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Dec 12 2012

Religious decline in England and Wales

The UK has released the results of its most recent census of England and Wales and it shows a sharp drop in the number of people who call themselves religious (from 72% in 2001 to 59% in 2011) and a corresponding rise in those who ticked the ‘no religion’ box, from 14% to 25%.

As Richard Dawkins points out, even those figures for religion may be overstated because the question was poorly worded.

The exhilaratingly high figure of 25 per cent for non-believers – far more than any group except Christians – would be even higher if the census question on religion had been more intelligently framed. If they had asked “Do you have a religion?” instead of “What is your religion?”, polling data from the British Social Attitudes Survey confirms commonsense: the numbers of nonbelievers would have been massively higher. Non-belief is not a religion, and it is insulting to frame a question that presumes that everyone has a religion, in the same way as they have an age and a sex.

What I found interesting is that the Richard Dawkins Foundation commissioned its own poll that asked people who had checked the ‘Christian’ box some very specific questions in order to better gauge the depth of their religiosity. Only 32% of them believed in the resurrection of Jesus, which is the central tenet of their faith, and only 10% turned to religion when faced with a moral dilemma, so it is not clear what being a Christian means to them.

Interestingly, the largest number of nonreligious was around 42% and found in Brighton and Norwich. Why there? The Guardian points out that these areas are student enclaves. The 2012 British Social Attitudes Survey released in September found that a staggering 65% of those in the 18-24 age group professed no religion, compared with 18% among those over 75. All these add to the evidence that religion is losing its hold on the young and faces a dim future.

7 comments

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  1. 1
    stonyground

    The British Humanist Association requested that the census question on religion be re-worded on the grounds that it was a leading question. The fact that this request was refused, strongly suggests that the government actually wants a misleading figure on how religious we all are.

    The poll commisioned by the RDF proved pretty conclusively that, in order to claim census Christians as their own, the churches are going to have to rely on a very loose and liberal interpretation of who is a Christian. Most of them couldn’t even name the first book of the New Testament.

  2. 2
    Paul Durrant

    One advantage of the question being the same as on the 2001 census is that the numbers are directly comparable.

    And there has been a massive increase in the “no religion” category in just 10 years.

    BTW, the Guardian is wrong that Norwich is non-religious just because of the student population. 15.5% of the population are in the 18 to 24 age range in Norwich. If 65% (i.e. 10% of the total population) of them are “no religion”, there’s still another 32% of the total population who are “no religion”.

  3. 3
    Paulino

    In Brazil, it is quite common for person to say they don’t have a religion but believe in somesort of deistic or even some unspecific theistic god. I’m sure most of them would answer “no religion”.

  4. 4
    Kimpatsu

    Only 32% of them believed in the resurrection of Jesus, which is the central tenet of their faith, and only 10% turned to religion when faced with a moral dilemma, so it is not clear what being a Christian means to them.
    I’ve said this before, Mano, but I believe many of these people are using religion as a proxy for ethnicity. The BHA also commissioned a survey similar to theDawkins Foundation, and the most revealing answer came from a young Yorkshireman who said he was a Xian because he didn’t believe in anything. When these people say they are Xian, they mean they are white English, as distinct from recent immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, who are Muslims. It’s lazy thinking, but the CofE latches onto it as evidence that religion is still important to the British, and so the church must have a say in policy making.

  5. 5
    Marcus Ranum

    say they don’t have a religion but believe in somesort of deistic or even some unspecific theistic god

    For all intents and purposes a woo-woo god that does nothing and offers no evidence for its existence while requiring nothing of its slaves – is a nonexistent god.

  6. 6
    Marcus Ranum

    I believe many of these people are using religion as a proxy for ethnicity.

    Yes, that and having an actual moral philosophy that they’ve thought about and adopted. Religion is a convenient rug to sweep a lot of stuff under.

  7. 7
    davidhart

    Maybe the question should be refined further – not just ‘do you have a religion?’ but ‘do you practice a religion?’

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