No longer the default religion: is being a Christian now a political statement?

The census has shown a big decline in the number of people declaring themselves to be religious, writes Nelson Jones.

The anthropologist Kate Fox calls it the "default religion rule". In her 2004 study Watching the English, she recalls eavesdropping on a conversation in a GP's waiting room as a mother helped her 12 year old daughter fill out a registration form. "We're not any religion, are we?" asked the girl, bemused by one of the questions, to which the mother replied, "No, we're not. Just put C of E."

But is this "rule" as strong as it was? Today's results from the 2011 Census suggest that the number of those self-identifying as "Christian" in England and Wales – the religion question wasn't broken down by denomination – has declined substantially from ten years previously. Then it was 72 per cent. The latest figure is 59 per cent. There has been an almost equivalent rise of 10 per cent in those ticking the "No religion" box, but it's still only a quarter of the population. Even if the 7 per cent who declined to answer the voluntary question are counted as non-religious (which is unlikely to be the case) we're still left with more than two-thirds who declare a faith.

There's something for everyone here. The British Humanist Association was quick of the mark this morning, with Andrew Copson hailing "a really significant cultural shift". He argued that the Census figures, while inflating the true figure, provided further evidence that religious practice and identity were in decline, "and non-religious identities are on the rise". But the Church of England has hit back. Its spokesman, Rev Arun Arora, pointed to the 59 per cent figure as evidence that "the death of Christian England has been greatly exaggerated." He compared the fairly low membership of the National Secular Society with that of the British Sausage Appreciation Society. Which is fair enough, I suppose. There are, after all, many millions of people in this country who appreciate sausages without feeling the need to join a society to say so.

In truth, the Census figure reveals little that wasn't already known. Its main importance is political. Those who argue against social or political change (for example, against the introduction of same-sex marriage) or in favour of the special privileges enjoyed by the Church of England will breathe a sigh of relief that they can still point to the Census as proof that this is still a Christian country. For this very reason the BHA ran a high-profile campaign last year urging non-believers to identify themselves as such. It's not clear what difference this made: though there has been a huge fall in the number of self-declared Jedi, that in itself is not enough to account for the rise in the "no religion" figure.

Over the decade between the two most recent censuses, regular churchgoing has continued to decline, but at a slower rate than suggested by the figure for religious affiliation. Other research (such as the poll carried out earlier this year for the Richard Dawkins Foundation) suggests that only a minority of Britain's self-declared Christians have any deep knowledge of Christian doctrine or the Bible. The biggest driver of the decline in nominal Christian affiliation may be generational: younger people tend to have less cultural attachment to Christian traditions, and be less likely to adhere to the "default religion rule." But the terms of the debate have also been transformed. In 2001, religion had a relatively low public profile, although the fact that the question was added to the Census suggests that, even then, things were beginning to change. In the past few years, it has become difficult to avoid. Religion has entered the cultural and political debate in ways that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.

The rise of public chatter about religion may not have been reflected in rising levels of active churchgoing. But it may well have contributed to a sharpening of people's religious identities. On the one hand, the prominence and popularity of the "New Atheists" has helped to turn non-belief into a positive identity. It has also confronted people with the notion that belonging to a religion involves at least some level of practice and/or theological belief, something that they may not have considered before. People who considered that they "belonged to" Christianity merely because they had been christened or married in church are now choosing to declare themselves non-religious.

Christianity has also become much more political. Debates about education, about the status of marriage, about abortion and medical ethics have became heavily dominated by questions of religion, and the dominant voices have often been religious ones (or, for that matter, anti-religious ones). There have also been attempts in some quarters to link Christianity with white ethnic identity, or with opposition to Islam. Some previously notional Christians will have been alienated by a church that often seems to embody regressive attitudes, and this may be reflected in the latest figures. But an opposite effect may also exist, whereby people of conservative views who are not personally religious nevertheless feel a strong identification with the "traditional values" that Christianity now seems to embody, even as many actual churchgoers find themselves out of sympathy with campaigners who would speak in their name.

So it's safe to assume that fewer people today adhere to the "default religion rule". To declare one's religion is now to make a conscious choice. For some people, no religion is now their default setting. For others, Christianity has gone from being a cultural given and become a political statement. But the one conclusion that it would be difficult to draw from today's Census figures is that they say much about actual belief.

Photograph: Getty Images
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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood