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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Iain Duncan Smith says what most Brexiters think: economic harm is a price worth paying

The former cabinet minister demonstrated rare candour by dismissing the "risks" of leaving the EU.

Most economists differ only on whether the consequences of Brexit would be merely bad or terrible. For the Leave campaign this presents a problem. Every referendum and general election in recent times has been won by the side most trusted to protect economic growth (a status Remain currently enjoys).

Understandably, then, the Brexiters have either dismissed the forecasters as wrong or impugned their integrity. On Tuesday it was the turn of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), one of the most revered bodies in Westminster. In response to its warning that Brexit would mean a further two years of austerity (with the hit to GDP wiping out George Osborne's forecast surplus), the Leave campaign derided it as a "paid-up propaganda arm of the European commission" (the IFS has received £5.6m from Brussels since 2009). 

The suggestion that the organisation is corrupt rightly provoked outrage. "The IFS - for whom I used to work - is not a paid up propaganda arm of the EU. I hope that clears that up," tweeted Brexit-supporting economist Andrew Lilico. "Over-simplified messaging, fear-mongering & controversialism are hard-minded campaigning. Accusing folk of corruption & ill intent isn't." The Remain campaign was swift to compile an array of past quotes from EU opponents hailing the IFS. 

But this contretemps distracted from the larger argument. Rather than contesting the claim that Brexit would harm the economy, the Leave campaign increasingly seeks to change the subject: to immigration (which it has vowed to reduce) or the NHS (which it has pledged to spend more on). But at an event last night, Iain Duncan Smith demonstrated rare candour. The former work and pensions secretary, who resigned from the cabinet in protest at welfare cuts, all but conceded that further austerity was a price worth paying for Brexit. 

"Of course there's going to be risks if you leave. There's risks if you get up in the morning ...There are risks in everything you do in life," he said when questioned on the subject. "I would rather have those risks that we are likely to face, headed off by a government elected by the British people [and] governing for the British people, than having a government that is one of 27 others where the decisions you want to take - that you believe are best for the United Kingdom - cannot be taken because the others don't agree with you."

For Duncan Smith, another recession is of nothing compared to the prize of freedom from the Brussels yoke. Voters still reeling from the longest fall in living standards in recent history (and who lack a safe parliamentary seat) may disagree. But Duncan Smith has offered an insight into the mindset of a true ideologue. Remain will hope that many more emulate his honesty. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.