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14 December 2012

Our awkwardly plural society

Our awkwardly plural society

Let ex-Jews and Gentiles, former Protestants and lapsed Catholics, join hands and sing in the words of the old spiritual: "Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last."

The 2011 census data on religion, released on Tuesday, shows that since 2001, around 1,100 people every single day have decided that Christianity is just not for them.

The population has grown by four million, but there are four million fewer Christians. Churches are emptying; the remaining faithful huddle together for irrelevant and deluded mutterings. We have come to the inevitable point in history when the only logical thing to do is embrace a Dawkinsian scientific materialism. The final demise of all this benighted superstition and authoritarian moralising is finally within sight.

It looks like that atheist bus campaign did the trick after all. Or not.

The census is a useful national picture of how our society is changing over time in myriad ways. When it comes to religion, though, we need to remember that it measures loose affiliation. It doesn't look at practice, knowledge or belief.

The fact that 33 million, 59.3 per cent, of adults in England and Wales still identify with Christianity doesn't mean that the churches are full to bursting, or that this is a Christian country.

In fact, 72 per cent of people identifying with Christianity didn't make this a Christian country. And come to think of it, if 100 per cent of people identified with Christianity it still wouldn't make this a Christian country. Who was it that said the word 'Christian' is best used as a noun, not an adjective?

In the same way – and in spite of the humanist crowing over the results of the census which they had hitherto claimed to be fundamentally flawed – the upturn in the 'no religion' category doesn't mean that 14.1 million people have learnt the virtues of scientific materialism, or will be celebrating hatchings, matchings and dispatchings with humanist ceremonies.

For information about what we believe, as opposed to how we identify ourselves, you have to dig deeper. Recent Theos/ComRes research shows that many of those who say that they are not religious still believe in things like heaven, life after death or the resurrection of Jesus.

Our recent report, Post-religious Britain?: The faith of the faithless isolated those who are clearly non-religious – who never attend a religious service, or call themselves atheists, or place themselves in the 'non-religious' category – and then examined what they actually did believe. It found that even among atheists - the most sceptical group in the population - nearly a quarter (23 per cent) believe in the human soul, 15 per cent in life after death, and 14 per cent in reincarnation.

In the sense of our beliefs, the census tells us little that we did not already know.

Our society is neither Christian, nor secular, but awkwardly plural.

I don't want to suggest complacency. The 13 per cent decline in those who have this sense of affiliation illustrates a drop in the temperature. A society that was warm to Christianity (even if, to paraphrase Clement Atlee, we would have liked the ethics without the mumbo-jumbo) is now a little colder. There are real challenges, but the challenge is 'only' that faced by the earliest followers of the Way, which is to articulate the gospel in a highly plural culture.

“Do not be afraid,” said the angel to the shepherds. “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” To be evangelical is to witness to the good news – percentages come and percentages go, but that will never change.

Paul Bickley, senior researcher at Theos

    Photo credit: Neurolysis via Creative Commons

Is Britain a Christian country? Vote in our poll of the week: www.eauk.org/#poll

For more on articulating the gospel in a plural culture, read about our Confidence in the Gospel campaign.