What can social surveys tell us about church attendance amongst Catholics in Britain?


This post examines the evidence from recurrent social surveys bearing upon changing patterns of church attendance amongst Roman Catholics in Britain. It analyses survey data from multiple sources going back several decades. When using data based on self-reports of religious attendance we should be mindful of the limitations of this method – with respondents prone to over-reporting of their actual attendance at services – and be aware of other techniques used for collecting data on the nature and extent of participation in religious activities (such as daily time-use diaries). Also, it needs to be borne in mind that self-identifying Catholics have generally constituted around 10% of the sample in recent social surveys in Britain, based on religious affiliation questions. Therefore, since they comprise relatively small groups of respondents, this may account for some of the fluctuation between individual waves in any particular survey series. This post focuses on summarising the broader picture, rather than commenting on specific instances of change over shorter time periods.



Church attendance statistics and the interpretation thereof for Christian denominations and traditions have featured in BRIN on numerous occasions, engendering interesting feedback and debate. Recent figures on church attendance across denominational groups have also been given prominent coverage in the broadsheets. Change and continuity in religious attendance in Britain has been examined in scholarly research, particularly in recent analyses of British Social Attitudes data (for example: Lee 2012; Voas and Ling 2010). It was also the subject a major research report issued by Tearfund in 2007 (entitled ‘Churchgoing in the UK’). Rather than take a broader perspective on patterns and trends in religious attendance in Britain, looking across religious groups, this post primarily examines attendance within a particular denomination, that of Roman Catholicism.

What can survey data from the British context tell us about the religious behaviour of Catholics? First, we briefly compare Catholics with other religious traditions, using the recently-released BSA 2012 survey. There are clear differences between Anglicans and Catholics in their levels of attendance at religious services: 41.5% of Catholics attend church frequently (once a month or more) compared to 17.4% of Anglicans. Anglicans are much more likely to report that they never attend religious services (with the exception of special occasions relating to births, deaths and marriages), at 50.3% compared to 33.6% of Catholics. Differences are less stark for those attending services infrequently (less often than once a month): 32.2% for Anglicans and 24.9% for Catholics. It is also worth noting that other Christians also show a much higher level of frequent attendance than Anglicans but not as high as Catholics. The highest level of frequent attendance is shown by members of non-Christian faiths (at 53.5%), who also exhibit the lowest level of non-attendance (25.4%)


Table 1: Attendance at religious services by religious affiliation





Other Christian (%)

Other religion (%)
















Unweighted N





Source: BSA 2012 survey. Weighted data.


What about Catholics’ longer-term attendance at religious services. Can we see any clear patterns – change or continuity – from longitudinal social survey data? Within the contemporary Catholic adult population, moreover, which social groups are more likely to report they attend services? This post presents and discusses the available evidence bearing upon these two questions. It first reports the evidence from a range of national and cross-national survey series and then looks in more detail at levels of church attendance amongst social groups.


Trend data on attendance at religious services

This post uses evidence from multiple surveys in order to try and get a more robust picture of any trends in attendance amongst Catholics in recent decades. We use data from the BSA surveys, British Election Study (BES), Eurobarometer (EB) surveys and the European Values Study (EVS) (the latter two being cross-national in scope). Where applicable, we present weighted percentages from the surveys and, given the caveats outlined in the ‘Summary’, also report the unweighted base (number of Catholics) for each time-point. Generally, when surveys ask about religious attendance, respondents can choose from a range of options to report how (ir)regularly they attend. However, to try to provide greater clarity of presentation and comparability across the surveys used here we generally classify attendance as follows:

  • Frequently-attending: at least once a month or more.
  • Infrequently-attending: less than once a month (or, where applicable, varies too much to say)
  • Does not attend: never attends.

First, we present data from the BSA surveys, covering the period from 1983 to 2012 (with the exceptions of 1988 and 1992, when they were not undertaken). The question wording used in the BSA for measuring religious attendance is as follows: ‘Apart from such special occasions as weddings, funerals and baptisms, how often nowadays do you attend services or meetings connected with your religion?’[1] The data for attendance are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Frequency of attendance at religious services amongst Catholics, 1983-2012

Figure 1: Frequency of attendance at religious services amongst Catholics, 1983-2012 (BSA surveys). 

We can see that there has been a decline in the proportion of Catholics reporting that they attend religious services on a frequent basis: from 55.2% in 1983 down to 41.5% in 2012. There has been a corresponding increase in the proportion who says they attend infrequently (i.e. less than once a month), rising from 19.9% to 24.9% over nearly three decades. However, the larger increase has been amongst those who do not attend services, increasing from about a fifth in 1983 (19.9%) to a third in 2012 (at 33.6%). On the evidence of the 2012 data, then, around two-fifths attend services regularly, around a quarter say their attendance is infrequent and a third do not attend. Is this trend also evident in data compiled from other longitudinal survey series?

