In March, evangelicals gathered under the banner of the Christian Congress for Traditional Values outside Broadcasting House to insist that the BBC celebrate and reinforce the sanctity of marriage and family life in its dramas, documentaries and news broadcasts. Their leader had the unbeatable name for an Essex PR man: Garry Selfridge. His trade had taught him the political value of statistics, and he decided to use them to make the BBC feel small. If its governors refused to stop broadcasting blasphemous programmes and failed to return to the old standards of taste and decency, he said, "we will carry out a programme of high-profile events designed to put the corporation under intense media pressure to listen to the voice of the majority, the 42 million who registered as Christian in the 2001 census".
Forty-two million? That sounded on the high side. But he was quoting the census and normally there is an incontrovertible precision to figures from Britain's most comprehensive and respected exercise in social research. Sure enough, the 2001 census clearly states that in England and Wales, a hefty 71.1 per cent of the population regarded themselves as Christian. The other major religions - Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and the rest - claimed the allegiance of 5.6 per cent of the population, and there were a few Satanists, New Age crackpots and Jedi knights. About four million people refused to answer the religion question on the census form - concluding, quite rightly in my view, that their faith, like their race, was no business of a democratic government. In their number must have been many religious people who would have pushed the number of the faithful higher if they had been prepared to speak out. Only 14.8 per cent - 7.7 million - said that they had no religion.
The census, compiled by the Office of National Statistics, underpins British social policy. It determines where resources are sent for schools and hospitals and the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies. The 2001 census was the first to ask people about their religion, and for the government the results were extraordinarily welcome. The Blair administration is the most pious since the 19th century, and, by God, it shows. The Prime Minister is an Anglo-Catholic, Gordon Brown is a son of the manse, Paul Boateng is a Methodist lay preacher, Hilary Armstrong is a former vice-president of the Christian Socialist Movement, Paul Murphy is a Catholic, Jack Straw is Anglican, Lord Falconer describes himself as a non-practising Christian and Tessa Jowell found religion in the early 1990s. It is tempting to speculate that, as the power of the socialist faith faded, the party leadership turned to old-time religion to find a sense of purpose. Against this background, the government's dangerously sectarian plans for faith-based charities and schools, and for laws to ban the incitement of religious hatred, make a kind of sense. Unfortunately for ministers, however, and for Garry Selfridge, those census findings are not the godsend they appeared, and they are now coming under convincing intellectual assault.
The figures hardly accord with our everyday experience. No one can doubt that Britain is a Christian country or, more specifically, a Protestant one - even the Catholics have Protestant attitudes. But that Protestant tradition is normally expressed in national attitudes and prejudices - respect for the individual, for example, and sexual prurience - rather than in the sort of religious commitment implied in the census.
Now look at the findings of another important piece of official research, the British Social Attitudes Survey. It reported that 41 per cent of the population had no religion in 2001, as against the 14.8 per cent who told the census takers they weren't religious. This is a fantastically large discrepancy. They both can't be right, however creatively you play about with the margins of error; and the evidence suggests that the Office of National Statistics blundered. Another study from the same year, by the Home Office, found that religion came ninth on a list of what mattered to the public. (Only 20 per cent said it was important as against 71 per cent who said their family was their first priority.) And the Swedish-based World Values Survey reported in 2000 that 55 per cent of people in Britain said they "never" or "practically never" attended church. Only France was more irreligious.
I could go on, but a simple question makes the point: if the 2001 census is right, why are so many churches closing and so many sober Anglicans warning that the Church of England faces catastrophic decline?
At the root of the problem with the census is the question that was presented to households: "What is your religion?" As Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society said, it was "imprecise to the point of being unprofessional". What did the census want to discover about the British: whether they had a religious upbringing or a vaguely religious culture based on going to the odd wedding and funeral? Neither constitutes a true faith lived by word and deeds. The census in Scotland was more intellectually rigorous. It asked two questions: "What religion do you belong to?" and "What religion were you brought up in?" Because the Scots thought more carefully about their answers, only 67 per cent of them were recorded as religious compared to 77 per cent in England and Wales. Yet church attendance in Scotland is far higher.
The Scots also took great care to keep questions about race and ethnicity far away from questions about religion. In England and Wales, they followed on from each other. In a critical account of the census that amounts to a demolition, Professor Steve Bruce and Dr David Voas from Aberdeen and Manchester universities respectively point out that, in 2001, militant Islam was on the march and anger about asylum-seekers at its highest. The public was then presented with a form that invited them to tick boxes from a list that included Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh. There must have been a temptation to tick "Christian" simply as a way of announcing that "we're white and not Muslim".
Bruce and Voas pointed out that the Scottish census insisted that people couldn't just say they were Christian, but had to declare what type of Christian they were - Catholic, Presbyterian or what have you.
Another problem with the census was that forms were completed by heads of households, and it's easy to imagine that in some households, be they Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu or Jewish, patriarchs insisted that their wives and children believed what they were told to believe.
I sense that religious leaders know the census is full of howlers. The protesters outside Broadcasting House were the exception. But very few bishops have been trumpeting its findings. They see too many empty pews to be exultant. These census failings should now be hammered into the heads of ministers.
The London bombings have brought Britain to a decisive point where it can choose between two incompatible versions of liberalism. The first path is the one new Labour has been stumbling along for so long. In the name of tolerating diversity, it wants faith schools that will deliver sectarian education, faith-based charities that will deliver sectarian welfare, and a universal blasphemy law to inhibit faith's many critics. Respecting difference sounds and often is admirable, but it will lead to a liberal apartheid that separates Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Sikhs. How any British government can contemplate segregated schools after 30 years of an Irish conflict in which you could guarantee that every IRA bomber had been to a Catholic school and every UVF sniper had been to a Protestant one is beyond me, but there you are, this one is. The addled census findings reinforce its foolishness by allowing ministers to pretend that we are a religious country that requires the state to create religious institutions.
The alternative is to follow the liberal principle of equality. Great events, and the rise of militant Islam is certainly one of those, should force us to confront problems that laziness and inertia kept off the agenda. The overwhelmingly Christian and Jewish state schools should be abolished because they offend against equality of access. As there are hardly any Muslim schools, no one will be able to shout about Islamophobia. If we don't abolish them, then we'll have a country where whites go to Christian and Jewish schools and browns go to Muslim, Hindu and Sikh schools.
In short, the state should stop playing God. It should say to people of all faiths and to the large number of us with none that it is neutral and will treat us equally.