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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue