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.

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.

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.

An editorial in Wednesday's edition of the conservative-leaning Daily Telegraph, which said that the census depicted the biggest social upheaval in modern times, blamed the rise in the number of foreign-born residents on a “decade of virtually unchecked immigration” since the last census, under Labour Party administrations.

“It has left this country less white, more ethnically diverse, and less Christian,” said the editorial.

It added: “The white British make up 80 per cent of the population of England and Wales and in London are now in a minority. There are a million Muslims living here, while the number of self-professed Christians has fallen by four million. All the while, social structures are changing rapidly. For the first time, fewer than half of households contain a married couple.”

All the more unnerving, perhaps, for some British conservatives is that the seeming decline in the number of Christians has been paralleled by a rise in some other religions, most dramatically illustrated by the increase in the number of Muslims. They now make up 4.8% of the population, or 2.7 million, up 2 percentage points from 1.5 million.

Even more unnerving again may be a rise in secularity, with around 1 in 4 people classifying themselves as having no religion.

Someone who may be representative of many in that group may be Tim Roberts, a lighting technician in London’s West End theater district, a poet and humanist.

While Mr. Roberts sometimes take part in events organized by Britain’s increasingly vibrant secular activist movement – he protested with others during the Pope’s 2010 visit – he has opted not to fully engage or join such groups.

“I am reluctant to be part of something where everyone goes along and meets up regularly. I’m comfortable with my own opinions, which I have formed, and perhaps some of theirs,” he says.

As for his initial moves away from religion, he says: “I started questioning it when I was quite young. I’m in my 40s now and grew up in the era of punk, when everyone was questioning everything, but at school I just didn’t like the fact that I as being told to believe something that didn’t have much substance to it.”

Today, out of the eight people he works alongside, he counts five who openly say they don’t believe in God and have no religion whatsoever, while the other three are prepared to argue otherwise “quite forcefully.”

He credits part of the recent rise in secular and atheist thinking on the mass popularity of works by the evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, the author and prominent humanist Philip Pullman and Brian Cox, a British particle physicist who was the face of the award-winning BBC television series "Wonders of the Solar System."

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