No faith in government

You must be careful about saying you have no faith. Britain is now a "multi-faith" society

"Have you thought about approaching faith groups?" an academic suggested at a recent discussion I was having about whether cheaper gym admission would encourage more people to take exercise.

I wanted to say that, given the empty pews syndrome, it is hard to see how the local vicar could improve the health of the whole community - but, as Nick Clegg has learned, you must be careful about saying you have no faith. Britain is now a "multi-faith" society.

Officially, 70 per cent of the population is Christian. However, this is an unreliable guide to the state of Christianity in Britain. Less than 7 per cent of us attend a Sunday service. Two out of three weddings are civil ceremonies.

Furthermore, it is predicted that churchgoing will fall from about three million today to 700,000 in 2050. By 2035, there will be more practising Muslims in Britain than Christians. What that 70 per cent actually represents is the number of people who ticked the box "Christian" in response to the question "What is your religion?" in the 2001 census.

The British Humanist Association, which held its annual general meeting on 12 July, believes the form of the question skews the answer. The BHA has written to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) about the form it should take for the 2011 census. Andrew Copson, public affairs director at the BHA, suggested "Do you have a faith?" followed by: "What is your religion?" But despite encouraging noises, the ONS has said it does not have space on the form for a two-step question. "What is your religion?" will remain. After all, it is argued, there is the "none" box, which is a bit like ticking "other" in racial monitoring forms. You never know if they now have you down as a Martian.

Copson argues that the statistics derived from the census go to the heart of policymaking. Politicians use the ONS figures to promote policies based around religion. It now seems that faith groups may be encouraged to take over organisations such as Jobcentre Plus. It remains to be seen what that would mean for Jobcentre Plus workers who are atheists hoping to rise to senior positions.

Humanists, secularists and atheists today have a fight on their hands, Polly Toynbee, the BHA's president, told the AGM. Religion was a dead issue when she first became involved in politics, but in the new climate, politicians were becoming Americanised and dared not stand up for atheism. Religion, she said, was "marching ahead".

It is hard to see why the government should prefer a "multi-faith" approach to a secular one. Yet, according to Toynbee, such attitudes among politicians may be responsible for boosting BHA membership, which has doubled since 2005. In that time, there has also been an increase in humanist weddings and funerals. The need for ceremonies to mark life's important stages is apparently combining with a desire to assert publicly that one can have a value-filled life without a faith.

Humanists still have to reiterate the argument that there is nothing inherently better about a faith-based desire to do good. A desire to lead a good life is an aspiration for most British people, religious or not. That is a message politicians ought to want to hear.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Tyranny and tourism