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.

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Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.