How religious – and Islamic – is the UK?

By one measure, nearly 60 per cent of Britons are religious. By another, fewer than 15 per cent are. 5 per cent of us identify as Muslim.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

This piece was originally published on May2015 – our election website.

Eric Pickles, a 62-year-old white Christian male, has told the Muslim Council of Britain it has a “precious opportunity, and an important responsibility: in explaining and demonstrating how faith in Islam can be part of British identity.”

Is Pickles, the Minister for Communities and Local Government, suggesting Muslims haven’t yet demonstrated they’re a part of British identity? How, exactly, are they meant to? David Cameron quickly defended his minister, suggesting anyone who “has a problem” with these comments “really has a problem”.

One might suggest the radicalisation of a tiny minority of Muslims is more a fault of a government responsible for multiple Middle Eastern conflicts than the MCB. But how many British Muslims are there? How old are they? And is Britain really a “Christian nation”, as Eric Pickles suggested earlier this year?

First, nearly 5 per cent of Britons identified as Muslim in the 2011 Census. That’s 2.7 million people.

In his letter to the MCB, Pickles called on the council to “lay out more clearly than ever before what being a British Muslim means today: proud of your faith and proud of your country”. Some commentators – including Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi – noted a recent poll showed Muslims are actually more proud of Britain than the typical Briton.

The poll was only based on 48 people, which makes its margin of error too high to be meaningful, but it still hints at a wider point: it’s unclear what basis Pickles has for implying Muslims need to reiterate their patriotism. It’s also unclear whether associating foreign terrorist attacks with British Muslims helps them to be proud of their faith.

As a 62-year-old Pickles is unlikely to be a British Muslim, or have many friends who are. Only 1.4 per cent of his age group (60 to 64) believe in Islam. 73 per cent are Christians.

This data, from the 2011 Census, suggests at least 45 per cent of every age group is Christian.

But the British Humanist Association don’t think we are nearly so pious. They think the Census question – “What is your religion?” – is loaded. It implies you have one. If people are instead asked whether they “are religious”, two in three Britons say they aren’t.

Similarly, in 2012, the British Social Attitudes survey found 46 per cent of us wouldn’t say we “belong” to a religion, and only one in seven attend weekly religious services.

These findings are likely to chime with younger voters. 18-29 year olds – that age group pursued by broadcasters, advertisers and publishers – are the most irreligious Britons. More than a third of them say they have no religion.

Few pensioners feel the same way. The vast majority of them are religious – and Christian.

This is the image of Britain Eric Pickles presumably pictured when he penned today’s letter, or when he criticised “militant atheists” for imposing their “political correct intolerance on others” in April.

Was today’s letter tolerant? Read it in full here.

Explore May2015.com.

May2015 is the New Statesman's new elections site. Explore it for data, interviews and ideas on the general election.