Women are almost two thirds more likely than men to believe in God, a major study of attitudes among middle aged Britons has found.
Atheism and agnosticism are now the majority creed among the male population but almost two thirds of women believe in Heaven or an afterlife, according to the study which has been tracking 9,000 people now in their early 40s for more than 25 years.
The findings also suggest that Muslims have by far the strongest faith in modern Britain, with Christians from smaller evangelical churches the only group coming close to the same levels of certainty.
By contrast only one in six members of the Church of England or the other main protestant denominations say they believe without doubt in God.
Just a third of Roman Catholics in the study said the same compared to 88 per cent of Muslims and 71 per cent of those categorised as evangelical Christians.
But the findings also point to major confusion among the population about beliefs and what even constitutes religion--with a quarter of those involved in the study changing their minds over time on the basic question of whether they would say they had a “religious” upbringing.
More than a quarter of those sampled fell into a middle category of so-called “fuzzy believers” who either said they believe in a vague “higher power” but not a specific deity or that they believed in God or a god “some of the time”.
It also showed that beliefs in God and the concepts of Heaven and Hell no longer go hand in hand with a quarter of those classed as agnostic still holding out hope for life after death and almost a third of religious believers rejecting the possibility of an afterlife.
The striking divide between the sexes on the question of belief throws the decades-long battle within Britain’s main churches and other faiths over the role of women in leadership.
It is a struggle which will be vividly illustrated in less than a week’s time when the Church of England consecrates the Rev Libby lane, a Lancashire vicar, as its first female bishop in a historic service at York Minster.
The stark divide between the sexes on matters of faith emerges from the latest tranche of findings from the 1970 British Cohort study, published in the journal Longitudinal and Life Course Studies, which has been surveying the same of people from mainland Britain born in 1970 since they were 16.
It found 54 per cent of men could be classed either as atheist or agnostic, compared with only 34 per cent of women.
That includes 30 per cent of men surveyed who said they did not believe in God with another 24 per cent who said they did not know and had no way of knowing.
Only 15 per cent of women surveyed said were sure that there is no God.
At the other end of the spectrum, 15 per cent of women said they were sure of the existence of a deity and compared with only nine per cent of men.
And overall, when different responses are combined, 38 per cent of women said they believed in God, notwithstanding some doubts, but only 24 per cent of men.
When asked about Heaven and Hell, 61 per cent of women said there was definitely or probably an afterlife compared with only 35 per cent of men.