‘Census Christians’ under the Spotlight

It was with great glee that Richard Dawkins this week revealed the results of a survey he had commissioned into ‘Census Christians’ – those who self-identify on the census and other polls as Christians, even though they may not attend church, read the Bible, pray or engage in any other ‘Christian’ activity from one year to the next.

He wanted to find proof that ‘Christian’ was just a label people chose more out of habit than because of any genuine faith, and the proof was there for the picking:

–      Three quarters (74%) strongly agree or tend to agree that religion should not have special influence on public policy, with only one in eight (12%) thinking that it should.

–      When asked why they think of themselves as Christian, the research found that fewer than three in ten (28%) say one of the reasons is that they believe in the teachings of Christianity.

–      The majority (60%) have not read any part of the Bible, independently and from choice, for at least a year.

–      Over a third (37%) have never or almost never prayed outside a church service, with a further 6% saying they pray independently and from choice less than once a year.

–      Apart from special occasions such as weddings, funerals and baptisms, half (49%) had not attended a church service in the previous 12 months.1

Anticipating the inevitable criticism from ‘the religious community’, Dawkins went onto the Today programme on Tuesday defending his findings and, amongst other things, stating that ‘an astonishing number’ (65%) could not name the first book of the New Testament.

How the twitter-sphere crowed when, in response to a question from Giles Fraser, his interlocutor on the programme, he stumbled over the full title of the seminal work of Darwinism, most commonly known as The Origin of Species. If the ‘High Pope’ of Darwinism as Fraser dubbed him, couldn’t recite it fluently, presumably ‘an astonishing number’ of those who self-identify as ‘believing in evolution’ would be unable to do so either, the former Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral suggested. Doesn’t that put Dawkins’ secularism and evolutionism on as shaky a footing as he sought to claim for religion?

Of course, as both Dawkins and Fraser are well aware, the recitation of creeds or book titles doth not a Christian, nor an atheist, make. Attempts to teach Christianity by rote are doomed to failure, trivialising the power both of the words and of the God to whom they point.

What of the other pillars of Dawkins’ scepticism? First, he revelled in relating the fact that 50% of his respondents said they did not consider themselves to be religious.2 Surely, the professor thought, the minimum requirement for being a Christian is to be religious, isn’t it? Yet as Andrew Wilson noted recently, for some time it has been widely taught by evangelicals that we are not ‘religious’. Religion, it is said, is about rules and regulations, about man trying to get to God, whereas Christianity is substantively different; Christianity is about relationship. I go to church every Sunday, serve in a ministry team, regularly attend Life Group and would, along with a surprising 22% of the survey sample, agree with the statement ‘I have accepted Jesus as my Lord and Saviour’, but would I have answered ‘yes’ if asked if I was religious? Probably not.

Secondly, what about the relationship of faith to public life? Aside from the fact that the news coverage has tended to leave out the word ‘special’ from the findings (wanting to have an influence on public policy is very different from wanting to have a special influence on it), the use of the word ‘religion’ could have again skewed his results. Many people don’t want to see a blanket permission for all faiths to have a special (or strong, or significant) influence on public policy. If you are afraid of radical Islamism seeking to impose Sharia Law, then of course a question asking ‘Should religion have a special influence on public policy?’ will elicit a negative response.

This is not, however, to say that if all those respondents thought carefully about it, they would allow that Christians ought to be able to sway the decisions of elected leaders. I am quite sure that most of them would still say no, and quite rightly. Even the Christians working in government are not, for the most part, seeking a privileged place for their political views – not least because there are committed Christians on all sides of most of the policy debates on any given day. They are not seeking some kind of political trump card, as this question implies, but simply a seat at the table, at which their views are accorded as much respect as those of a secularist, a Muslim or anyone who has entered the debate without a clear understanding of how his worldview has influenced his position. Most Christians seeking influence in the public square do it for precisely the same reasons that most other people do – because they believe they know how to make this country a better place.

‘Ah’, Dawkins and co. would say, ‘but what about Bishops in the House of Lords and prayers before Council meetings?’ Again, neither of these issues is a Shibboleth guaranteed to identify the sheep from among the goats. I know I don’t speak for all Christians when I say I would want to retain prayer before Parliamentary sessions and Council meetings, and retain seats in the Lords for those who have no political affiliation, but have devoted their lives to the spiritual life of our nation. Our positions on these and many other issues may be diametrically opposed, but one thing on which we will all agree is that neither guarantees an entry in the Lamb’s Book of Life.

So am I complacent about the findings? Do I think Dawkins is wrong and we are in fact a robustly Christian country, it’s just people are answering census questions wrongly (or are being asked the wrong questions)? No. The findings don’t tell us Christianity is flourishing any more than they tell us it is floundering. What they do tell us is that people in the UK still, despite the social, sexual and scientific transformations of the last century, retain a sense that God exists and that belief in Him is a good thing.

They also tell us, though, that the connection between that sense and its implication for daily life is weakening, even among churchgoers (29% of respondents attended services once a month or more). It seems, then, that we have a window of opportunity in which to demonstrate the reason for our faith. We have Dawkins and his fellow ‘angry atheists’ to thank for this – without him, discussions about faith, its role in public life, and what it really means to be a Christian (or an adherent of another faith) would likely be conducted on a small scale, far from the public eye, but his militancy and determination to strip any suggestion of faith from the public square has, ironically, landed those discussions at the forefront of public discussion. There is scope and space to discuss apologetics and theology on prime time TV, on national radio and in every newspaper. There are debates and books and articles and plays seriously considering what it means to believe in God in the 21st Century, and the culture of toleration means every voice can be heard, but the opportunity will not last forever.

So keep reading this blog, not purely for your own intellectual stimulation, but in order that you may be able to answer the tough questions as they are put to you at church, at work, or down the pub. Familiarise yourself with apologetics resources until you are confident in your faith, your ability to articulate it, and your certainty of its reasonableness. And think about the place of faith – of Christianity – in public life. What role should we as Christians have in shaping public policy? What role should you play?

The window of opportunity will only be open for a short time. Let us use the time wisely, and “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks [us] to give the reason for the hope that [we] have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against [our] good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”3


  1. Source: http://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/2921/Religious-and-Social-Attitudes-of-UK-Christians-in-2011.aspx
  2. http://www.ipsos-mori.com/Assets/Docs/Polls/ipsos-mori-religious-and-social-attitudes-topline-2012.pdf Q 54.
  3. 1 Peter 3:15-16

This article first appeared on the Newfrontiers Theology blog.

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