It can often be an uphill struggle to engage the news media in positive stories about religion, especially where statistics are also involved! However, the Bible Society and Christian Research were clearly on to a real winner with their press release on 23 December about popular belief in angels.
Thanks to a Press Association wire, and the inclusion of some city results (albeit based on small cell sizes), the story was picked up by local and regional newspapers the length and breadth of the UK, and by some national and international media, also.
The original release is not yet available on the Bible Society’s website, so this post draws upon coverage in the Daily Mail, Daily Express, The Independent, The Yorkshire Post and The Scotsman, as well as on the full data tables generously made available to BRIN by Christian Research.
The enquiry reported on was an online survey commissioned by the Bible Society and conducted by ICM Research on 15 and 16 December among a representative sample of 1,038 adult Britons aged 18 and over.
Reminded that the Bible states that angels were used to communicate with various characters in the Christmas narrative, 31% of Britons said that they believed in angels, 51% disbelieved, while 17% did not know what to think.
The number of believers was identical to a YouGov enquiry in October 2004 but rather less than the two-fifths recorded by TNS in July 2007 and Ipsos MORI in August 2009.
As reported by ICM, belief was notably greater among women (40%) than men (23%), and it was also somewhat higher among the over-45s than those aged 18-44 and with manual workers rather than non-manuals. The regional high was in London (40%).
Slightly fewer (29%) thought that they had a guardian angel watching over them personally. 54% disagreed and 17% did not know. Demographic variations were similar to the first question, with believers most prevalent among Londoners (37%) and women and the 55-64s (36% each).
This figure of 29% was lower than obtained in four Ipsos MORI polls about guardian angels, between February 1998 and August 2009, in which belief ranged between 31% and 46%.
Despite the relative incidence of belief in angels, only 5% of respondents claimed that they had actually seen or heard one. No demographic sub-group attained double figures, apart from the East Midlands (12%), including 17% of those whose nearest city was Nottingham. 88% were certain that they had not experienced an angel, with 7% unsure.
Canon Dr Ann Holt, the Bible Society’s Programme Director, interpreted the findings as ‘a sign of a spiritual need within many of us’.
The ICM survey also included a question about nativity plays at school, in the face of mounting evidence that a combination of secularization and political correctness is slowly killing them off.
Only a minority (44%) of schools in England and Wales were planning one at Christmas 2004, according to an Ipsos MORI poll for The TES, and the proportion is thought to have declined further during the past six years.
79% of Britons interviewed by ICM favoured such plays being performed in schools, rising to 88% for those aged 45-54 or living in Eastern England. The lowest levels of support were found in multicultural London (68%) and among the 18-24s (71%).
According to a study by Research Now for the Bible Society and Christian Research in December 2009, about one-fifth of the population attends a nativity play each year, peaking with the 35-44s (the cohort most likely to have children of primary school age).