Christian Country – yes or no? Ten seconds to make up your mind…

A lot of air, and sometimes a bit of light, have been shone on the issue that David Cameron triggered two weeks’ ago. Demands for definitive statements on whether UK (or a part of it, usually England) is a “Christian country” have been rather insistent from media callers. Statistics are being bandied about from all sorts of unlikely sources (as well as the usual ones). The scholar must resort to a twofold approach. (Note to my numerate friends in the academy: the figures below are rounded on the side of generosity to the case for the religious, so as not to be too deflected from some crude argument.)

Concept Point A: Even allowing for statistics being a way to decide the matter, the concept of what a “Christian country” looks like if it jumped up and bit you calls us to reflect. Is it the proportion of the people going to church? (Answer = less than 10 per cent per week, though “claimed” attendance, rather noted for its fibbing, is higher.) Is it the proportion who are church members, communicants or something similar? (Answer = less than 30 per cent.) Is it the proportion getting married in a church, baptised in one, or buried by one? (Answers = respectively, less than a third in England & Wales, a bit higher in Scotland, and a lot higher in Northern Ireland; less than 250 per 1,000 live births in mainland UK; and around 90 per cent, again higher in NI.) Is it whether Britons say this is a Christian country? (Answer = just over half.) Is it whether Britons say it should be a Christian country? (Answer = about the same.) Is it whether people believe in God? (Answer = about half, depending on how you word the question, and on whether you can accept that a question about “God” is taken by all responders in UK to mean the Christian one (One).) These are not the only conceptual-statistical questions to ask, but they are the main ones. In most of these cases, other than death rituals, the answers mean than less than half, or barely over half, of British citizens are Christian. Not exactly a resounding “yes” to the Christian country question.

Concept Point B: Then, there are other concepts to be addressed. The first is that of whether England (note, not Scotland[1], Wales or Northern Ireland, which don’t fall in this category) is “Christian” because it has an established or state church? Some pro-“Christian country” bloggers have been pushing this argument for all its worth, but it really doesn’t hold water on any justifiable social-scientific basis. Nations with established churches (such as Sweden until 2002, which has close to the highest rate of atheism in the world) signify little more than happy constitutional arrangements, difficulty in getting change through because it isn’t top of the political agenda one way or the other, or a graveyard access system. Nations without established churches (as diverse as the USA, Northern Ireland and Nigeria) have huge religious affiliation rates, God-belief rates, etc. So, there seems little justice or commonsense in commending this as a worthwhile measure.

Concept Point C. Does the nation have a Christian culture? There is no single way this has been assessed by scholars. Some like, Lord (Rowan) Williams, say that the “moral culture” of England (I think he was referring to his former ecclesiastical bailiwick, rather than UK) remains Christian despite great secularisation; I think he is wrong, and would point to the latest data on key moral attitudes which show a nation almost 80 per cent in favour of things most Christian churches oppose (including assisted dying).[2] Others, including myself, look to seek a non-quantifiable (or qualitative) measurement of culture using discourse analysis of the major media (how much newspapers, TV, music etc. are infused with religious ideas) and reflexivity to it (how much oral history respondents in interview, or autobiographers, reflect a religious culture at various points through their lives). This I did in a book some years ago, and came to the conclusion that Christian culture was dominant in Britain until the 1950s (something, BTW, many Christian historians have long denied), and then collapsed rapidly from the 1960s.[3] I continue to work in this general area, but am now working on how people describe their loss of religion.

So, you pays your money and takes your choice. Not everything in religious history is black and white. In fact, little of it is – including statistics. And in this regard, I must give a lot of thanks to the careful scholarship of Clive Field on the wonderful British Religion in Numbers website (www.brin.ac.uk). Of particular note are the recent entries listed below. If you want to argue from good data about religion in UK, carefully displayed and analysed, you need to get to grips with Clive Field’s unsurpassable commentaries. It is very hard indeed to disagree with him on hard data. But there still remains culture …

My ten seconds are up.

http://www.brin.ac.uk/news/2014/papal-track-record-and-nones/

http://www.brin.ac.uk/news/2014/more-scottish-census-data-and-other-news/

http://www.brin.ac.uk/news/2014/religion-and-social-morality-issues-in-2012/

http://www.brin.ac.uk/news/2014/christian-affiliation-in-britain/ and the follow-ups to that page.

[1] I am willing to argue the case on Scotland; see Callum Brown, ‘The myth of the Established Church of Scotland’, in J. Kirk (ed.), The Scottish Churches and the Union Parliament 1707-1999 (Edinburgh, Scottish Church History Society, 2001), pp. 48-74.

[2] http://www.brin.ac.uk/news/2014/religion-and-social-morality-issues-in-2012

[3] Callum G Brown, The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation 1800-2000. Second edition (London, Routledge, 2009).

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