Despite having a belief in God to what extent do people practise these beliefs

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Declining religious beliefs in British society seem increasingly evidential through statistical data of low Church attendance figures and the disengagement of the church from wider society as suggested by Wilson (1966).

However, this is in spite of the 1,875 Church of England schools in Britain, as counted in 1998.

According to Grace Davie (1995), the situation in Britain is a case of ‘believing without belonging’.

Hamilton (2001) claims that a decline in religious practices may be part of a more general decline in organisational membership and increased privatisation. For example, less people join trade unions or political parties. It may be that they still ‘believe’ but are more committed to family or individual priorities.

Having attended a Church of England school myself, I have always found it intriguing that even though I was in a practicing environment and do have religious beliefs in God I never involved myself in any religious activities nor did I witness many of my friends or peers doing so.

I would therefore like to examine the extent to which teenagers ‘believe without belonging’. I will carry out my research in school X – a Church of England school.


Despite having a belief in God to what extent do people practise these beliefs?

My objectives are:

1) To discover what their belief means to them as individuals

2) To discover how they express their belief

Although there is much evidence suggesting a decline in religious beliefs and practices in western societies, there is evidence which suggests that people still believe in God. I still believe that rather than people no longer having any religious beliefs at all, people do believe in God but just don’t see it to be important to practice these beliefs by attending church regularly or other religious gatherings.


Sociological research suggests a decrease in the number of Church memberships and attendance and therefore religiosity within society.

This view is backed by Wilson (1966) who claims that we now live in a secular society where religious thinking, practice, and institutions are in decline. Wilson, one of the most influential supporters of the secularisation thesis, defines secularisation as ‘the process by which religious institutions, actions and ideas lose their social significance’. He suggests that this is mainly reflected statistically in declining church attendance and membership but he also argues that religion is losing influence over public life and affairs, a concept known as the disengagement of the church from wider society. Wilson mainly focuses on statistical evidence relating to religious institutions and their activity. The strongest evidence for secularisation in Britain comes from church-attendance statistics. According to the 1851 Census approximately 40% of the population attended church. By 1950 this had dropped to 20% and was less than 7.5% in 2000.

Therefore, reasons for possible low church attendance figures for pupils at school X may be a result of the general decline in church attendance over wider society rather than the idea that teenagers simply ‘believe without belonging’. A trend in wider society of believing in God but not attending church regularly or participating in other religious activities on a regular basis maybe what children are being socialised into and therefore influencing their level of practice as they get older.

However, there are many opposing views and evidence which suggest that this is not the case. Many interpretivist sociologists suggest these statistics should be treated with caution, as statistics relating to the previous century are unreliable because reliable data-collection practices were not in place.

Martin (1978) claims that relatively high attendance figures from the Victorian age may be due to non-religious factors such as the need to be seen by social superiors.

Contemporary statistics which show a decline in Church attendance may also be unreliable as different religious organisations employ different counting methods. These statistics may also be in-valid as people who attend church are not necessarily practicing religious belief whilst those who do believe may not see the need to attend.

However, it can be argued that affiliation is also an important factor when considering ways of expressing religious belief. Individual belief, such as praying at home, celebrating festivals and participating in ceremonies, and following certain religious codes such as the Ten Commandments, all represent the importance of one’s belief to them.

A total of 850 pupils attend the C of E School in which I am going to carry out my research, a vast majority of whom are Christians.

It could therefore be assumed that these pupils are practicing Christian’s i.e. regular church-goers or that they regularly attend a Holy Communion organised within the school as they are in fact attending a C of E School but I don’t think in reality this is actually the case. Although, criteria for acceptance into the school includes that pupils are regular church-goers and that they provide a reference from their religious leader.

As part of my background research I spoke to the teacher in charge of the holy communion service and whom is also the head of the RE department. Having spoken to her I discovered on average about 30 pupils attend Holy Communion, that is 3.5% of the total number of pupils, usually from years 7 to 10. Some are regulars in that they attend every time while others only occasionally or just the once. However, attendance does vary each time. All faiths are welcome and treated equally at the Holy Communion so although the vast majority are Christians, other faith pupils are not excluded from the service.

Grace Davie (1995) has described these situations of low attendance figures at religious services as ‘belief without belonging’. Although people believe in God and religion they don’t necessarily practice these beliefs by ‘belonging’ or attending church on a regular basis.

Religion is a private experience for many and consequently may not be reliably or scientifically measured.

This view is supported by Bellah’s (1976) study which suggests that religion has become privatised.

Religion has become restricted to private life due to the highly individualistic nature of today’s society and so more people are able to practice without having to attend church.

