In his Easter message this year, Prime Minister David Cameron claimed that the UK was “still a Christian country”.
As he was saying this, a National Secular Society posting for Wednesday, 8 April, 2015, was publishing the finding of a YouGov poll in the run-up to Easter. In its latest poll on religion and belief, YouGov found an overwhelming lack of religion in the UK.
The YouGov poll found that 62% of Britons described themselves as “not religious”, compared to just over a third who said they were. Of the latter, 68% said that religion was “not important” to them. So despite just over a third of Britons claiming they were religious, less than a third of these said that religion was “important” to them.
As found in previous polling and research, younger Britons were more likely to say that they were not religious compared with those aged over sixty. 68% of 18 to 24 year olds said they were not a practising member of a religion, compared with 59% of the over 60s. Likewise, only 31% of 18 to 24s said they were practising members of a faith group, eight points lower than the 39% of over 60s who said the same.72% of 18 to 24 year olds said religion was “not important” to their life.
Since 2013, when identical questions were asked, the total number of people saying religion was not important to them rose by two points, whilst the corresponding figure of people saying religion was important dropped from 31% in 2013 to only 29% today.
The above statistics prompted Clive Field, writing in the British Religion in Numbers blog, to comment that “when comparing this polling from identical questions asked in 2013, it is noticeable that, for all the indicators, the movement is in the direction of the least religious position.”
He further elaborated that, as with the decline in a belief in God, there has been a similar falling in the number of those who believe in a “spiritual higher power”. 35% said they believed in God, with 20% saying they believed in a “spiritual higher power” and 34% of the general public said they believed in neither. Field also re-iterated the YouGov poll that belief in God showed another sharp difference between younger and older demographic groups.
It is important to recognise that the foregoing statistics do not differentiate between religious faiths in the UK. However, keeping in mind that David Cameron’s opinion was broadcast at Easter this year, it would suggest that Easter, with its Christian connotations, was an important time for the British. The YouGov poll figures do not sustain this view.
The YouGov figures showed that Easter was devoid of religious meaning for most Britons, with only 13% saying that religion was the “most important part of Easter.” Among under-24s this figure was just 8%. Church attendance over Easter has declined as well, with 83% saying they were not intending to attend church over the Easter weekend. This is four points higher than when that same question was asked in 2013.
Belief in the key tenet of Easter – the resurrection of Jesus – has also fallen, with 50% saying Jesus did “not come back to life after crucifixion.” The under 24 generation, again, were far more likely to not believe than those aged over 60. 63% of 18 to 24 year olds said the resurrection did not happen.
Despite this, David Cameron in his Easter message said that “we should feel proud to say, ‘this is a Christian country.’” Moreover, as if to add insult to injury, the Prime Minister repeated that whilst the UK “welcomes and accepts all faiths and none”, Britain was “still a Christian country”.
The Prime Minister praised Christians for living out their religious beliefs in faith schools, as if faith schools were established for and provided incontestable evidence for the children and young people of those schools actually being committed Christians and living-out their Christian faith in and through them. Notwithstanding, these comments of Cameron’s took no account of non-Christian faith schools and the possibilities extant for British education and culture in the living-out of non-Christian faiths.
David Cameron took credit for investing “tens of millions to repair churches” and for the passage of the Local Government (Religious Etc. Observances) Act, which enables councils to hold prayers in their official meetings (with, of course, Christian chaplains leading these prayers, as was the case in the recent mayoral inauguration ceremony for my local Borough Council – with Islamic councillors present).
This prompted the National Secular Society’s campaigns manager, Stephen Evans, to comment that “for a long time polling and research has shown that the UK is not a practising Christian country. Politicians sound hopelessly out-of-touch when they claim otherwise. Britain’s rapidly changing religious makeup demonstrates how inappropriate and foolhardy is it to increasingly look to religious groups to provide public services, including publicly funded education, around a third of which is now under church control.”
The findings of other polling and research organisations have generally supported those of the NSS, YouGov and blog writers such as Clive Field. One of these, the Pew Research Centre, recently published research which forecasted that by 2050 just 45% of the UK population will be Christian. However, by other measures, including the recent YouGov poll, the percentage of Christians in the UK has already fallen far below 45%.
Why, then, in the face of the evidence, do politicians and others continue to insist that the UK is “still a Christian country”? Do they mistrust the pollsters? This seems unlikely as the whole political life of politicians is dependent on recognising the findings of polls. Is it wishful thinking on their part? Perhaps it is what they want to believe as this fits-in with the narrative of their own life and belief, or, at least, what they want their public to accept about them. Or is it that those who still consider that the UK is a Christian country cannot differentiate between the philosophies and ethics by which a nation was initially and historically shaped and what is the contemporary reality?
Or is it simply that David Cameron (and others) that mouth such platonic platitudes that the UK is “still a Christian country” is just out of touch with the spiritual and cultural disposition and direction of the nation over which his political party has governance? If David Cameron is genuinely of this opinion, then perhaps the most appropriate occasion to test this proposition is with his personal behaviour during Prime Minister’s Question Time in parliament!
I have no wish to defend the beheadings, suicide bombings, shootings and other atrocities being perpetrated by Islamic State. Such actions are indefensible. Yet, it is only twenty years since the Srebrenica massacre – when over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, including women and children, were slaughtered by Serbian military and Greek volunteers during the Bosnian War. These forces were ostensibly Christian. Many of the victims were discovered in mass graves and were unidentifiable – numbers of them headless. Rightly, that action at Srebrenica was branded a war crime.
Perhaps the expressions of outrage at the atrocities of ISIL by contemporary Christians, including ministers of the present British government, require some thoughtful moderating.