Religion and Scotland

Kaitlin Dryburgh

The most recent census results now show that the majority of people in Scotland follow no religion. In 2011 this stood at 36.7%, so it is a rather stark increase that the country now stands at 51%. This is the first time in Scottish census history secular beliefs have out-weighed religious, could this now spur on a change in other areas?

The major change is mostly associated with the Church of Scotland, the numbers slumped from 32% of the population to 20%. That’s a rather significant decrease in a mere 11 years. However, those who identified as Roman Catholic only decreased a mere 2% in the same time. Only Hindu, Sikh and Muslim seemed to increase but none increased over 1%. By all accounts religion has decreased through-out Scotland as a whole. Furthermore, the assumption that it is predominantly the younger generations that have been turning their backs to religion has been dis-proven since all age groups have had significant increases in secular beliefs.

However, some regions tell a slightly different story. Both Inverclyde and Na h-Eileanan Siar has the Church of Scotland has their highest subscribed belief system rather than no religion.

This news isn’t exactly a surprise since the decline in people attending church has been going on for some time. Scotland’s ‘church problem’ has meant we’ve got more churches than people to fill them. Our long history has meant as a country we’ve accumulated a fairly substantial number of churches spreading to all corners and communities of Scotland. Their architectural and historic significance is something to marvel at, but what do we do now? Many of Scotland churches are falling into disrepair due to increasing bills and an insufficient amount of people to help fund their repair. Even though this problem persists now, it is estimated that around 400 churches will be put up for sale by the Church of Scotland by 2025. And that doesn’t even account for other faith organisations.

It’s a problem in many respects but also an amazing opportunity. Think of all the things that a church could potentially be transformed into. I’m sure we all have an idea of what we would choose to do. For some communities the sale of a church allows them the collective opportunity to repurpose it as an all-round space for the community. In some cases they’ve been repurposed as flats, however this is usually undertaken by a private property developer. However, since we have a problem with too many churches in the midst of a housing emergency there is potentially an opportunity there. Retro-fitting a church is no easy task, however with building standards of long-ago they were built to last and with the help of retrofitting an older church could become energy efficient. But maybe that’s just what I would like to see happen. Common Weal has also proposed converting them into care hubs for the our national care service, which also present a perfect opportunity due to their usual central location.

What could be done opens up countless possibilities. Kilmarnock is often used as an example of what can be achieved ever since a former church there was converted into a rock-climbing centre. A service that benefits the community, however worked with the current architecture to create an impressive climbing centre with a stain-glass window as the focal point. This is perhaps something that the Government and local councils could pay more attention to, however with current unstable local budgets the true benefits of this might not be seen.

Currently we are forging a path as a nation which identifies more with no religion, this may mean we have to shake up some of our institutions. We have a deep-rooted foundation with religion and that shows in many of our legislative frameworks and public bodies.

As it stands many churches sit on educational council committees and a majority of our state schools promote some sort of religious observance, as stated by Scottish Education Act 1980. Technically a school cannot take it upon themselves to stop observing religion- whichever that may be- to do so would be unlawful. However, parents can choose to have their child opt out of religious practices. Noticeably the child themselves can’t, which considering current debates surrounding other topics of late it speaks volumes that we don’t trust a child to decide their own religion however they can make some rather life-altering decisions. This decision has been legally challenged, however the government insisted that children were unable to opt out themselves. In fact the United Nations even submitted a report that the Scottish government scrap the guidelines, arguing that compulsory attendance at religious worship is breaching human rights. It begs the question how they’ll look to refuse now when the majority of adults don’t identify as religious. 

This requirement of children subsequently meant that every local authority education committee had to leave three seats for local religious representatives, these of course being unelected. Some councils have more recently opted to remove those rights such as, Edinburgh, the Highlands and Fife. However, legislative influence still remains, and perhaps the infrastructure of our state schools still mirror our historic roots with religion. Times are changing and there should be a concerted effort from our institutions to keep-up.

Yet trying to find the appropriate balance is a sensitive act. Just because the majority of adults in Scotland aren’t practicing a religion doesn’t mean that we don’t need to accommodate for those who are. Kate Forbes previous run for leader proved a bit of social experiment. Admittedly many of her religious views were seen as extreme, yet others were just not too sure how to approach an openly religious politician. Kate herself believes there is a complete illiteracy towards people who have religious beliefs, especially in positions of power. She’s had many people confide in her that they themselves or their children struggle to be as open with their beliefs without repercussions. That’s something that we may have to address. As our religious affiliations change, both personally and institutionally we must approach with the same openness as any other difference from the majority.

