This Sunday marks “Census Day” in the United Kingdom, where households will record various pieces of information, including religious affiliation. In this timely blog post, Dr Rachael Shillitoe of the University of Birmingham and Dr Anna Strhan of the University of York write about non-religion among UK children, examining how they understand non-religion and identify with it.
As the UK Census letters fall from the letterbox in every household over the next few weeks, new questions, reflections and conversations about our religious or non-religious identities are likely to be afoot in many homes across England and Wales. However, as this data is gathered, we miss an important proportion of the population: children. The UK census data, like many others, is gathered by proxy, with adults reporting on behalf of children’s religious or non-religious identity. It’s not just the Census where we run into this problem of by proxy reporting: children’s voices and perspectives are often marginalised, if not silenced, in matters of religion.
However, as we gather this new data on the religious landscape in the months to come, understanding changes such as the growth of those identifying as having ‘no religion’ over time requires attending to how children encounter, engage and experience religion and belief. We know from the British Social Attitudes Survey that those brought up with ‘no religion’ are more likely than those who are brought up ‘Christian’ to retain this identity as they move into adulthood. But how does this formation of a non-religious identity take place? And what does it mean for children to grow up as ‘non-religious’?
These are all questions that we wanted to answer as part of the wider Understanding Unbelief research programme, an international and interdisciplinary programme exploring atheism and other forms of so-called ‘unbelief’ around the world. Our project on non-religious childhoods investigated how, where, when, and with whom, children in the UK come to understand and see themselves as non-religious. We undertook an ethnographic study, using a range of child-centred and qualitative research methods, across three regions in the UK to explore this. This involved spending time with a sample of children in each of our fieldsites to understand the everyday realities of religion and non-religion in their lives and how they understood their identities in relation to friends, family and teachers and across the spaces of both school and home.
In matters of religion, discussions as to how and when, or if, children should encounter religion in schools often become highly charged. With critics of religion often voicing fears of indoctrination, the place of religion in schools contested, and religious groups’ fears over a lost generation, debates about childhood and religion can become polarised. With children representing the futures of both religious and non-religious worlds, these debates reveal the anxieties adults feel in terms of what the role and place of religion should be in society.
But often in these discussions, we get caught up with thinking about childhood as a process of becoming and our interest rests on what these ‘future adults’ might tell us about society in years to come. In our project, we aimed to focus on childhood as an area of social life worthy of study in its own right, with children’s experiences providing insight into a significant aspect of our social worlds in the contemporary moment, irrespective of what this might mean for the future. Understanding the diversity of religious, spiritual, and non-religious worlds and worldviews interwoven across the social requires, in our view, listening to and taking account of the lives of children as well as adults.
Our research provided unique insights into what it means to grow up as non-religious in Britain. Firstly, it demonstrated the range of beliefs that non-religious children hold and their existential curiosity. Secondly, it showed the important place schools have in the formation of non-religious children’s identity in Britain. Thirdly, it revealed the often upspoken and marginal place religion has in family life, and the importance of children’s agency in determining their own identities and worldviews.
Although many children we spoke to rooted their sense of ‘unbelief’ in relation to a sense of science as having replaced religion, they also demonstrated a wide range of beliefs, and often drew on spiritual, religious or supernatural beliefs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this involved belief in Father Christmas, the tooth fairy and unicorns, but it also, for some children, extended to belief in life after death, reincarnation and ghosts. Many children were uncertain about some of these beliefs, and in pairs, would discuss with their friends the likelihood of particular beliefs being true and how beliefs such as reincarnation might logically work out. Children would often exhibit a sense of playfulness when they discussed the possibility of these beliefs and possibilities. This sense of uncertainty however, did not create any sense of anxiety for these children, nor conflict with their non-religious identity or unbelief in God. Children also spoke of the fluidity of their beliefs and how they may change and develop over the course of childhood itself.
Another interesting finding was both the position religion has in UK schools and how marginal religion was more broadly in everyday family life. This combination of the two – with religion rarely mentioned in the homes of our non-religious children, combined with the prominent and explicit role religion has in everyday school life (both in terms of RE and assemblies) – made for an interesting interaction in terms of how non-religious children encountered religion in their daily lives and, in turn, how this helped them to reflect on their own non-religious identity. The opportunities to hear and learn about different religions, worldviews and beliefs in school, inevitably led to children reflecting on their own identity and encouraged them to think about this in a way which they didn’t do at home.
Crucially our research also revealed how children had a strong sense of their own agency in the formation of their non-religious identities and beliefs. Although aware of the influence of peers, schooling, and family in terms of shaping their attitudes and understandings, the children in our study were nonetheless conscious of themselves as exercising their own agency in determining their social and (non)religious identities.
As we begin to gather new data on both religion and non-religion in society and assess the salience, growth and decline of particular groups and identities, it is important that we consider this through the lens of childhood. We should be mindful of how we use this data, acknowledging that the voices and perspectives of children are often missing, and reflecting on how this potentially skews our understanding of the broader religious and non-religious landscape.
Note: This piece gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.