The shrinking majority

Britain is still a Christian country but the drift towards secularism continues.

The latest data release from the ONS's integrated household survey shows a continued, slow decline in Christian affiliation, a small but significant increase in the number of people who profess no religion, the sustained growth of Islam and stability or decline in other religious groups.

The headline figures suggest that the United Kingdom remains a predominantly religious and mostly Christian country. Almost seven in ten (68.5 per cent) identify themselves to researchers as Christians -- far more than the 15 per cent who regularly attend church. Less than a quarter (23 per cent) profess no religion at all (although in Wales, the figure is considerable higher, at close to one in three. Of the population as a whole, 4.4% is Muslim -- more than all other minority faiths put together -- but still less than one person in 20. (The full IHS figures can be found here.)

This picture of stability may be something an illusion, however. The last time this survey was conducted, in 2009-2010, the figure for Christian affiliation was 71.4 per cent and for no religion was just 20 per cent. A movement of 3 per cent from a Christian identity to a non-religious one in a single year is potentially a dramatic one. The annual population survey, which has included a religion question since 2004, records what looks like a consistent pattern. In 2004-2005, the figures stood at around 78 per cent Christians and less than 16 per cent having no belief. Then, 3.2 per cent were Muslim. In every subsequent year, the number of self-styled Christians has declined -- and most of that decline can be accounted for by an increase in non-belief. (For a detailed breakdown of the statistics, see this EHRC survey here.

Now, look at the age profile of belief in Britain. According to the latest IHS, Christian affiliation is strongly correlated with age. No fewer than 87.6 per cent of those over 65 define themselves as Christians and almost 80 per cent of those aged over 50 but below retirement age. The 25-34 age group would seem to be the least religious, with just over half calling themselves Christians and about a third having no affiliation. At the same time, growth in Islam is taking place predominantly among the young. Almost 8 per cent of under 16s are now counted as Muslim, compared with a mere 1 per cent of those over 65.

There are various possible explanations for the age differential. One is that people are drifting away from religion in early adulthood but returning to it in old age when, among other things, they are more preoccupied with thoughts of death and a possible afterlife. There may be some truth in this. The new figures suggest that there is more religious attachment among those under 24 (and especially under 16) than among their slightly older peers. But not much. Another possibility is that younger people are simply more honest -- that older respondents grew up at a time when to admit to having no religion was less socially acceptable than it is today and have retained a habit of pretending to believe.

The most likely scenario, however, has to be that Christianity is contracting in the UK at a steady and observable rate, a long-term trend that has not been altered significantly by the increasing profile of religion in the media, politics and public debate over the past ten years.

It's not all bad news for Christian leaders. The UK remains theoretically a Christian majority country and is likely to be so for many years to come. The secularisation of society does not seem yet to have reached a tipping point at which attachment to Christianity -- however notional -- collapses. Lack of affiliation with any religion, moreover, is not the same thing as out-and-out atheism -- it can encompass a wide range of vaguely religious and spiritual beliefs. Membership of many evangelical churches continues to grow. And the churches retain formidable resources in terms of organisation, political influence and social prestige.

The days of most people automatically ticking the box marked "C of E" may well be numbered. And if the Christian majority continues to shrink, the historic privileges of the established church -- and of Christianity generally -- will become ever harder to defend.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.