Not believing, not belonging: “census Christians”

‘Believing without belonging’ has been the slogan of those who say that, although actual church attendance has fallen to negligible proportions on the average week and very few people are in membership of any church, people do still believe.

This was an argument whose advocates were driven almost delirious with joy when the results of the 2001 census were published and it was revealed that over 70% of those answering had ticked the ‘Christian’ box.

Although good serious demographers like David Voas and Alasdair Crockett have strongly rebutted the ‘believing without belonging’ thesis (e.g. here) and academics like Abby Day have demonstrated that many of those who ticked ‘Christian’ in the census were not in any sense believers, still the same argument rattles on regardless.

As part of our Census Campaign last year, the BHA commissioned research by YouGov to find out a bit more about census Christians. We discovered – of course – that only 6% of census Christians had attended a church in the last week but we also discovered that 65% of them also said they were not religious and only 48% of them even believed Jesus was a real person who was the son of god, died and came back to life. It seemed to pretty much explode the claims that all or most of those ticking ‘Christian’ in the census were religiously ‘Christian’ in any meaningful or significant sense.

Today, IpsosMori is releasing research commissioned by the Richard Dawkins Foundation, which was carried out a week after the BHA poll, once the 2011 census had already been taken, and the findings go even further in exposing how meaningless the “70% Christian” line really is.

Amongst other things, it shows that only 10% of census Christians say they seek most guidance on questions of right and wrong from religious teachings or beliefs and over 60% of them haven’t read the Bible in the last year. Only 28% say that it is a belief in the teachings of Christianity that makes them tick the Christian box.

It just underlines what any sensible person knows and any rational person has accepted from the weight of research done since the 2001 census – not only are the majority of people in the UK not religious at all, but even most self-identifying ‘Christians’ mean by that only a vague inherited cultural self description: nothing religious.

The way that the census data was abused following its release ten years ago has done great damage to a proper understanding of the belief demography of the UK, but at least it has also helped contribute to the building of an evidence base that should make that same sort of abuse of the 2011 data impossible.


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