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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Nicola Sturgeon is betting on Brexit becoming real before autumn 2018

Second independence referendum plans have been delayed but not ruled out.

Three months after announcing plans for a second independence referendum, and 19 days after losing a third of her Scottish National Party MPs, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon booted the prospect of a second independence referendum into the heather. 

In a statement at Holyrood, Sturgeon said she felt her responsibility as First Minister “is to build as much unity and consensus as possible” and that she had consulted “a broad spectrum of voices” on independence.

She said she had noted a “commonality” among the views of the majority, who were neither strongly pro or anti-independence, but “worry about the uncertainty of Brexit and worry about the clarity of what it means”. Some “just want a break from making political decisions”.

This, she said had led her to the conclusion that there should be a referendum reset. Nevertheless: "It remains my view and the position of this government that at the end of this Brexit process the Scottish people should have a choice about the future of our country." 

This "choice", she suggested, was likely to be in autumn 2018 – the same time floated by SNP insiders before the initial announcement was made. 

The Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie responded: “The First Minister wishes to call a referendum at a time of her choosing. So absolutely nothing has changed." In fact, there is significance in the fact Sturgeon will no longer be pursuing the legislative process needed for a second referendum. Unlike Theresa May, say, she has not committed herself to a seemingly irreversable process.

Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum was said to be partly the result of pressure from the more indy-happy wing of the party, including former First Minister Alex Salmond. The First Minister herself, whose constituency is in the former Labour stronghold of Glasgow, has been more cautious, and is keenly aware that the party can lose if it appears to be taking the electorate for granted. 

In her speech, she pledged to “put our shoulder to the wheel” in Brexit talks, and improve education and the NHS. Yet she could have ruled out a referendum altogether, and she did not. 

Sturgeon has framed this as a “choice” that is reasonable, given the uncertainties of Brexit. Yet as many of Scotland’s new Labour MPs can testify, opposition to independence on the doorstep is just as likely to come from a desire to concentrate on public services and strengthening a local community as it is attachment to a more abstract union. The SNP has now been in power for 10 years, and the fact it suffered losses in the 2017 general election reflects the perception that it is the party not only for independence, but also the party of government.

For all her talk of remaining in the single market, Sturgeon will be aware that it will be the bread-and-butter consequences of Brexit, like rising prices, and money redirected towards Northern Ireland, that will resonate on the doorstep. She will also be aware that roughly a third of SNP voters opted for Brexit

The general election result suggests discontent over local or devolved issues is currently overriding constitutional matters, whether UK-wide or across the EU. Now Brexit talks with a Tory-DUP government have started, this may change. But if it does not, Sturgeon will be heading for a collision with voter choice in the autumn of 2018. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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