Opinion or fact? An opinion poll caught my eye as I took a stroll through this Sunday’s newspapers. No, not that one putting Leave six points ahead of Remain. But this YouGov specimen suggesting that 46 per cent of Brits have no religion, causing the Sunday Times to observe that “a post-Christian era has dawned in Britain”. Could it really be so? Given that we now take opinion polls as a useful but fallible guide to how things are, I thought I’d look at some of the other evidence. Just to check.
How no-religion became the most popular religion… The graph at the top of this post uses data from the British Social Attitudes Survey, which has asked the question of its respondents since 1983: do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion? According to these numbers, the post-Christian era actually dawned several years ago, around 2009, when the proportion of people of “no religion” reached 51 per cent. The concurrent fall in the number of Christians is mostly a fall in the number of Anglicans: 40 per cent of people identified themselves as such in 1983, compared to just 17 per cent in 2014.
…or did it? So far, so in accordance with the YouGov poll. But what’s this? The latest official Census, from 2011, has very different proportions, albeit just for England and Wales. On its account, the proportion of people identifying as Christians in that year was 59 per cent, compared to 25 per cent saying that they had no religion. This is because, as so often with survey questions, only more so in this case, the wording really matters. People might identify culturally with a religion, but not theologically. They might say that they’re Christian in a broad sense, but not in the sense of, y’know, actually going to church and all that. There’s a decent, short explanation on page 11 of this PDF.
Still, the trends are clear. Even though they may differ over the proportions, these disparate surveys do tend to agree about the trends. The number of people identifying as Christian in the 2011 Census was 12 percentage points lower than in the 2001 Census. The number who didn’t identify with any religion was 10 percentage points higher. The number of Muslims, with Islam being the largest of the non-Christian religions, was 2 percentage points higher. Generational and demographic changes are having their effect, regardless of how any questions are worded.
(In)conclusion. As we reach this final bullet-point, I realise it’s all a bit “on the one hand… on the other hand…” On the one hand: by almost any measurement, Christianity is in decline in Britain. On the other hand: by many measurements, it is still a powerful force in all our lives. This is why it’s probably too soon to talk about the dawn of a post-Christian era. We’re more likely in an in-between age, of unknowable length and outcome.