havent already done so. In many of these states praciting other religions than Islam is considered illegal. Compared to the USA where we were a country based on religious freedoms from the begining. It was one of the core values many of the founding fathers of this nation expressed. The graph you posted in the blog on this topic really hit that home for me, while the religious oppression in those countries may not be a huge issue, I dont think that they have the same basis as we do as a nation to express our religious beliefs.

  12. I think that it is crazy how the number of church goers is declining in Europe. If anything you think it would decline in the US. The first comment made a good point, that religion meant so much at one time, whereas in the US church and state have almost always been separate. Also, not having grown up in a religious family and going to a church where it is mostly 50+, I would think the US has less church goers, but then again anytime I visit somewhere in the US it is not hard to find a church to attend. That graph really blew my mind! And listening to you talk about the cathedral makes me really want to visit, but it is heart breaking knowing not that many people go there. I feel like locals should take advantage of such a blessing. Interesting article! I’m glad you decided to go to church that Sunday!

  13. Religion’s decline has something to do with the way society is evolving. I was born and raised in a very strict catholic home. I was an alter boy my early years and missing church on Sunday was like one way ticket to HELL at least that was how i viewed it. I was never encourage to ask questions about some practices of the church which needed clarification and whenever I did I always got this generalized answer which has been well documented. Everything changed when I turned 18. I saw a different view of the church and our idea of what is right contradicted on so many levels. I guess the point is parents play a very important role in whether or a not a person is infused with the whole notion of how vital religion is.
    In living in Africa and Jamaica, the one resounding evidence was how devoted people are to religion especially in Africa. Once they commit to a religion, being it Christianity, Islam, or their own form of idol worshiping, it is next to impossible to change their faith. Religion in these places are passed on from generation to generation and only in rare instances do you see a subsequent generation deviating from what has been the norm in that family. Religion in itself will never perish but the denominational section of it will definitely proliferate as people begin to question their faith. Which begs the question, why follow one path when you can combine various aspects of different religions and call it whatever you want?

    1. I agree with your point that parents play a big role in how vital religion is for a person. Different denominations are in fact what you said people will start to form. You said people are going to start combining different aspects and call it whatever they want. I think this is the same thing that people have been doing for a long time now. Different religious denominations have formed over time. Each of these denominations have chosen what various aspects they believe. Many religious denominations have overlapping beliefs but there are still differences. I think that if people do in fact starting to move away from the denomination they associate themselves with now it may just result in the addition of other denominations with a different combination of beliefs just as you suggested. Therefore religious denominations are unlikely to decline in number unless all people begin believing the same things, because then they would all be a part of the same denomination. So maybe in this way relgious preferences are declining in that people are beginning to pick and chose what they believe, maybe sometimes based on what they prefer rather than what is true. Religion may be beginning to lose the unity that it used to have. However, the number of denominations does not determine the retreat of religion itself. I believe that religion will never disappear, there will always be people that stick to their religion and keep it going. Religion will not die out completely. It will still exist whether or not people decide to believe in religion or not.

  14. I find it very interesting that you were charged to take photos at the cathedral. Can you explain to me why this is?
    My mom as a child grew up in England, and she still has many pictures of Exeter Cathedral. I do feel like religion is in retreat so to speak, the trend of attending church has decreased dramatically. And I wonder if this is because people have become less spiritual, more involved with work and home life, or if it all depends on the region you are living in?

  15. I find these interesting because I’ve always seen europe in the forefront of christian religion, especially the catholic religion. It is true that christianity has had it’s dark ages but I always thought that they would remain strong in Europe. But taking into consideration that Europe is really diverse and more liberal, I could see how some could sway from religion.

  16. This post is both interesting and sad to me. I am a Christian, so I may be biased, but hearing that the “age of believers in increasing” and the young believers are decreasing is really mortifying. I think that religion is important to have in our world, weather people believe in the different religions or not, because they hold so much history. It always surprises me to hear that Europe has become more “non-believing,” if you will, because what we have learned in high school was about Europe’s Catholic history and their missionary work, basically how religious Europeans were! I suppose some of us will try to keep religion strong and, otherwise, become more understanding of those who are more like the Europeans (where religion has a “lower profile”).

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