Census 2011: Atheists vs Christians and what the numbers don’t tell us

Being something of a maths geek, I rather enjoyed watching all the number crunching happening on Tuesday as the results of the 2011 census came out.  There was plenty to get your teeth into, but a few days on, most people are now aware of the headlines relating to the religion question, ‘What is your religion?’  Christianity is still by far the biggest religion in this country.  59 per cent (33.2 million) of respondents in England and Wales described themselves as Christian.  This is down from 72 per cent in 2001.  On the other hand those of ‘no religion’ now account for 25 per cent (14.1 million) of respondents compared to 15 per cent in 2001.  The most godless place in England and Wales is Norwich and the most Christian is Knowsley in Merseyside.

I’m not going to go into too many more details on this as it has already been covered extensively in the media.  Stuart over at eChurch has done an outstanding job collating most of the top stories on the religious statistics from the census.  Do have a look if you want to delve deeper into the details.  There are hours worth of material to pour over.

What I’d like to consider for a bit is whether the significant drop in those calling themselves Christians is genuinely a disaster that should be giving church leaders sleepless nights.  Certainly the British Humanist Association (BHA) seems to think so.  They were very keen to announce on their website that according to their calculations, if the change in Christianity shown between 2001 and 2011 continues at a linear rate, then Christians will be recorded as in the minority by the Census question from September 2018.

Ahead of the 2011 census the BHA organised a public information campaign with the inspired title of ‘The Census Campaign’, with the slogan ‘If you’re not religious for God’s sake say so!’, to encourage the non-religious to tick the ‘No religion’ box on the census form.  In their eyes it has been a huge success and maybe it has to some extent.  You can almost feel the joy of the BHA’s chief executive, Andrew Copson’s as he gave this statement:

‘Religious practice, identity, belonging and belief are all in decline in this country, and non-religious identities are on the rise. It is time that public policy caught up with this mass turning away from religious identities and stopped privileging religious bodies with ever increasing numbers of state-funded religious schools and other faith-based initiatives. They are decreasingly relevant to British life and identity and governments should catch up and accept that fact.’

The thing is anyone who pays any attention to these sort of statistics will know that plenty of people are cultural Christians.  They might say they are Christian because they consider themselves to be more accustomed to Christianity than atheism or Islam for example, but will never go to church except for weddings or funerals and have little knowledge or understanding of what it means to literally be a Christian.  In reality they are agnostic.  The results from last year’s British Social Attitudes survey which is published annually found that 56 per cent of Anglicans never go to church.  14 per cent of respondents said they attend church weekly, which is still likely to be greater than the actual number who do. It also indicated that 18-24s were least likely to be religious and over 75s were most likely to be.  As older people tend to die more frequently than those who are younger, it’s not entirely surprising that the proportion of people who say they don’t have a religion are increasing.

Whilst acknowledging the apparent steep decline in Christian belief, the Church of England was much more bullish in its official response to the census figures:

“The death of Christian England has been greatly exaggerated. Despite a decade of nay saying and campaigning by atheist commentators and groups, six out of ten people in England self-identify as Christians, a figure which rises to more than two-thirds when including people identifying with faith as a whole.

“During the past decade alone the CofE has baptised an average of 2,500 people a week – with a 40% increase in adult baptisms – conducted more than 1000 weddings a week, celebrated the ordination of more than 5,000 new priests and maintained more than 16,000 parish church buildings. While 253 churches closed over the past decade, 1,000 new congregations were started through the Fresh Expressions initiative.

“Today’s figures pose questions – not least for most of the London based national media – about whether their perceptions and reporting of faith accurately reflect the reality of a faithful nation, especially when considering the figures in the North East and North West of the country.

“Doubtless, campaigning atheist organisations will attempt to minimise the significance of the majority figures for faith and Christianity. In fact, these figures draw attention to the free ride that had been given to these bodies whose total membership would barely fill half of Old Trafford. For instance there are an estimated 28,000 members of British Humanist Association – the same membership as Union of Catholic Mothers, whilst the National Secular Society has an estimated 5,000 – the same as the British Sausage Appreciation Society.”

It’s all become a war of words, but with no clear winners.  What the census figures are showing is a reflection of what we’ve known for years now.  Britain is by and large a Christian country in terms of heritage and values, although these values are being continually challenged.  Certainly in terms of the percentage of the population who have a genuine Christian faith this country is definitely not Christian and we’re currently living with these two paradigms in tension.  Christianity is certainly not fading away into extinction.  Even two years ago a study by Christian Research found that church attendance was no longer in decline.  London churches have in fact grown rapidly in number from 4100 in 2005 to 4900 in 2012.

