Religious involvement over the life course: problems of measurement and classification


  • David Voas University of Essex



religion, religiosity, generations, cohorts, affiliation, identity, belief


Longitudinal studies have the potential to enhance our understanding of stability and change in religious identity, practice and belief.  Good individual-level data would help in developing and testing theories concerning the causes and consequences of religious involvement.  Past research has shown, however, that even subtle differences in wording or context can substantially affect responses to questions on religion. The 1970 British Cohort Study offers an important opportunity to test the consistency of self-reported religion and religiosity.  In addition, the 2012 sweep asked questions on belief in God and life after death as well as religious affiliation and practice, allowing us to explore the complexity of religious adherence. A close examination of the multiple waves of the BCS70 reveals a large amount of uncertainty in measurement, making it hard to detect whatever genuine change might have occurred.  There are indications of considerable unreliability in reported past and present affiliation.  It is also difficult to be confident about changes in religious commitment, though a substantial proportion of teenagers who reported that religion was an important part of their lives became relatively unreligious adults.  The data on religious belief make it apparent that while some people seem wholly non-religious and a smaller number are actively (and consistently) religious, the majority fall into intermediate categories defined by nominal allegiance, unorthodox belief, or belief in the absence of affiliation or practice.  It is clear that multiple survey items covering identity, practice and belief are needed to obtain a reliable picture of religious commitment.

Author Biography

David Voas, University of Essex

Professor of Population Studies

Institute for Social and Economic Research