The number of people shunning church has long been on the rise – but now new figures show Scotland is the least religious country in the UK.

In England and Wales, the proportion of the population who say they have no religion is now significantly more than the number of Christians, reaching 48.5% according to new analysis released by St Mary’s Catholic University in Twickenham.

However latest statistics north of the border show 52% of the population say they do not regard themselves as belonging to any particular religion, compared with 40% in 1999.

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The Church of Scotland has suffered the biggest decline, with the percentage of Scots who identify with the Kirk dropping from 35% to 20% in the same period, according to the Scottish Social Attitudes survey.

Even among those who identify as belonging to a religion, figures also show a significant decline in the numbers attending services on a regular basis. Latest figures show two-thirds of us - 66% - never or practically never attend services, compared to 49% in 1999.

One of the most-detailed church census to have taken place in Scotland was carried out earlier this month, surveying 4,000 Christian congregations focusing on detailed information about church attendance.

The results of the Scottish Church Census, which has previously been carried out in 1984, 1994 and 2002, are expected to be published in spring next year.

Here we ask representatives from faith organisations about the changing face of religion in 21st century Scotland.

CHURCH OF SCOTLAND

Reverend Neil Glover, convenor of the Church of Scotland’s ministries council and a parish minister in Cambuslang said there is no doubt times have changed from 1956, when the Church of Scotland had an active membership of around 1.3 million – compared to around 380,000 today. Figures from 2011 census show around 1.7 million Scots consider their religion to be Church of Scotland - although self-evidently most of those do not attend church.

But he said the Kirk was still welcome part of communities across Scotland and the demand for schemes such as chaplains going into workplaces showed there was a “hunger” for engaging with religion, even if it is was not in traditional ways.

He said: “I am not fearful, I think the church is going to look very different in the years ahead. The way we were such a part of Scottish life in 1956 may well be different, but in some ways I welcome the change – there is no longer the sense that people go to church because it is the right thing to do or because it is respectful.

“People go to church because they want to be there and they feel the church offers them something very important in their lives and also challenges them to live lives which are truer and more authentic and more loving.”

The Church of Scotland has considered use of online membership. Glover said as well the use of technology, other traditions such as having pews in churches could be reviewed in the future.

He said: “What I think the Church of Scotland is really good at – and I hope never changes – is it has a real commitment to all communities in Scotland. I think we will change: there might be online communities of church and worship may change - in some of our churches we might take out the pews.

“Our commitment to be part of the life of all the people of Scotland and our commitment to our fundamental beliefs in the good news of Jesus will never change.

“But in some sense, everything else is up for grabs - it is an adventure and I look forward to seeing what it looks like.”

CATHOLIC CHURCH

The numbers stating their religion as Catholic in the 2011 Census was 841,000 – up from 803,000 in 2001 and the only main Christian denomination to show a rise. Of course, again, not all of this number attend church.

Peter Kearney, official spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland, said the number of priests in training had also increased after recruitment efforts to around 25 in 2015, compared to a “low point” of just four in 2005.

He said there was no question statistics showed society was becoming increasingly secular.

But he added: “A secular society is a good thing, the Church is totally supportive of that and always has been - that is a very fundamental Christian principle, the idea of the separation of Church and state.

“But the point we would make is that cuts both ways, and neither should politics or politicians stray into religion.”

Kearney said while the majority of people in society today were not members of a political party, it did not mean they were disinterested in politics – and said a similar argument could be applied to religion.

“There will be a range of people in the ‘no religion’ category – at the one end there will be atheists, there will be agnostics, there will be people who are just simply disconnected from any church or faith group, although may have some sort of previous or residual connection with it,” he said.

“I think people are a bit more discerning now and they won’t call themselves a Catholic unless they feel they do have some sort of connection. So there is less of the blanket labelling that might have gone in the past.”

Kearney said the Catholic Church was not trying to move with the times as it believes people want constancy.

“That means that you do the same things and keep offering them to people in the same way,” he said.

“You may leave (the Church) and decide to come back later, but you will come back to something that has not changed. That sense of continuity and not trying to change with the times is important.”