These views by Bellah and Davie can be used to explain why pupils attending a C of E school may not be religiously active. The pupils may believe in God, hence why they attend a C of E School but prefer to practice only at home in the space of their own privacy rather than together with their peers or perhaps they never practice at all.

A study carried out by the British Social Attitudes in 1992 showed that although church membership appears to be at a low, 69% of those surveyed believed in God.

This is another example of evidence which supports Davie’s idea of ‘belief without belonging’.

According to the 1998 British Social Attitudes survey 21% of those surveyed agreed to the statement ‘I know God exists and I have no doubt about it’, where as only 10% said they did not believe in God at all.

However, there is the possibility that a moral connotation is attached to such surveys as people may feel inclined to answer ‘yes’ whether they do believe in God or not.

In order to draw a conclusion on my aim and objectives and to explore Davie’s concept I will carry out informal interviews on three people whom I know have attended a Church of England school and have religious beliefs.


For my study I have decided to use semi-structured interviews to gather my data/evidence from which I will draw my conclusions. However, I will initially set out some questions to ask each interviewee but will allow them to openly express their views and thoughts without any restrictions and so the interview will be free-flowing.

I have decided to collect qualitative data, which will be high in validity. Data that is high in validity is authentic, accurate data which provides a statement of meanings people hold. There are various methods which create data high in validity; these include participant observation, personal documents and unstructured interviews, however, it is not possible to observe people’s belief and it would be very difficult to get access to personal documents.

From an interpretivist approach, the purpose of sociology is to discover the ways in which groups construct sets of meanings and the ways in which they understand their lives and environment. This means gathering data that offers these meanings and this has to be qualitative data in which research subjects explain their views in some depth.

The benefit of an unstructured as opposed to a formal approach to interviews is that it is focused on the search for the meanings social groups attach to events. By giving members of a group the opportunity to talk openly and freely, it is much more likely that their view will emerge than if they are given a list of pre-decided questions reflecting the researchers concerns. My research subjects will be able to explain their views when talking to me so that I fully understand them and their view point, unlike filling out a questionnaire, in which they may not be able to fully express their views.

By carrying out unstructured interviews, I will be able to gain an understanding of what ‘belief’ means to my research subjects and how then, if they do, express these beliefs through practice. Also, by doing an interview the chances of any misunderstandings are much lower than what they would be if the research subject was filling in a questionnaire as any question can be explained by the interviewer so that the respondent fully understands what is being asked and any response can be fully explained by the respondent so that the interviewer fully understands what is being said.

However, (from a positivist perspective) my data will be low in reliability as my chosen method is un-scientific and it is un-likely that the same results would be gathered from re-testing i.e. it is not replicable. The data may also vary considerably from each respondent which would then make it difficult to compare, but I am not looking to generalise, I am more concerned to get an insight into the meaning of people’s belief and practice.

Also, it is likely that there will be some interviewer bias which could influence responses. Respondents may lie or exaggerate the truth. It is possible that the respondents will claim to have a belief in God or that they practice their beliefs on a regular basis when in fact they may not do neither, because it is what they think I want to hear or because they think it is the more socially accepted response. To limit this I will try to reduce the formality of the interview as much as possible and try to make it more like a conversation between two people. I will also take a limited role within the conversation and so not lead it in a particular direction.

Ideally, to overcome the disadvantages associated with each method I would triangulate my research but this is not possible or practical within my time limit.

My sample will consist of three people, whom I will interview. My sampling technique will mainly be based on snowball sampling. I will initially interview someone that I know has a religious belief and attended a C of E school and then ask of them to refer me to someone in the same situation whom is wiling to talk to me. My sample could be described as a purposive sample as I am specifically looking for people who have some kind of religious belief and have attended a C of E school and so therefore it may be that it is unrepresentative. However, in order to discover what one’s belief means to them and to assess how they practice their belief one needs to have a belief. Therefore, for my study representativeness is not a key issue.

I have carried out a pilot study to test the questions I had prepared and to get some idea of the kind of responses I am likely to get. My pilot study helped to confirm the questions I will use in my actual study as I was unsure if all my questions would be properly understood and answerable.

My first two questions are straight forward and are simply to confirm that my interviewee has belief and the second to count how often they practice. The second question is designed to measure the importance of their belief to them according to traditional methods of measuring belief.

Initially I was unsure of my third question, which was to ask what their belief means to them because I thought it may be vague or difficult to understand. However, having done my pilot I gained confidence with this question as my respondent was able to answer it with a few hints such as how does your belief help you? And what does it provide for you?

This question allowed me to get direct responses for my first objective

My final question was to discover how my interviewees practice their beliefs. This question was answered with ease, although I provided a few examples such as home-prayer and following certain rules.

This question was designed to provide answers for my second objective.

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