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
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses