Census results show changing religious views

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 Harris.

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 no.''

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 25%.

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 pool.

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 divine truth.

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.