Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Britain still "nominally Christian", say Christians

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The religion question as it appears on the Census
With Sunday's census having passed without incident, as household surveys tend to, the issue of whether the religion question throws up skewed results (71.8 per cent selected "Christian" last time, in case you've somehow missed that) will fade into the background until next year, when the results are released. But before you all put down your biros and move on, I thought I'd share news of one final opinion poll, which I learn of courtesy of a press release from Premier Christian Radio.

Premier commissioned the polling organisation Comres to carry out a survey around the question "To which of the following religious groups do you consider yourself to be a member of?", with the 2,064 adult respondents given the choice of Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Other, Prefer Not To Say and None. The results were as follows: 56 per cent selected Christian, 35 per cent None, 2 per cent Muslim, 1 per cent Hindu and 1 per cent Jew, with 2 per cent saying they would prefer not to say. Less than 1 per cent of those surveyed were Sikh or Buddhist. (The poll data doesn't seem to be online yet, either on Premier's site or Comres, but I'll link if it does appear.)

So what does this tell us? Premier's press release announces, somewhat underwhelmingly, that "The UK Remains Nominally a Christian country" although Premier CEO Peter Kerridge seems pleased, saying "Over half of the UK consider themselves to be a Christian - whether practising as such, or by having a close affiliation with Christian values and beliefs". Perhaps so, if you take the Comres poll to be be definitive. But really, the only conclusions that we can really draw from the Census debate of  recent weeks concern the difficulties (you might even say impossibilities) of obtaining an accurate picture of religiosity through demographic surveys. If you ask a different question, you get a different answer – a YouGov poll commissioned by the British Humanist Association asked "Are you religious?" and found 65 per cent of respondents said "No", while Premier's poll has 56 per cent identifying as Christian. The 2001 Census, with the question "What is your religion?", found 71.8 per cent to be Christian, yet when the respected British Social Attitudes Survey [PDF] asked "Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?", 50.7 per cent chose "No religion" and 43 per cent one of the "Christian" options.

Humanists and secularists campaigning around the Census religion question say it is a major problem because the government makes policy decisions based on the data collected. Religious campaigners, such as the think-tank Theos, dispute the extent to which this is the case with regards to the religion question, but, whatever the reality, it's well worth pressing the point that the government should be careful not to draw too many conclusions from the religion data, given the disparities between surveys using different questions. Perhaps that's something religious and non-religious groups can actually agree on – by all means have a go at measuring religiosity, but make sure you treat the results with adequate scepticism (unless, of course, you're of the opinion that the government has no business asking questions like this in the first place)
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