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20 December 2012

Religion in Wales and the 2011 census

Religion in Wales and the 2011 census

The recently-published census statistics for 2011 provided, at face value, some distressing figures regarding the state of Christianity in Wales. We saw a 14 per cent drop of those who professed Christianity – to 57 per cent from 71 per cent in 2001 – while also seeing the greatest amount of people in the UK who professed no religion – 32 per cent compared with the UK figure of 25 per cent.

The statistics delighted humanists and even led Prof Richard Dawkins to congratulate the people of Wales for being “ahead of the rest of the UK” in showing a decline in religious belief.

However, for many pundits and church leaders the census figures of 2011 are not an accurate reflection of the true spiritual state of the nation. Indeed, well-known Christian broadcaster Roy Jenkins said in a recent newspa per article, “Faith will outlast the iPhone”, that people were actually surprised 10 years ago at the high number of people who said they were Christians in the 2001 census.

While still in post, former leader of the Evangelical Alliance Joel Edwards was keen to discourage Christians from reading too much into the high 2001 census figures (of 72 per cent of the UK population as Christians). Many were suggesting that Biblical Babylon analogies were more accurate for the church in the UK than were Jerusalem ones.

For Dr Paul Chambers from the University of Glamorgan, church attendance figures are a more accurate barometer for the spiritual health of the nation than census figures. As such we know that not all self-identifying Christians regularly go to church or are particularly observant, but that on certain occasion they are. In recent tragedies that have gripped Wales, such as the disappearance of April Jones and the murders in Ely, communities have turned to God in great numbers to seek solace.

An interesting finding from the University of Derby’s recent research on religion and belief also provides some insight into the true state of affairs. While the number of people identifying with a religion is decreasing overall, not all of the non-religious affiliate to Dawkins’ aggressive atheism: there are actually an increasing number of people “in the middle” who often consider themselves spiritual and are potential friends of the church rather than our enemies.

This is perhaps most seen in the churches’ community work – with social and public square engagement in Wales increasing five-fold over the past 20-30 years, according to the Alliance’s Paul Hocking and where many “spiritual” non Christians volunteer in Christian projects such as night shelters and foodbanks.

The need for religious literacy is great and the church will do well to communicate its vision in a way that they do not alienate themselves from “spiritual” non-Christian friends.

As such, although the recent census figures cannot be described as particularly encouraging for Christians, it actually changes little and should underline the fact that the church’s main focus should be mission.

Present-day Wales is both religious and secular with this make-up being too complex and multi-layered to be explained in a handful of statistics.