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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Harriet Sherwood

Hell, yes: younger Britons more likely to believe in damnation, study finds

Hell with damned being devoured by a devil, detail from The Last Judgment, 1431, by Fra Angelico
Damned being devoured by a devil in hell, detail from The Last Judgment, 1431, by Fra Angelico. Photograph: DEA/G. Nimatallah/De Agostini/Getty Images

You may think the idea of hellfire belongs to an age when people’s lives were shaped by the threat of eternal damnation.

Wrong, it seems: generation Z and millennials in the UK are significantly more likely to believe in hell than baby boomers, according to a new study by the Policy Institute at King’s College London.

Younger people are also more likely to believe in life after death than older generations, despite being less religious generally.

The findings are part of the World Values Study, one of the largest academic social surveys in the world, which has been running for more than 40 years.

According to its data, just under half (49%) of Britons said they believed in God, down from 75% in 1981. Only five countries – Norway, South Korea, Japan, Sweden and China – are less likely to believe in God than the UK. The Philippines topped the league table, scoring 100%.

Belief in heaven among the UK public has also fallen, from 57% in 1981 to 41% last year. But belief in hell and in life after death has remained largely consistent, at 26% and 46% respectively.

When broken down by age, 32% of those under the age of about 40 said they believed in hell, compared with 18% of those aged between 59 and 77. Belief in life after death was 51-53% for younger generations, compared with 35-39% for older people.

“Our cultural attachment to organised religion has continued to decline in the UK – but our belief that there is something beyond this life is holding strong, including among the youngest generations,” said Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute.

“While the youngest generations continue to have lower attachment to formal religion, many of them have similar or even greater need to believe that there is ‘more than this’.”

Duffy said that “cultural Christianity” had significantly declined among people born in the UK, although “globally, religion is still a growth market”.

Britons are among the least religious of all countries in the survey, with the 24-country league table topped by Nigeria, Indonesia, the Philippines, Iran, Greece and Poland. In the UK, one in three said they were a “religious person”, 46% said they were not religious, and 21% said they were atheist – up from 4% in 1981.

David Voas, professor of social science at University College London, said: “Adults under 40 are much more likely than older people to call themselves atheists, but also to say that they believe in hell, which is a fascinating puzzle.”

The UK is among the most tolerant of the countries surveyed, with 82% of the public saying they trust people of a different religion. Only Sweden scored higher on tolerance.

Twelve per cent of people in the UK agreed with the statement “the only acceptable religion is my religion”, compared with 90% of Moroccans.

Only people in South Korea and China said they prayed less often than Britons, almost two-thirds of whom said they prayed rarely or never.

Another unexpected finding is that confidence in religious institutions had rebounded. Between 1981 and 2018, Britons’ confidence in churches and religious organisations fell from 49% to 31%, but by 2022 had risen again to 42%.

A possible explanation is the provision by churches and other religious institutions of essential social services such as food banks, social hubs, warm spots and debt counselling as the cost of living crisis has escalated.

Duffy said religious belief in the UK was unlikely to disappear, but would keep eroding. “It looks like a slow but inevitable decline, unless organised religions can engage with that broader sense of wanting something else beyond this life,” he said.

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