If you ask any serious Christian whether it’s more important to churches that lots of people think of themselves as Christian or that smaller numbers of people come to know Jesus as their saviour, they will only give you one answer.  The Bible makes it quite clear that plenty of people who think they are Christians will never get to Heaven.  The Church’s job is never to be a cultural institution.  It’s about being God’s visible presence on earth.  Any church that is more concerned about attendance numbers than discipleship and following Jesus’ teachings is in big trouble.

So lets allow the atheists have their moment of elation.  The sad thing for them is that their misguided delight comes from trying to stop people finding a better life through a relationship with a God who loves them and stopping those who are trying to live out their faith from putting compassion and love into practice by serving others in a whole range of ways that benefit us all irrespective of our beliefs.  As it is the number of people in our nation coming to know Jesus appears to be on the rise, so maybe in fact it should be those who are writing off the Christian faith as irrational and outdated who have actually got the  most to worry about.

Categories: Atheism, Church, Faith in society

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24 replies

  1. 1 John 2:24-25 KJV

    Let that therefore abide in you, which ye have heard from the beginning. If that which ye have heard from the beginning shall remain in you, ye also shall continue in the Son, and in the Father. And this is the promise that he hath promised us, even eternal life.

  2. I understand what you’re saying, Gillan, but surely the point is laws and money. People might not go the church, but they might, for instance go to their local church mother-and-toddler group. Can you see the BHA setting one of those up? And as you pointed out, there are weddings and funerals. We’re pretty good at those. Christians also run a lot of overseas and local charities. We do all of this from our own pocket because national and international govt ‘do not fund religious organisations’. So we want some of our tax money back to run schools which offer a good education (generally doing better than non-faith schools) alongside some understanding of faith. Seems fair enough to me. Why do the British Humanist Association begrudge this? Do they have anything better to offer?

    • There’s a whole separate discussion that be could have on this subject. I didn’t want to go into this too much in this post, but thank you for drawing attention to it. It’s a very important point and you’ve made it clearly.

      • You won’t find atheists running any selfless public benefitting organisations at any level. They can’t even meet themselves in any number on a regular basis. They are more “nominal” than any Christian, as their only “association” is general interest, certainly nothing they would put their money in their pocket for, unles it is to promote their own agenda, which is not the same as benefitting others. See if you can find an “atheist” chapter that meet on a regular basis.

        • “certainly nothing they would put their money in their pocket for, unles it is to promote their own agenda,” so says a member of an organization that is commanded to proselytize, and take bibles with them on their little charity runs.
          Haven’t you heard that HAMAS the terrorist group, does charitable work? It does. Does that make them a good organization then in your eyes?
          Religions demand you give the church/mosque money, and although *some* of it goes to charity, the point is, you’re doing charity out of obedience. Atheists aren’t told by anyone, since they worship no authority, and yet they donate to charities, without preaching to the victims. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens managed to raise over half a million over one weekend alone, to give to the people of the Haiti disaster.
          With all the harm that religion has caused around the world, no amount of charity can make up for.

          So your nonsensical statement about atheists not being charitable, is rubbished in numerous examples.

  3. Hope the media guys scan this and pick up on the true statistics. Thank you for drawing all the facts together in one place. Much easier to digest. 32m Christians in UK against the secular14m. Don’t need to be to bright to see who is in the minority. However when you pick up a paper it looks the other way around 🙂

    • “However when you pick up a paper it looks the other way around :)”
      Pretty soon it will be. Secularism is rising at 1% a year, Christianity is on the decline at the rate of 1.25% per year. In two decades, at this rate, the number of secularists, will over take the Christians. However, I predict the rate of change will increase. I’m betting by the early 30s, we’ll see secularists outnumber Christians.

  4. Great balance in your presentation Gillan. The success of the new Atheism is that it has made people think of the question more deeply rather than automatically ticking C of E. We should welcome this because we desire that those who identify as Christians should be relational and active rather than just cultural. What has surprised has been how well Christianity has stood up in the face of political secularism, materialism and a media which is hardly friendly. It shows how resilient Christ is in the hearts of many. My sense is that fresh expressions of Church will grow and become increasingly relevant to society in the future. A church ( sports centre ) in a small rural village near to me have 80 young people at Sunday service. 150 attend the drop in and they have active campaigns against rural poverty. It is bang up to date using modern media and is very attractive to the young. We have been challenged which is fair enough, we should welcome that not least that we don’t become complacent but i am confident that God will grow us maybe not in quantity but certainly in quality of faith and effectiveness.

