What are "matters of conscience" in a non-religious country?

It takes religion for parliament to accept that an MP might have a conscience.

Today's census figures are the second to include an answer to the question of what religion people identify with. They show a country of rapidly declining faith: 25 per cent of people now say they have "no religion", up from 15.5 per cent in 2001; 59.3 per cent of people say they are Christian, down from 72 per cent in 2001; the Muslim population had increased to 5 per cent; and other religions totalled 8.4 per cent.

In other words, slightly over half of Britons are Christian. We can't know how that breaks down over various denominations, because the question was not specified any further, but if adherents to the state religion – the Church of England – aren't already a minority in Britain, then they are fast on their way there.

All of which marks out quite how bizarre the continued religious influence in our legislature is. Not just that we still have 26 bishops in the House of Lords in the year two thousand and twelve (although the e-petition to put an end to that has just broken 10,000 signatures), since that is something which, when it comes down to it, only matters on a symbolic level.

The far stranger influence religion has on the laws of the land has surfaced today with the debate over same-sex marriage. Take a look, for instance, at George's post about Labour's decision to offer a free vote on the bill:

"The three-line whip only applied to civil ceremonies. Now the government has agreed to allow gay marriages in religious buildings, we will hold a free vote."

That is: same-sex marriages weren't an issue "of conscience" until they involved religious buildings; now that they do, they are.

Clearly same-sex marriage is something which people care greatly about; and it is perhaps understandable that some people of faith feel that involving religious buildings to be involved is a categorically different issue to whether or not to allow equal marriage in the first place.

But why are we still acting as though religious beliefs are the only ones which people hold closely enough that they ought not be made to break them by a party whip? Are the 25 per cent of people who hold no religious beliefs also unable to ask for a free vote on matters of conscience? Can an atheist not be as vehemently opposed to war as a Christian is to abortion?

Britain is less religious by the day; soon, we will have to confront these questions head on.

The House of Commons in 1890, about as long ago as it made sense to have bishops in the Lords. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Tony Blair suggests second EU referendum: "Remain voters are not an elite"

The former Labour PM said the facts of Brexit may change minds. 

Tony Blair has floated the idea of a second EU referendum after the terms of the Brexit deal has become clear.

The former Labour Prime Minister told the BBC "you can't just dimiss the 16m people" who voted Remain.

He said: "If it becomes clear that this is either a deal that doesn't make it worth our while leaving, or alternatively a deal that's going to be so serious in its implications people may decide they don't want to go, there's got to be some way, either through Parliament, or an election, or possibly through another referendum, in which people express their view."

Asked whether he was telling the 17m voters who wanted to leave the EU that they were wrong, he said: "You can't just dismiss the 16m people either and say their views are of no account. 

"And by the way, that 16m don't represent an elite, they represent people who genuinely believe that in the 21st century for Britain to leave the biggest political union and the biggest commercial market right on our doorstep is a serious mistake."

There is no way the Brexit decision can be reversed "unless it becomes clear that once people see the facts they change their mind," he said.

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