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England census: Why have the ranks of the religious declined?

Sure, fewer Britons registered their faith as 'Jedi Knight' in the 2011 census of England. But it's the 12 percent drop in those identifying as Christians has prompted fresh debate about modern British identity.

By Correspondent / December 12, 2012



London

Results from the first census of England and Wales for 10 years this week revealed a crisis engulfing what until recently had seemed to be Britain's newest and most vibrant religion: The ranks of Jedi Knights have more than halved to 176,632.

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Yet while analysis of the survey came with tongue-in-cheek consideration of the seeming demise of a fictional "faith" from the Star Wars movies that first mischievously made an appearance in 2001, it is a 12 percent drop in the number of those identifying as Christians that has prompted fresh reflections on the make up and identity of modern Britain.

While they remain the largest religious group in the two countries that make up the lion's share of the UK's population, the number of respondents who designated themselves as Christian was down 4 million, to 33.2 million. As a group they are now 59 percent of the population, compared to 72 percent previously. 

Aside from the complexities of surveying religious identity, which experts caution against trying to pin down through vague and often contested questions, a range of factors has been put forward to try to explain the decline in the number of Christians, ranging from the impact of the sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic church to more longer-term historical trends such as a growing distrust and disinterest of institutions.

"In one regard for religion, there has been a perfect storm since the last census," said Nick Spencer, research director at the UK theology think tank, Theos, who cites “proximate causes” including 9/11, the 2005 terror attacks on London, and a US Republican presidency "that was associated, rightly or wrongly, with the religious right and was quite unpopular.” 

“So you had that association of politics and religion, and of course you had the rise of the extremely popular new atheist movement," he continues. "All of these things combined to give religion a bad name.”

While he says that such factors are important, Spencer places greater emphasis on the role of a longer-term trends, which are impacting not just established British religions but on other entities such as political parties. 

“We have a growing skepticism, bordering on cynicism, towards any institution in Britain, with the monarchy, or the queen in particular, perhaps being the only exception. We don't do institutions and we are still disinclined to embrace big systems. That said, it's complex. In the same way that we don't join political parties, we might be prepared to campaign on single issues, we  might not want to join religions groups, though we might engage in personal spiritual activity.”

Conservative voices, as well as those further to the right, meanwhile, sought to draw links between the apparent decline in British Christianity and the other headline from the census – a rise in the number of foreign-born residents in England and Wales which now means that around one in eight inhabitants were born outside of the UK.

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