  5. What surprises me (and here is further evidence) is that atheists just don’t get it. They are crowing over the decline of Christianity in the country because figures are down and because even among those who do still self-identify as Christian are the biblically illiterate etc. But shouldn’t they actually want the figures for nominal, biblically illiterate Christianity to rise? Isn’t that the way to dilute the impact of Christianity in the country? The last thing they out to want is for numbers to fall because then we come closer to the “faithful remnant” from which God will begin a whole renewed Church. It’s actually good news for Christianity that God is pruning the vine and very bad news for atheists. But they really don’t know anything about God or about how Christianity “works.” The blood of the martyrs… and all that!

  6. Just quickly; thanks for good summation and your penult para has my 1st thought upon reading para 1 – ie. about variety shades of believers, for not all will get into heaven.

    BMA slogan seems deliberately hypocritical – or does it hint at sumbliminal, unrecognised yearning? How can these folk object to religion when they urge, ‘For God’s sake’? Or is this clear proof that they’re so completely confused and mixed up they just don’t know what they’re talking about?

    • The hypocrisy is often manifest by the atheist. On the one hand they embrace subjective morality, deploring the idea that it could be objective, biblical, or from God. That anyone could say what is right or wrong, it is up to the individual. Then they will always, without fail, use objective values to appeal to the public, by citing historic abuse in the church, or things in the bible they think are wrong! Hypocrites! How can they use objective morals to judge God and the church?

      • Regrettably, they’re sad souls whose minds are encased in concrete when it comes to any debate on unequivocal evidence for Jesus healing the seriously sick and disabled.

        Having had my own mind ‘cleared of clutter’ as a result of deliverance ministry I can well understand the claim that demonic oppression afflicts thought processes and belief. And sadly, their encounters with various forms of ‘old’ church may have served to support their ideas. Hopefully, they may come to be blessed by the pruned, sifted and renewed church that Brian and I look forward to…

        • Excellent broad-brush contributions there, Stan and Richard. It must be wonderful to be so right.

        • It’s not, Stan. It’s regrettable because many have hard time grasping born-again notions.

          My comments are from experience = 20 yrs refusal to use the term ‘God’ ‘cos of it’s religious connotations + 20 yrs in His company! His demolition ball blasted through the concrete block surrounding my skull. So it’s had quite a wonderful, liberating effect!

          When we learn to drive we expect the trainer to be competently skilled, knowledgeable and experienced. Why expect less from those who claim to know God? During the past year I’ve found disbelievers unwilling to consider anything beyond their limited ideas AND expect to impose that concrete block on others, even where there’s irrefutable evidence to the contrary! Perhaps it’s too mind-blowing?

        • Oops, I meant Lee, my apologies.

  7. Most organisations would give their right arm for 59% of the population supporting them. It’s still an incredibly high statistic.

    Christians have a dilemma: some of us (like me) want to point up a sense of mission urgency, that we are no longer a Christian nation and need to change the way we do things and engage with culture and society in new ways. So a lower figure is power to our elbow.

    But some of us (also like me) also want to encourage the troops, maintain Christian influence (better done by having a mass following), and keep the place the church currently has in politics, education, society etc. because we can do some good through it. And a higher figure is power to that elbow.

    So I’m a bit torn. But I’m encouraged by the fact that in 1 BC, only 2 people on the whole planet believed that Jesus was the Son of God, and Joseph probably had his doubts. So we’re not doing too badly.

  8. We have just returned from Norwich, quoted in the census as being the most godless place in England and Wales. We attended a carol service in the cathedral. To say that Norwich cathedral is booming would be an understatement. We were very impressed. There is a real vibrancy about the place with a genuine sense of reverence and a wonderful choir, imaginatively led. The Dean confirmed to us afterwards that the cathedral has full congregations every Sunday and he was obviously delighted that traditional worship is bouncing back. Can’t all be bad in Norwich!

  9. It’s worth noting that the “59%” figure is misleading. Most of my family, who are churchgoing Christians, did not reply to the question, thinking it was obtrusive. They were counted among the of 7.6% of “Religion not stated”. I think realistically the number of Christians (nominal at least) can be boosted up to at least 60%.

    So we have 60% of the population who may think of themselves as nominally Christian – which isn’t bad going.

    • Actually, in reality it’s most likely much lower than 59%, since most British “Christians” are only nominally, or culturally Christian. They don’t even know what’s in the bible, much less accept its message. A current survey by the Telegraph, questioning 8000 readers, put the number of *practising* Christians, at about 17%. Which makes about 2/3 of Christians merely ‘Christian’ in the weakest possible sense.
      A figure which has probably increased sharply since then, and will continue to do so. Thanks in large part to the internet.

  10. There, do you all feel better now?


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