My friend Roger Mortimore has a fascinating MORI commentary column looking at how Britain has changed since 1950. The answer is a lot in some areas, surprisingly little in others. Read the whole thing, but this struck me as particularly interesting:
Perhaps going hand in hand with the decline of a structured society is the erosion of the religious foundations on which it was once built. One tends to suppose that in the 1950s, Britain was predominantly a church-going (and of course Christian) society, whereas this is no longer the case. In fact, nominal church membership has not fallen precipitately: in 1951 the estimated baptised membership of the Church of England was 624 for every 1,000 in the population; by 1996, it was still 511. [Source: Butler & Butler, "Twentieth Century British Political Facts".] In the 2001 census (the first to include a question on religion), 72% identified themselves as Christians and a further 5% as belonging to other religions - although many of these can be only nominal adherents, since when we asked in a 2000 survey only 62% of the adult public said they believed in God. (The census figure, it should be noted, includes children as well as adults.) Churchgoing is much lower than theoretical adherence to a religion, of course: in 1957, only 14% of adults said they had been to church on the previous (February) Sunday. By 1993, attendance had fallen to the extent that only 18% said that they ever went to church on a Sunday, but it was clearly a minority activity even at the time of the coronation.
But what has certainly changed is that there is more acceptance of "new age" spiritualism, and other supernatural phenomena, as well as scepticism about organised religion. One 1999 MORI Social Values question gets at this trend quite neatly: 65% of the public agree that "Personal spiritual experience is more important to me than belonging to a church". This leads to what some would describe as a more credulous society. For example, in January 1950, only 10% of the public told Gallup they believed in ghosts, and just 2% thought they had seen one. By 1998 we found that 40% now said they believed in ghosts, and 15% that they had "personal experience" of ghosts; 6% of the public, indeed, said they had based a decision on their belief in ghosts. In 1951, only 7% of the public said they believed in foretelling the future by cards and 6% by stars; in 1998, 18% of the public said they believed in fortune telling or tarot, and 38% in astrology (though we didn't ask specifically about using it to foretell the future).
In other words, the people of Britain want to be religious. The Church however (see my arguments here passim) has abrogated its role as instructor of the nation, preferring to talk about nuclear weapons and gay marriages, and the other Christian churches have seen fit to follow its lead, amazingly, which has of course left the door open for spiritualist looniness.
What all this means for Niall Ferguson's theory that European economic decline has been caused by religious decline, I don't know, but I think it weakens them. One correspondent mentioned that there is probably a clearer correlation between the rise of the welfare state and the decline in religion (if the State helps you out, why worry about God?) than anything Ferguson worries about. I'm inclined to agree. It would also explain why, given Britain's relatively early welfare state, church-going was so low in the 50s, as Roger helpfully reminds us.