5 thoughts on “Religion and Scotland”

  1. Interesting that while the older established churches that have compromised on biblical teaching are seeing constant decline, smaller fundamentalist churches that refuse to compromise on their beliefs are growing. For example, Fraserburgh Assembly of God – a pentecostal church – has just opened a new building that seats 1000 as it was having to run multiple services on Sundays to accommodate those who wished to attend as its previous building only seated 400. Similarly, the Aberdeen Assembly of God church – the Kings Church – recently bought the old Aberdeen Exhibition Centre as it had outgrown its previous building.
    Perhaps the future will have far less people professing any sort of religious faith, but those who do will be fully committed.

  2. Ian Davidson

    Census results caution alert! 89% completion rate. Religion = voluntary Q so how many completed it?
    Role of Catholic Church in Scottish education is a sensitive cultural, political, religious issue resulting from complex history of discrimination and sectarianism.
    Humanists can be very dogmatic!
    We should debate, respectfully over time, all these issues and more. However we need accurate data and a “good public place” for this discussion. We are not there yet?

    1. Ian Davidson

      Additional points: I should self declare any bias! I was brought up in Scottish protestant household in 60s/70s. Institutional sectarianism widespread. Mainly agnostic for most of adult life but interest in “Buddhism” (a religion/philosophy/many forms?) from 2001. I recorded as “Buddhist” for census. Professionally and personally (extended family) have always had contact with church-based social help programmes, community cafes etc. Indeed, one sociologist described ” The Church” as being one of the few remaining cohesive volunteer-led organisations which relies on active citizen participation. It is no accident that most Food Banks started in church locations, with church/communities raising the necessary start up funds, whilst most of the paid anti-poverty lobby (of which I was one in previous lifetime) debated the pros and cons of Food Banks from a comfortable, well paid/ pensioned “armchair”! The loss of church buildings (one in our community under threat whilst other needs £100k plus repairs) will have an impact upon social programmes, loneliness, elderly welfare etc. I know “christians” who feel “under threat” from what they see as a relentless drive to secularism by politicians and other groups with vested interests. Whilst I don’t necessarily agree with all of these views, on a human level I reckon the secularists/humanists could benefit from just a tad more listening? Age has a role. Once you start to experience declining health and start going to lots of funerals, perspective can change. For me, materialism, the “rational” world is not enough. The “non-rational” (not irrational) can co-exist with the seen and known. Most religious practices (inc. Buddhism) can look very silly from the outside and esp. on any form of “reality” tv ( just don’t do it!!).
      As I said, let’s gather the data accurately, interpret it correctly and debate it respectfully and inclusively. The census data requires much more detailed follow -up?

  3. Michael Picken

    Can we please try to learn elementary statistics and distinguish between a ‘percentage %’ change … and a movement by ‘percentage points’?

    The proportion of those identifying as Roman Catholics did NOT decrease by “a mere 2% (sic)”.

    It actually fell by 15% compared to 2011.

    The proportion of those in the population identifying as Roman Catholics fell by 2 percentage points from approximately 16% in 2011 to (a more precise) 13.3%. in 2022 – a drop of approximately 15% in the proportion of catholics.

    1. Alasdair Macdonald

      Hear! Hear!

      Too many ‘journalists’ have little understanding of statistics and make the kind of fallacious conclusions you identify.

      However, some cynical ones DO understand statistics and choose to misuse them wilfully to convey false impressions.

      The other area which is wilfully misused is philosophy. Many Westminster politicians have degrees in PPE – philosophy, politics and economics. All philosophy courses devote a fair bit of time to identifying fallacies, such as ‘perfectionism’, ‘straw man’, ‘generalising from particulars’, ‘statements by “experts” from other disciplines’, etc. The purpose of this in the courses is to improve the quality of thinking and argument. However, many of those who go into politics (and ‘journalism’) wilfully, gleefully and mendaciously deploy fallacies with the specific intention of misleading others.

      Sadly, in my experience, some people on ‘the left’ in politics are as prepared to be as cynically dishonest as those on the right.

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