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Sociology of Religion, Volume 78, Issue 3, 1 September 2017, Pages 247–262,https://doi.org/10.1093/socrel/srx031
08 August 2017

The rise of “no religion” has been swift in many formerly Christian liberal democracies, from the USA to Australia. In few places has it happened more decisively than in Britain where there is now a “no religion” majority and Christianity finds itself for the first time in second place.

I have documented the rise of “no religion” in more detail elsewhere (Woodhead 2016a), but will begin this article with a summary account, not least because I have refined my understanding in a number of respects. After profiling the “nones” (those who tick the “no religion” box on censuses and surveys) I will make my first serious attempt to explain this profound cultural transition. My focus is Britain where I have carried out the most extensive research on “no religion,” but I look sideways to other parts of the world as well.



If you attended a funeral in Britain in the 1980s you would have known exactly what to expect. It would have been organized by professional undertakers, led by a member of the Christian clergy, and taken place in a church or a crematorium. There would have been a funeral service with a set liturgical form and hymns would be sung. It would be orderly and predictable. Apart from the hymn-singing there would be few demands on you other than to show up and wear suitably sombre clothing. Traditionally, the service would be followed immediately by burial of the body, though in the course of the 20th century the growing popularity of cremation broke that link: cremation is now more common in Britain than burial. Ashes would be picked up by the family on a later date and might be buried in a graveyard or scattered somewhere of the family’s choosing, normally in private.

Fast forward a few decades to 2015 and things have changed considerably. If you were organizing the funeral yourself you would have a great deal more choice. You would probably still use an undertaker to arrange it, but you might decide to do it yourself or engage a new kind of funeral director, often female, who offers a one-stop shop—literally in a shop premises in some cases—with everything done as you want it, including bringing in the sort of celebrant you desire (the triumph of retail over ecclesiastical). Even a traditional undertaker will now give you a choice of a religious or a secular celebrant, and there are many kinds to choose from, from humanist to “green.” You will be asked whether you want the ceremony (not “service”) to be celebratory, reflective, sad, humorous, solemn, or some combination of these. You also have more choice about how the body is disposed of and memorialized: where and whether to make a memorial, how to decorate it, and whether it should be temporary or permanent. It has become more common to start with a private ceremony for disposal of the body followed by a public ceremony to celebrate the life of the deceased. In short, almost everything is now up for grabs.

For the previous 1500 years or so the vast majority of funerals in Britain had been Christian. Until recently, it was tautological to say “a Christian funeral.” By 2015 that had changed. When I asked a nationally representative sample what kind of funeral they would like, a quarter said Christian, 36 percent non-religious, and 23 percent a mix.1 The non-religious funeral had become completely normal. By “normal” I don’t just mean a matter of numbers—the point at which an absolute majority, more than half the population, chose a non-religious funeral—I also mean socially, culturally, and emotionally normal. I mean the point at which people feel perfectly comfortable with something and expect it.

As recently as 1990, a non-religious funeral was still unusual. It would usually be performed by a humanist celebrant and would be a clear statement that the deceased was an atheist and wanted nothing to do with religion. By 2015, it was the Christian funeral which had become a bit strange. Fewer people knew when to stand up and when to sit down and they didn’t know how to sing the hymns. So the safer option for a bereaved family was to opt for a broadly non-religious funeral in which there were a few religious elements for older relatives, perhaps a prayer. By 2015, even humanist celebrants were facing stiff competition—they were the only ones to retain a commitment to secular atheism, while a plethora of other kinds of non-clerical celebrant were happy to allow people to design whatever a sort of celebration they wanted. A Christian funeral had become a religious statement, something which would exclude as well as include, not just “what everyone does,” but explicitly secular funerals had not taken its place. Something more intriguing was happening, something which had blurred the traditional categories of social–scientific reflection: the religious and the secular.


Because I have been studying religion in Britain for the last quarter century my career as a sociologist of religion has coincided with the rise of “no religion.” Between 2007 and 2015, I was Director of a national research program called “Religion and Society” which generated a great deal of new, mainly qualitative, data giving fascinating glimpses of what was happening in Britain and abroad.2It encouraged me to begin interviewing nones and researching funerals and other rituals, and I embarked on an experiment with a professional photographer, Liz Hingley, in which we asked people to come to be photographed by her with a “spiritual object,” after which I would interview them about their choice. Between 2013 and 2015 I also carried out a series of large, nationally representative surveys in Britain in order to gauge the nature and extent of what we were finding in the more in-depth empirical work.3



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