Losing My Religion was one of the defining songs of my youth, thanks to REM. Rather more importantly (unless you care a lot about teenage angst) our collective loss of belief matters hugely for how society has evolved. When I was born, twice as many of us were Christians as had no religion. Today, more of us are atheists than Christians and it appears only slightly over half of British Christians believe in God. We see a similar picture across Europe, even if globally religion is in less of a retreat.
We tend to think about religiousness as a personal decision but new research examining the role of schools illustrates that collective choices have a part to play. The authors use data from Germany, exploiting the fact the religious education mandated by the postwar West German constitution was removed across different states at different times from the 1970s. They find abolishment significantly reduced religiousness, both in private (less praying) and public (church attendance). The effect was biggest in Catholic areas.
Before the social conservatives get all up in arms, note there was no impact on moral or ethical views, life satisfaction or political leaning. That may be because religious education was replaced with non-denominational ethical teaching, rather than more maths.
But less religion did have wider effects, reducing the prevalence of people thinking that gender should determine who does what job or indeed that women cannot use technical devices as well as men. It’s not a coincidence that up went labour market participation and earnings and down went marriages and children.
Religion has hugely shaped our societies for millennia, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised its decline is doing the same today.
• Torsten Bell is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation. Read more at resolutionfoundation.org