FREE CHURCH OF SCOTLAND

Reverend David Robertson, Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, said the Free Church, which has around 15,000 members, was growing rapidly and looking to double the number of churches over the next decade.

But he said he believed the Christian foundations of society were under attack, particularly from “more militant secularists" who want “Christianity removed from the public sphere altogether”.

He said: “I think the majority of people are either nominally religious, they will say they are Christian or Catholic or Protestant or whatever, possibly never go to church and I doubt they believe very much at all.

“All the figures are doing is catching up with the reality on the ground. I think the whole idea of Christendom has gone – I think you have got the established churches hanging on to the last remnants of the establishment and the majority of people have turned away from it.

“My view is that if a church goes along with the spirit of the age and does what the Church of Scotland has been doing, there is not a hope of it surviving.”

On the issue of whether the Free Church was behind the times when it comes to issues such as its stance against same-sex marriage, Robertson said he believed society was regressing and not progressing.

“If you marry the spirit of the age you will be a widow in the next age,” he said: “We don’t despise or reject any individual as we believe we are all made in the image of God, but we don’t accept whatever philosophy happens to be the current zeitgeist of the time.

“To me it is quite clear what Jesus says about marriage and we stick with that – we ask for the freedom to do so and a lot of people find that very attractive.

“I think one of the reasons we are growing is we are providing a clear message, but not one that is condemnatory – it is different, we just don’t agree with a lot of where our society is going.”

SECULARISTS

Megan Crawford, chair of the Scottish Secular Society, said evidence showed not only are less people identifying as religion, but those who do are less likely to attend religious services.

She said the reasons which people often gave for moving away from religion included no longer accepting some of the "bigotry" attached to some organised religions – such as not recognising same sex marriages.

“This archaic mentality of the religious bodies is not really moving along with the general population and their mentality,” she said.

“In a secular society everyone has a more equal status and equal stance – so you don’t see religious privilege happening, but you also don’t see religious persecution happening. You see people having an equal status.”

Gordon MacRae, chief executive of the Humanist Society Scotland, said Scotland was now a “diverse and multi-faceted” nation, where a variety of beliefs and world views are accommodated.

He said: “Faith groups have the right to be heard, but they should have the same rights as everyone else and not more rights – and that is the crux of it as we look forward to a far more inclusive, far more accepting, far more diverse future.”

MacRae said he could see “no evidence” for the idea that Christianity was under attack.

He said: “I think no longer being privileged over others is not the same thing as being attacked.

“It is a slightly fatuous argument to say if certain churches aren’t given legal protections and privileges, and [are made to] have the same rights as everyone else, that they are in some way under attack.

“I think the onus is on churches to justify why they should continue to have special privileges – our vision is for a secular state, not just because we think it is the right way to go, but also it is the only guarantee [of equality for] all faiths and none.”

NON-CHRISTIAN RELIGIONS

After Christianity, Islam is the most common faith in Scotland, with 77,000 Muslims in Scotland according to the 2011 Census – up from 42,000 in 2001. Other religions have also shown an increase - the Buddhist population has grown from 6,800 to 13,000 over that time; Hindu from 5,600 to 16,000 and Sikh from 6,600 to 9,000.

The Jewish population showed a slight drop from 6,400 to 6,000 between 2001 and 2011 according to the Census.

But Ephraim Borowski, director of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, said what the statistics actually revealed had to be questioned and people may be reluctant to say they are of a particular faith – especially if they fear persecution.

He said: “There will be effects (on the survey results) such as the voluntary nature of the question, which applies to all faiths equally.

“But then there will be some effects that will apply specifically to minority communities – the idea that I don’t need to stick a label on myself if I don’t have to, and the quite deliberate refusal to answer the question because they feel vulnerable.

“The statistics will only ever show the answers people gave, they won’t show the facts"

He added: “Is Scotland becoming a less religious place? Certainly fewer people say they are religious in any sense of that word, but on the other hand many of these people might say they are more spiritual, so it comes down to definitions and borderlines.”

Borowski said the Jewish community in Scotland was an ageing population, which would bring challenges in the future.

He said: “You can’t deny numbers are falling, but the institutions of the community are still as they were.

“There are issues about rationalisation and getting groups to co-operate - or even amalgamate."