What has happened to the Church of Scotland? I don't mean what is happening to it now, because it is obvious that whatever happened, happened years ago and just now we are seeing the effects.
A recent article from the BBC has the slightly misleading headline, "Religious affiliation in Scotland 'declines sharply'". The title explicitly points to a decrease in the number of Scots who self identify as members of a church. The apparent conclusion is that religion in general in the country is becoming less important. But if we dig into the data we get a slightly different picture.
Right off the bat the article notes that since 1999 the percentage of people reporting "no religion" has increased from 40% to 58%. This definitely makes it look like religion in general is struggling in Scotland. But not until the end of the article do we find out that as a percentage of the overall population all other religions or Christian denominations have remained constant. Within statistical uncertainty there has been no change for everyone other than the Church of Scotland (the Kirk). The entire increase in people reporting "no religion" is driven by former members of the Kirk.
It is interesting to note that while the other denominations are not picking up those leaving the Kirk, their membership is keeping pace with population growth. They may have a hard time bringing in new converts but they are not in the state of crisis seen in the Kirk. From the data the number of people who self identify as members of the Kirk has decreased by a half since 1999. If half the members of the church of Scotland chose to leave in 18 years while all other religions and denominations have continued to grow, albeit at the rate of population growth, then that indicates that there is, or was, something about the Church of Scotland that resulted in this sudden drop that was not present in other denominations and religions.
This kind of thing does not just happen overnight, or even in just a few years. In order for there to be this dramatic of a decrease over the last 20 years means that the seeds of this crisis were sown long ago. That is why at the beginning I said that it is not happening now but happened years ago.
So there was something about the culture or the teachings of the Church of Scotland that brought it to this crisis. I do not have enough insight or data to determine how it got to this point. But it is also interesting to note that there is data that shows that similar trends hold for the church of England. Since 1983 the number of people in England who self report as Anglican has dropped from 40% to 17%, while the number of non-religious has climbed from 31% to 48%. The proportion of people from other Christian denominations have remained roughly constant, with some fluctuation, but the number of non-Christians has climbed from 2% to 8%.
But this is not isolated data. I recently read an article from The West Australian entitled, "We’re losing our religion". This article followed the format set by the BBC article by noting that the number of people reporting "No Religion" has increased, but when we look at the data the same trend holds. The percentage of Anglicans has declined, while all other denominations have stayed the same (with the exception of Catholics, whose representation declined by 5% of the population).
So while there are definitely more people who self identify as having "No Religion" the vast majority have come from either the Church of Scotland or the Church of England. This massive shift in social attitudes definitely has put pressure on other denominations, but the data indicate that at least in Scotland, England and Australia, religion in general is not going away, just a particular form of it.