More women than men believe in life after death

Luisa Migon

There is a "huge disparity" between men and women over matters of faith and belief, with nearly twice as many women as men believing in life after death and many more men than women being atheists or agnostics.

The research comes as the Church of England finally approaches the consecration of its first woman bishop, the Rev Libby Lane, in York Minster next Monday. In spite of the growing evidence of higher levels of devotion and piety among women, many other religious institutions across Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism still insist on a male-only ministry.

The new study of more than 9,000 British people in their forties, by the UCL Institute of Education, shows that 60 per cent of the women compared to 35 per cent of the men believe in life after death.

More than half of the men surveyed said they were atheists or agnostics, compared to a third of the women.

The survey was of the remaining members of the 1970 British Cohort Study, whose lives are being followed by the IOE's Centre for Longitudinal Studies in a study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Almost half of those surveyed did not identify with any religion. Most of the remainder said they had a Christian background. A small number of respondents described themselves as Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim or Sikh.

Professor David Voas, who analysed the survey responses, said: "Among believers, women are also much more likely to be definite than men, and among non-believers, men are much more likely to be definite than women."

For example, not only are men twice as likely as women to say that God does not exist, but male atheists are far more likely than female atheists to say that they definitely do not believe in live after death.

Professor Voas, of the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, said there was no obvious reason why this should be so but added that it was unhelpful to think simply in terms of "believers and non-believers".

He said: "Belief – or disbelief – in God and in life after death do not always go together. A quarter of those who said they were agnostic also said they believe in life after death. However, nearly a third of the people who said that they believe in God – despite occasional doubts – do not believe in an after-life."

Professor Voas suggested a new list with seven categories to describe a person's position on the faith spectrum.

Non-religious (28 per cent of the 1970-born cohort): Does not have a religion or believe in either God or life after death.

Unorthodox non-religious (21 per cent): Does not have a religion or does not attend services. Believes in God or life after death but not both.

Actively religious (15 per cent): Has a religion and believes in God and life after death. Attends services.

Non-practising religious (14 per cent): Has a religion and believes in God and life after death. Does not attend services.

Non-identifying believers (10 per cent): Does not have a religion, but believes in God and life after death.

Nominally religious (7 per cent): Identifies with a religion. But believes in neither God nor life after death.

Unorthodox religious (5 per cent): Has a religion and attends services at least occasionally. Believes in God but not life after death (or, in a few cases, vice versa).

He also warned that a healthy level of scepticism was needed when assessing statistics on religious affiliation. For example, nearly a quarter of those surveyed changed their minds between 2004 and 2012 about whether or not they had been brought up in a religion.

"Some things are clear, however. One is that a substantial proportion of teenagers who reported that religion was an important part of their lives at age 16 became relatively unreligious adults. There is some movement in the opposite direction, but not nearly enough to compensate for the losses to religion."

Professor Voas also points to the very high level of belief in both God and life after death among Muslims. Almost nine in ten of the small number of Muslims in the survey – just 82 – said they knew God really existed and had no doubts about it.

More than seven in ten of those who described themselves as "evangelical" also had no doubts about God's existence. Just a third of the Roman Catholics in the survey had no doubts. And the figure for those affiliated with mainline Christian denominations such as the Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian and United Reformed churches was even smaller, with just 16 per cent of them having no doubts that God exists."

"The mysteries of religion and the lifecourse", by David Voas, is the latest working paper to be published by the IOE's Centre for Longitudinal Studies.