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30 November 2022

Immigration isn’t undermining British religiousness – it’s the only thing sustaining it

From Stormzy to Bukayo Saka, the future of Christianity is often to be found in black and brown people.

By Tomiwa Owolade

Britain is becoming less religious and less white. These are two significant facts from the latest batch of 2021 census data. For many on the right, this is a big concern. But one of these facts seems to be attracting more attention than the other from the most prominent right-wing media voices: the ethnic changes over the past ten years. The number of people identifying as white has declined from 86 per cent in 2011 to 81.7 per cent. The number identifying as white British has declined from 80.5 per cent in 2011 to 74.4 per cent. The author and columnist Douglas Murray sees the decline in the white population as a vindication of his book The Strange Death of Europe. The politician and broadcaster Nigel Farage likewise feels that his prophecies have come true.

Meanwhile, the Free Church of England priest and GB News presenter Calvin Robinson has been tweeting not that for the first time in nearly a thousand years less than half the population of England and Wales identifies as Christian, and that 37 per cent of the population does not identify with any religion, but that many of the largest cities in the country – from London to Manchester and Birmingham – are now minority white English cities.

For these commentators, it is almost as if the country becoming less religious is a fait accompli, and thus less deserving of comment than the ethnic transformation of the country. But the relationship between these two things is fascinating. White Britons are the main driver of the decline in religious affiliation. As the Birkbeck political scientist Eric Kaufmann puts it, secularisation is “almost entirely a white British phenomenon”. Without immigration, the decline in Christianity would be even more stark.

According to the 2021 census, the parts of England and Wales that are least religious tend to have the highest share of white people. As the Guardian reported: “The places with the highest numbers of people saying they had no religion were Caerphilly, Blaenau Gwent and Rhondda Cynon Taf, all in south Wales, and Brighton and Hove and Norwich in England.” By contrast, the areas with the smallest percentages of non-religious people are Harrow, Redbridge and Slough, in or near London.

And this is not simply because of Islam. In fact, the number of Muslims as a share of the population has only risen by 1.6 percentage points. This is also a story about the other religions in the country – including Christianity. Black west African people in Britain are far more likely to be Christian than white British people. This explains why London is the most socially conservative city in the country. According to research by the Christian think tank Theos, 24 per cent of Londoners think sex before marriage is at least sometimes wrong, compared with 13 per cent of the population. London is also the most homophobic city in the country: 29 per cent of people in London think homosexuality is wrong, while 23 per cent outside London take that view.

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If conservative thinkers want to stem the tide of secularisation, they should welcome immigration and the changing ethnic makeup of the country. The “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of religious faith that Matthew Arnold identified in his 1867 poem “Dover Beach” is most pressing among white British people. The future of religion, including Christianity, in England is to be found among black and brown people. Stormzy once released a song called “Blinded by Your Grace”. The footballer Bukayo Saka’s name on Instagram is God’s Child. 

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In one tweet Calvin Robinson approvingly quoted directly from Enoch Powell’s infamous anti-immigration “Rivers of Blood” speech: “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.” Although Powell was a member of the Church of England later in his life, this was out of High Tory loyalty rather than genuine conviction. For a long period he was an atheist. His cultural affinity was with Ancient Greece and Rome rather than the Bible. He worshipped Nietzsche.

His biographer Simon Heffer writes that “for Powell, Nietzsche would eventually become more than just a philosopher, he would become a model for life”. If he had a choice of less immigration at the price of less Christianity, we know what Powell would have chosen. But why is Robinson, a mixed-race Church of England priest, inveighing against the decline of the white British population and staying quiet about the decline of his faith?

[See also: Christians can’t blame anyone else for the decline in belief]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special