Tuesday, 14 February 2012

So my friends and acquaintances AREN'T a bunch of freaks for not being religious!

For ages now, I've struggled to reconcile the amount of religious crap that seems to come out of the UK with the fact that - of all my friends, family, colleagues and even just what I'd call "mates" - I can count the number of people I know who're properly religious on one hand. OK, maybe two hands, depending on how you want to define "properly religious". But still, we're talking hundreds of people and I can think of only three people I know who regularly attend religious ceremonies, maybe a couple of dozen more who take part in special holidays, and I know a few who if pressed will say they're believers but give no outward indication of this at any other time.

I don't think my social circles are particularly unusual, although I suppose the average level of education is a bit higher than that of the general population. And yet over and over we hear politicians claiming we live in a Christian country, bishops claiming to speak for masses that do not seem to exist, and the 2001 census amazed everyone by showing that 72% of us identified as "Christian" (back then my mum would have filled in the census and I'd've been down as a kid. I'm ashamed to say it and I hope I'm wrong, but I have a horrible feeling that we may have contributed to that "Christian" statistic even though not one of us has set foot in a church except for weddings and funerals in nearly two decades).

The data's only informal of course, but from conversations on the topics with many of my friends I know that the vast majority of my contemporaries consider gay marriage to be a complete non-issue, support the right to abortion even if they wouldn't do it themselves, and are quite happy to rely on science in such matters as medicine and the origins of the universe. Where are all these people who believe in prayer and the Jewish zombie that so many politicians and bishops keep banging on about?!

Today the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason has released the findings of an Ipsos Mori poll commissioned after the 2011 census, the links to which can be found here:


Well, this answers a lot of questions. Not only has the number of people self-identifying as "Christian" on the censuses dropped from 72% in 2001 to 54% in 2011, but even of those who do identify as Christian most don't seem to mean it very much. Only 30% claim to have "strong" religious beliefs, and apparently as many as half do not think of themselves as religious. What?!  Further - as can be seen in the second of the above links - only 12% of those identifying as "Christian" in the 2011 census (a total of only 54% of the population, remember) thought that religion should influence public policy - 74% actively disagreed with that statement. The majority of people identifying as Christians oppose the existence of a state religion, and the overwhelming majority (92%) agreed with the statement that the law should apply to all equally, regardless of religious convictions. Less than a quarter think that religious education in schools should be used to indoctrinate children into a particular belief, and more than half think that children should be taught without bias about all major religions.

So what does all this mean for the politicians and clerics who want to keep telling us that the UK is a Christiant nation?  Well, as of the last census only 54% of the population are even superficially with them on that. Of that 54%, only 12% (roughly 5% of the population) support their notion that religion should play a significant part in determining public policy - and most oppose it. Only slightly more than a third of their 54% are in favour of prayers in state schools, and almost 80% say religion does not significantly affect how they vote.

Of that crucial 54%, only 29% (roughly 13-14% of the population) have any problem with gay relationships, and 61% believe that gay people should have exactly the same rights as straight people. Only 20% are opposed to legal abortion, and roughly the same number are opposed to assisted suicide.

So I'm not too sure who it is that all these politicians and bishops pandering to the "Christian majority" are actually representing.  All these appeals to bring Christian values back into the political sphere, and it turns out that only about 5% of the population agree with them. This only confirms what I and many other secularists have long suspected - that Christianity in the UK is for many more a matter of social conformity and group identity than of belief or morality.

I'm disappointed that the RDFSR poll did not survey census respondents identifying with other religions, because those figures would have been fascinating and - I suspect - might well have shown that in meaningful terms Christianity was actually no more important to the people of the UK than other religions.  However, the figures are invaluable in demonstrating that actually Christianity is not that important to Brits, and far from being underrepresented in the public sphere as has been claimed so often of late it might actually be considered to have rather inflated representation based more on tradition and habit than on values or relevance. I also have hopes that - now we have hard data to show that even among those of us in the UK who still identify as Christian not many really mean it or allow it to influence their values - more people will be willing to stop pretending or hiding and just be open about their lack of belief.