Case study

Religion and national identification in the UK: An exploration

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Author: Ingrid Storm, University of Manchester

Date: 7 February 2013

Type of case study: Research

About the research

As a country with low levels of religious involvement as well as relatively high degrees of ethnic and religious pluralism, Britain is an interesting country in which to explore the importance of Christianity for national identity.

This study draws on the British Social Attitudes Survey to understand how different forms of national identity relate to religion, and to what extent religion is an important part of national identity in Britain today. In sample surveys, less than half of the British population identify themselves as belonging to a Christian religion, and only a minority of these are practicing their faith. Nevertheless, nearly a quarter of the population think it is important to be Christian to be truly British. The study also explores different forms of national identity and how they are related to religiosity. The findings indicate that Christianity has significance for national identity primarily as a proxy for ethnic identity.

In short, this study illustrates that Christianity is part of the national identity of many people in Britain, but this is not a direct consequence of their faith. A view of Christianity as important for being British is frequently coupled with low levels of religious belief and practice, whereas those who regularly attend church are no more likely than others to associate national identity with religion. The shortage of similar studies of religion and national identity in countries with high levels of secularisation is particularly notable and encourages interest in these findings if one considers the reassertion of religious issues in public debates about immigration and multiculturalism in western Europe.

About the data

This research draws on the 2008 British Social Attitudes Survey (BSA), a survey designed to produce annual measures of attitudinal movements to complement large-scale government surveys such as the General Lifestyle Survey.

One of the main purposes of the survey is to allow the monitoring of patterns of continuity and change and the examination of the relative rates at which attitudes with respect to social issues change over time. The subjects covered by the surveys are wide-ranging but include among others housing and home ownership, work and unemployment, moral issues and sexual mores, racism and sexism, social inequality, religion, politics and governance.

Use of the 2008 dataset allows for including a questionnaire on religion from the International Social Survey Programme, which covers the topic of religion extensively and in depth. Moreover, this section was expanded to include questions funded by NORFACE on specific aspects of religion, among them the perceived relationship between religion and national identity. The inclusion of both these detailed sets of questions for a sample of 2,247 respondents makes the 2008 British Social Attitudes survey ideal for the study of religious and national identity in Britain.

Methodology

The analysis is based on the aforementioned questionnaire data and on another BSA survey module on national identity that covers questions about what contexts and situations make the respondent feel more British, as well as attitudes to immigration and ethnic minorities. Factor analysis was used to identify different dimensions of national identity.  Finally, the extracted factors were subsequently used in a binary logistic regression model to analyse which forms national identity influence thinking that Christianity is important for being British. 

Publications and outputs

This research was featured in the following academic journals and edited volumes:

Storm, I. (2011) ‘Ethnic nominalism and civic religiosity: Christianity and national identity in Britain’ Sociological Review 59(4), pp. 828 – 846. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-954X.2011.02040.x Retrieved 2 September 2013 from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-954X.2011.02040.x/pdf

Storm, I. (2011) ‘“Christian nations”? Ethnic christianity and anti-immigration attitudes in four Western European countries’ Nordic Journal of Religion and Society 24(1), pp. 75-96. Retrieved 2 September 2013 from http://tapir.pdc.no/pdf/NJRS/2011/2011-01-5.pdf

Storm, I. (2012) ‘Säkulares Christentum als nationale Identität: Religion und anti-immigrationseinstellungen in vier westeuropäischen Ländern’ in D. Pollack, I. Tucci and H-G. Ziebertz (eds.) Religioser Pluralismus Im Fokus Quantitativer Religionsforschung, Wiesbaden: Springer. doi: 10.1007/978-3-531-18697-9_12

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