British survey results showed a decline in those who
regard themselves as ''Christians'' and New Zealand's
upcoming census may well bring the same result, writes Ian
How things change. Before the latest British census, taken in
March 2011, humanists and atheists were loud in their
protests about a question asking: What is your religion?
They argued the wording assumed people had a religion when in
fact they might not - even though the first option offered
was ''no religion''. So the British Humanist Association ran
a campaign urging those of no religion: ''For God's sake, say
Excuse me? The humanists feared if too many people answered
''Christian'', this would be used to justify public spending
on church schools, services and chaplaincies. That happened
after the 2001 census (the first time a question on religious
identity was included) recorded 72% of the population of
England and Wales as Christian.
The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science devised
a counter-strategy, commissioning a survey of people who had
identified as Christian in the census to probe what they
meant by that.
It found a lot of fuzziness. Only 31% of the Christian sample
said they ticked the box because they tried seriously to
follow the teachings of Christianity, while 50% did not think
of themselves as ''religious'' at all. Outside of a church
service, 37% never prayed, 15% never read the Bible - and 49%
hadn't been to church in the preceding year.
When the census results came out last month, those atheist
forebodings turned to whoops of glee. The tally of Christians
in England and Wales had slipped from 37.3 million to 33.2
million, while those of no religion had soared from 7.7
million to 14.1 million. As a proportion of the total
population, Christians had dropped sharply in 10 years from
72 to 59%, and those with no religion had leapt from 15 to
Muslims almost doubled to 2.7 million - 5% of the overall
population, and 12% of London's.
Reactions have been predictable. The National Secular Society
trumpets the data as ''a major reverse for Christianity''.
The Humanist Association notes ''a major cultural shift''.
Anti-religion crusader Dawkins is delighted, though he
greatly overstates when he gloats that religion in Britain is
''a spent force''. On his own survey, there's a committed
core of 10.3 million Christians among those who ticked
''Christian''. And just watch those Muslims dig in!Christian
leaders found the figures ''challenging'', which has to be a
masterly understatement. The Catholic Bishops' Conference
commented: ''Christianity is no longer a religion of culture
but a religion of decision and commitment. People are making
a positive choice in self-identifying as Christians.''
A similar shift is occurring in New Zealand, and faster than
in Britain. Our census next March will probably reveal
another rise for ''no religion'', and for the first time
since the 1840s Christians could drop below 50%.
Reasons for this are much the same as those being aired in
Britain. There is the elementary issue of definition: What is
religion? In self-identifying with a religion (or not), what
part do belief, vision, family heritage, upbringing and sense
of community play? Some people say they are spiritual, but
not religious: what do they mean by that?On the definition of
religion as ''a total mode of the interpreting and living of
life'', the word could cover any or all of belief,
orientation, practice, attending places of worship, notions
of God, meditation, prayer. All of those vary widely from
faith to faith, and within them.
And where Dawkins' survey unearthed different views of God
among census Christians, research by the Christian think-tank
Theos found 23% of atheists believe in the soul, 15% in life
after death, and 14% in reincarnation. It's a very muddy
Census responses could also reflect the revulsion that many
people, and not only atheists, feel over reports of child
abuse by paedophile priests, terrorist attacks by Muslim
extremists, resistance to women as priests and/or bishops in
Catholicism and in sections of the Anglican Communion, moral
absolutism contending with secular tolerance, hostility
towards homosexuals, an anti-scientific fundamentalism
lurking in every faith, human interpretation promoted as
Our age is marked by a growing suspicion and distrust of
institutions - but religions need their institutions in order
to survive and serve. Their slowness to adapt adequately to
the new reality of western secular culture means they
struggle to communicate with society at large.
The British census shows where that is taking them.
- Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator.