Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent pronouncements on the role and status of Christianity in Britain have stimulated public debate, quickly receiving both supporting and dissenting remarks from representatives of faith groups and secular organisations and from media commentators. Pollsters have been somewhat slower off the mark in gauging the reaction of the British public. However, data from a newly-released YouGov poll on this topic provide the following results:
- 37% regard themselves as belonging to a Christian religion.
- 23% say they are very or fairly religious.
- 55% say they believe Britain is a Christian country.
- 58% say they think Britain should be a Christian country.
- When presented with an excerpt of text from David Cameron’s article in the Church Times (‘I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.’), 50% agreed with its sentiments and 35% disagreed.
Full results from the poll, conducted online between 22 and 23 April 2014 and based on a sample of 2,143 adults in Britain, are available here. Some comparative data for these questions (except for the last one) are available from previous YouGov surveys undertaken in February 2012 and April 2012.
Given that it is commonplace in public debate for various statistics – from sample surveys or from the 2001 and 2011 censuses – to be cited regarding levels of Christian identity amongst the British population, it is perhaps worth revisiting some of the recurrent social surveys which have collected micro-level data on religious affiliation across recent decades. Figure 1 shows overall levels of identification with a Christian religion based on data from three nationally-representative survey series, which have sampled the adult population: the British Election Study (BES), the cross-national European Values Study (EVS) and British Social Attitudes (BSA). The data are taken from the earliest and the most recently-available surveys from each series. Note that the survey series span different time periods, with the BES starting in 1963 and the other two in the early-1980s.
Figure 1: Per cent reporting a Christian affiliation
Source: Compiled by the author from BES, EVS and BSA surveys
The BES 1963 survey showed that that was near-universal affiliation with a Christian religion amongst the electorate at 96.2%. Similarly, the 1959 Civic Culture Study, where Britain was one of five nations where survey fieldwork was undertaken, showed that 94.3% claimed a Christian affiliation. In the 2010 BES, in contrast, this proportion had fallen to 44.8%. The EVS surveys also show a considerable drop in Christian affiliation between 1981 and 2008 (although the fieldwork for the British sample was actually conducted in 2009-10), from 84.4% to 46.1%. The BSA series shows a lower level of Christian affiliation in 1983 (at 66.6%) compared to that obtained by the EVS in 1981. The most recently-released BSA survey, from 2012, shows that 46.3% claimed some form of Christian affiliation. The most recent surveys from these three long-running series therefore show similar levels of identification with a Christian religion, albeit they are somewhat higher than the figure from the YouGov survey cited above. As a further comparison, data for Britain from the 2012 European Social Survey (which began undertaking biannual surveys in 2002) show that 40.5% reported having a Christian affiliation.
Of course, responses to such questions on affiliation can be influenced by question wording and the response options available for a particular survey as well as the social prestige or – at least historically – cultural norms in favour of religious identification, but the direction of travel over recent decades is evident across multiple survey sources.