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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On the important issues, Louise Casey all too often has little to say

Far from moving the debate on, this new report on integration adds little to the report I commissioned in 2001. 

For 15 years, “numerous government reports on community cohesion and integration have not been implemented with enough force or consistency” concludes Louise Casey’s review of  integration.  The government’s lukewarm response suggests their effort will be as “diluted and muddled” as all the rest.

There’s a deeper reason why governments shy away from the measures that are needed. The report's wealth of data sets out a stark if sometimes contestable picture of a divided society.  But no amount of data can really bring the lives of our fellow citizens to life. As the Brexit vote underlined, this is now a nation divided by class, geography, education, wealth, opportunity and race. Those divisions colour the way we live our lives, the way we see problems in society, the relations we have with others, and our political choices. The report, like many before it, stops short of setting out that reality. It’s easier to pretend that most of us pretty much agree on most things; but just few people don’t agree and they must be the problem. Predictably, much of the early coverage has focussed on the Muslim community and new migrants. If only it were so easy.

According to Casey “in this country, we take poverty, social exclusion, social justice and social mobility seriously” and we do it “across political divides”. Apparently “creating a fair, just society where everyone can prosper and get on” is a cornerstone of British values. Yet for page after page the report chronicles the serial failure of this benign consensus to tackle educational under-performance, and economic and racial disadvantage. If we all agree, how come we haven't done anything about it?

These problems are not certainly easy to solve, but more lip service is paid to tackling them than effort. The practical material issues documented here need addressing, but punches are pulled when hard answers are needed. Given the dramatic impact of mass migration on cohesion, is integration possible while current rates of immigration persist? Can we find the political will to tackle poverty and disadvantage when those who might benefit from the effort are divided against each other by suspicion, race, geography and values? After all, rather than progressive policies producing a cohesive society, social unity is the precondition for the introduction of progressive policies.

We don't actually actually agree on what our “fundamental values” mean in practice. We can all sign up to democracy and the rule of law, but as soon as those are put into practice – see the court case on Article 50 – we are divided. When judges are popularly seen as “enemies of the people” and a vote in an elected parliament as a threat to democracy, in what sense are law and democracy fundamental?

Casey usefully highlights how treating homeless families equally, irrespective of ethnicity and length of residence can create the perception that minorities are being favoured over long standing residents. Our differing views on what is “just” and how “fairness” are defined can tear us apart. Is it fair to favour the newcomer over the indigenous? Is it just to put length of time on the waiting list above housing need? We often don't even acknowledge the legitimacy of other points of view, let alone try to find common ground.

The continual invocation of Britain and British values lends an air of unreality to the report.  Most people in England include British in their identity, but Englishness and English interests are of growing importance. In a worrying development, some areas of England  may be polarising between a white Englishness and an ethnic minority Britishness. Integration won't happen without a shared national story that combines a unifying national identity with the acceptance that we all have more than one identity that matters to us. Ignoring the reality of complex and multiple identities closes off one essential way forward.

None of this means that the criticism of some reactionary and occasionally dangerous ideas and practices in the Muslim community should be ignored and not confronted. But in a country where the established church opposes homosexual relationships and praise for Vladimir Putin's Russia is now mainstream politics it is hard to believe that all our problems can be reduced to the behaviour of a minority of a minority community.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University