19 May 2023
God, heaven and hell, and life after death: data reveals UK's low religious belief compared with other nations
The share of the British public who identify as religious has halved since the 1980s
The UK public are now among the least likely internationally to believe in God, following a long-term decline in belief since the 1980s, according to a new study.
The research, led by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, also finds that the share of the population who say God is not important in their life is at a record high, having doubled compared with four decades ago.
Belief in heaven has decreased over the same period, but belief in life after death and hell has remained stable, with younger generations more inclined to believe in both – despite being less religious generally.
At the same time, the proportion of Britons who consider themselves religious has nearly halved, and out of 24 countries included in the research, only four are less likely to identify as religious than the UK.
But while the country is becoming less religious, the UK is second only to Sweden for trust in people of different faiths, and has high religious tolerance as well as increasing confidence in churches and religious organisations.
The analysis was carried out as part of the World Values Survey (WVS), one of the largest and most widely used academic social surveys in the world, in operation since 1981.
The latest UK data was collected in 2022, with data for other nations collected at various points throughout the latest wave of the WVS, which spanned 2017 to 2022.
Belief in God, heaven, hell and life after death
Just under half (49%) of Britons said they believed in God in 2022 – down from three-quarters (75%) in 1981.
Of 24 nations in the study, only five are now less likely than the UK to say they believe in God, with China (17%) by far the least likely to.
And the share of the British public who say God is not important in their life has doubled and is now at a record high, rising from 28% to 57% between 1981 and 2022.
Just five out of 24 countries are less likely than the UK (23%) to say God is important to them, including Japan (14%), Sweden (14%) and China (8%).
Heaven and hell
Between 1981 and 2022, the share of the public believing in heaven fell from 57% to 41%.
Despite this, the idea of heaven is still more popular than hell, which 26% said they believed in in 2022 – a figure largely unchanged since trends began.
While younger people have lower levels of religious belief and are more likely to identify as atheists, Gen Z (32%) and Millennials (32%) are in fact more likely than Baby Boomers (18%) and the Pre-War generation (24%) to believe in hell.
And by international standards, the UK is less likely to believe in hell, ranking 17th out of 24 countries – and far behind some peer nations such as the US (69%) and Italy (39%).
Life after death
Views on life after death have held up well over the last four decades, with just under half of the public – including 46% in 2022 – consistently saying they believe in it.
And again, despite their lack of faith, younger people have higher levels of belief: in 2022, majorities of Gen Z (51%) and Millennials (53%) said they believed in life after death – higher than the share of Baby Boomers (35%) and the Pre-War generation (39%) who said the same.
The UK public are among the least likely internationally to identify as religious
In 1981, 57% of Britons considered themselves religious. By 2022, this had nearly halved, falling to 32%.
Over the same period, the proportion who see themselves as atheists has increased fivefold, from 4% to 21%, with a notable uptick between 2018 and 2022.
And of 24 major countries analysed:
- Only those in Sweden (27%), South Korea (16%), China (16%) and Japan (14%) are less likely than people in the UK to consider themselves religious.
- Just four – Australia (30%), Sweden (28%), Japan (15%) and China (13%) – rank below the UK (31%) for saying religion is important in their life.
The UK is very tolerant of different faiths despite not being very religious
82% of the UK public say they trust people of a different religion – the second highest of 24 nations, behind only Sweden (87%) and on a par with Norway (82%).
And among a smaller sample of 17 countries where the question was asked, only Germany (10%) and Japan (11%) are less likely than people in the UK (12%) to agree that the only acceptable religion is their religion.
This compares with 90% of people in Morocco, at the other end of the table, who hold this view.
And confidence in religious institutions has begun to rebound
Between 1981 and 2018, Britons’ confidence in churches and religious organisations fell from 49% to 31%, but by 2022 had risen again, to 42%.
However, of 24 countries, the UK still ranks among the bottom half for confidence in such institutions, including behind the likes of Norway (50%), Italy (53%) and the US (54%).
David Voas, professor of social science at UCL, said:
“The findings point to both the long-established erosion of religious involvement and to some interesting complexity in our self-perception and who believes what. The main story remains that most people in Britain aren’t very interested in religion. That said, the glass remains half full when it comes to belief in God or life after death. Adults under 40 are much more likely than older people to call themselves atheists, but also to say that they believe in hell, which is a fascinating puzzle.
“While the British seem comfortable with their widely shared lack of religiosity, they have little objection to others being different, at least so long as religion doesn’t intrude into public affairs. The survey even shows an unexpected uptick in confidence in churches and religious organisations.”
Bobby Duffy, professor of public policy and director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, said:
“Our cultural attachment to organised religion has continued to decline in the UK – but our belief that there is something beyond this life is holding strong, including among the youngest generations. This reflects a long-term pattern, where those who feel actively connected to organised religions have moved from a ‘conscript’ army in previous decades, where many more felt it was an automatic part of life, to a more ‘professional’ army, which are fewer in number but more dedicated in practice.
“This is an important period in the development of religiosity and spirituality in western countries like the UK, where the findings show that while the youngest generations continue to have lower attachment to formal religion, many of them have similar or even greater need to believe that there is ‘more than this’.
“And of course, these sorts of international studies show that the decline of organised religion is not really a global story at all – as it continues to grow and flourish in many countries around the world, and these changes are really constrained to countries like the UK.”
2022 UK data comes from a random probability sample of 3,056 adults aged 18+ interviewed by Ipsos through a mix on face-to-face and online survey methods. Data has been weighted by region, education and age interlocked with gender to be nationally representative.
For analysis of trends over time, data is nationally representative for Great Britain due to a lack of available trend data from Northern Ireland, and is based on surveys of 1,000 or more people aged 18+.
Samples for other countries are all nationally representative and made up of at least 1,000 people. Information on the sampling methodology these nations is available via the World Values Survey Association website.
Data produced for this research is used in wave 7 of the World Values Survey, which included around 90 countries and ran from 2017 to 2022. See the full report for the precise year each country was surveyed. The report focuses on a cross-section of 24 countries selected based on the availability of reliable and weighted data and then narrowed down, focusing on global coverage (based on the UN's standardised country coding system), regional coverage and population size. This selection gives coverage of 12 of the 17 UN M49 geographic regions across 24 countries, representing almost 50% of the world's population (source: World Bank). Not all questions are asked in each country in every wave of the study, and so the number of countries compared on each question can vary.