'Census Christians' not very committed, opinion research suggests

By staff writers
February 14, 2012

Data analysing the beliefs and practices of people who ticked ‘Christian’ on the national Census shows that many of them have few or no religious convictions, and few or no habits of religious practice.

The Ipsos-MORI research, carried out in the week following the 2011 Census, confirms the findings of research conducted in the previous week by YouGov.

Nearly 72 per cent of respondents answered the religious question in the last census 'Christian'. Other measurements suggest that this proportion may have fallen to nearer 60 per cent, though the results of the latest census are not yet available.

The Ipsos-MORI research into the issue, published today, was commissioned by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science UK (RDFRS UK). It indicates that:

• 65 per cent of ‘census Christians’ said they were not religious
• Only six per cent of ‘census Christians’ had attended a church in the last week
• 48 per cent of ‘census Christians’ believed Jesus was a real person who was the Son of God, died and came back to life.

Among other findings, the new research indicates:

• Just 30 per cent of ‘census Christians’ say they have strong religious beliefs
• 60 per cent of ‘census Christians’ have not read the Bible from choice in the last year
• Only 10 per cent of ‘census Christians’ say they seek most guidance on questions of right and wrong from religious teachings or beliefs, with over 50 per cent preferring to draw upon their own inner moral sense
• Only 28 per cent of ‘census Christians’ say that it is a belief in the teachings of Christianity which makes them tick the Christian box, with over 72 per cent saying it is because they were christened and 38 per cent because it was their parents’ religion.

This data supports work done by academic demographers in the UK such as Professors Abby Day and David Voas, as well as the data from other surveys and polls, which have demonstrated repeatedly that the self-definition of ‘Christian’ says little about personal religious belief or practice.

Some church and religious opinion-formers rushed to dismiss the figures today, but others believe that it is important to get a truthful picture of levels of Christian adherence, belief and practice in Britain - which all major indicators show has been shrinking in numerical terms in recent years.

Simon Barrow, co-director of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, said: "This opinion survey makes interesting reading as part of a whole web of research on the changing shape and location of Christianity in Britain over the past thirty years. It shows that 'civic' and 'cultural' Christian self-identification is a very different thing to the deeply rooted faith held by a much smaller number of people whose believing, belonging and behaving is strongly shaped by regular participation in active Christian communities."

He continued: "While we can argue over details, the broad outline of what this survey reveals should not come as any shock or threat to church leaders who have been paying attention to what has been happening in recent decades.

"Top-down and institutional religion is in decline. Trying to restore or maintain the cultural and political dominance of religious institutions in what is now a mixed-belief 'spiritual and secular' society is a backward-looking approach," said Barrow.

"Churches have a creative opportunity here. It is to rediscover a different, ground-up vision of Christianity based on practices like economic sharing, peacemaking, hospitality and restorative justice. These were among the distinguishing marks of the earliest followers of Jesus. They have always been part of the 'nonconformist' tradition shared in different ways by Anabaptists, Quakers, radical Catholics, Free Churches and faithful dissenters in all streams of Christian life.

"The mutually reinforcing pact between big religion and top-down authority that we call 'Christendom' is on the way out," added Ekklesia's co-director. "The kind of conservative religious aggression that claims 'anti-Christian discrimination' every time Christians are asked to treat others fairly and equally in the public square is a threatened response to the loss of top-down religion's social power. So is overbearing 'Christian nation' rhetoric, and the 'culture wars' that some hardline believers and non-believers sometimes seek to launch and win against each other.

"A positive, post-Christendom perspective suggests that Christianity can and should flourish beyond the demise of 'big religion', and that a level-playing field in public life can and should involve both religious and non-religious participants.

"Likewise, while Richard Dawkins may not be a subtle, unbiased or persuasive analyst of religion overall, it would be entirely unhelpful for believers to dismiss this survey because they disagree with its commissioner in other respects. Its content evidently needs further and deeper analysis, alongside other data, than the initial response to it has allowed," concluded Barrow.

Ipsos MORI interviewed a representative sample of 2,107 adults aged 15+ across the United Kingdom for the RDFRS UK survey. From this sample, a total of 1,136 adults defined themselves as Christians.

Interviews were conducted face-to-face over the period 1 to 7 April 2011. Data has been weighted to match the profile of the population, say the researchers.

* A copy of the data relating to the survey can be found at http://c3414097.r97.cf0.rackcdn.com/IpsosMORI_RDFRS-UK_Survey_Topline_14...


Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.