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Census and survey data on Christianity

Religious adherence can be difficult to pin down in a secular society, and there are considerable problems with the validity of responses on this topic. Widely varying estimates emerge from different questions (about beliefs, attendance, membership, formal initiation, family background, upbringing, self-identification, etc.) asked in different ways and in different contexts. According to recent British Social Attitudes surveys, for example, only 43 percent of respondents from England and Wales choose a Christian denomination when asked if they regard themselves as belonging to any religious group. By contrast, 59.3 percent of adults classified themselves as Christian in the 2011 census. This shows a considerable decline from the 2001 census, when the figure was nearly 74 percent, but there is still a marked difference between the census and survey data. In attempting to explain this difference, a number of factors are probably relevant:

 The census question was phrased with a positive presumption (’What is your religion?’); questions that do not seem to imply that the respondent will necessarily have a religion receive many more negative responses.

 The census religion question immediately followed those on ethnicity and language and seemed to be simply a supplementary question on the same topic.

 Having the single category ’Christian’ could imply that the classification is cultural rather than religious; people may be inclined to choose that label as a way of defining what they are not (e.g. Muslim or Hindu).

 Census forms are typically completed by a senior person in the household; younger people in Britain are less likely than older ones to claim religious affiliation and might not have given the answers provided on their behalf.

It is noteworthy that in Scotland the gap between the 2001 Scottish Social Attitudes survey and the census results for the Christian group was much smaller (62 vs. 65 percent). It seems likely that this difference can be explained by a lower level of anxiety about national identity (in Scotland the question preceded rather than followed that on ethnicity, which in any case is less likely to be an issue), combined with the denominational specificity of the answer categories (which reinforced the religious character of the question).
It is also worth noting that responses to questions about religious affiliation are not particularly stable. Many people in Britain have had some connection to religion in the past (by virtue of having been christened, for example) but are not currently churchgoers. They may provide their denomination of origin in some surveys and describe themselves as having no religion in others.

For further information, see "Secularism in the United Kingdom" by Anthony Bradney (Keele University) on the website ORELA.

D 11 September 2012    ADavid Voas

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