We next present over time data from the BES studies undertaken at every general election since 1964, which have asked about attendance in most, if not all, election surveys. Note the variations in question wording used across the BES surveys, particularly the qualification ‘apart from special occasions’ in the question used from 1983-1997, akin to that in the BSA question. We report data for the period of 1964-1997. We can see that the level of frequent attendance has fallen from a high-point of 71.0% in 1964 to just over two-fifths in 1997 (at 41.7%). There have been corresponding increases in the proportions attending either infrequently (from 13.7% to 32.8%) or not at all (from 15.2% to 25.5%). Unfortunately, data on religious attendance were not collected in the 2001 and 2005 BES surveys (two differently worded questions were included in the 2010 in-person survey which asked separately about religious activities undertaken (i) with other people and (ii) by oneself).


Table 2: Frequency of attendance at religious services amongst Catholics, 1964-1997

1964 (%)
































Unweighted N







Source: BES surveys. Weighted data.

Question wordings:

1964: ‘How often do you attend church?’

1979: ‘How often do you attend church, chapel, or other place of worship?’

1983-1997: ‘Apart from special occasions, such as weddings, funerals, baptisms and so on, how often nowadays do you attend services or meetings connected with your religion?’


Next we present data from two long-running cross-country surveys. Firstly, the Eurobarometer surveys (Figure 2), for which we have data covering 1973-1998 (we omit data from more recent surveys due to changes in the response options for the measure of attendance). Because of the attendance categories used in the earlier EB surveys, we have to use a slightly different classification scheme: attends once a week or more; attends less often; or does not attend. The EB question asked: ‘Do you attend religious services …?’.

Figure 2: Frequency of attendance at religious services amongst Catholics, 1973-1998

Figure 2: Frequency of attendance at religious services amongst Catholics, 1973-1998 (EB surveys)

We can see that the proportion of Catholics who report attending once a week or more declined from 57.1% in 1973 to 40.8% in the late-1990s. Those attending less often (which here is more complicated as it includes those attending once a month) increased from 27.1% to 35.0% and those reporting they did not attend services increased from 15.8% to 24.3%.[2] Secondly, the next set of data comes from the European Values Study (EVS), which undertakes periodic cross-national surveys (spaced every nine years). The data here show a slightly different picture from that already discussed, in that, perhaps surprisingly, there is little change over time in the proportion who report never attending services (at 27.6% in 1981 and 27.0% in 2008). The change over time has been in the form of the proportion attending frequently declining (from over half in 1981 to about two-fifths in 2008), with a corresponding increase in the proportion attending less often (rising from 18.7% in 1981 to 33.1% in 2008). The EVS data also shows an evident decrease in the proportion who never attended in 1990, but this ‘blip’ disappears as the levels increase again in 1999 and 2008 readings.

Taken together, it would seem that the surveys tend to show a picture of fairly consistent decline, with – the EVS data partly excepted – clear decreases in the proportion attending frequently and corresponding increases in the proportions attending less often or not at all. Given this historical picture, which social groups within the contemporary Catholic population are more – or less – likely to be frequent-attenders?


Table 3: Frequency of attendance at religious services amongst Catholics, 1981-2008

1981 (%)

1990 (%)

1999 (%)

2008 (%)
















Unweighted N





Source: European Values Surveys. Weighted data.

Question: ‘Apart from weddings, funerals and christenings, about how often do you attend religious services these days?’


Who is more likely to attend frequently?

In this section, we use the best available survey data in order to build up a social profile of those groups within the Catholic population most likely to report attending church frequently. We do this by analysing a survey of adult Catholics in Britain (with a sample size of 1,636), conducted online by YouGov from August 31-September 2 2010 in the run-up to the papal visit. In Table 4, we present self-reported attendance rates for the following characteristics:

  • Sex, age group, ethnic group, social class, educational attainment, whether any children in the household, region and political party supported.

First, looking at the overall distribution, we can see that just over two-fifths report attending frequently (43.0%), nearly a third attend less often (31.9%) and those who do not attend services stand at a quarter (25.1%).  This figures approximate those found in the most recent BSA survey (for 2012) shown in Figure 1. So which social groups are most likely to report that they frequently attend services? We can see that there is little difference between men and women (with slightly over two-fifths reporting they attend frequently). There are substantial differences in level of attendance by age group: those aged 65 and over stand out, with 65.8% attending frequently compared to between 33.1%-40.8% for the other age groups. There are also differences by social class, with those in the highest occupational grades more likely to report attending services frequently: 50.4% for those in the AB category (professional and managerial occupations) compared to a range of 36.6%-41.9% for those in the C1/C2/DE groups. This difference by socio-economic status is reflected in the break-down by educational attainment: regular attendance is higher for those with degree-level qualifications than for those without. Attendance is also noticeably higher for those who have one or more children in their household (at 51.1% compared to 39.6% for those with none).

The breakdown by region shows that frequent attendance is most commonly found amongst Catholics who reside in the East of England, Scotland, the South East and the Midlands (and lowest in the Yorkshire and Humberside area). We also given figures for political party attachments amongst Catholics: frequent attendance is highest amongst those who support the Conservative Party (at 49.9%) and lowest amongst those who opt for a minor party or do not support any party. Data from a 2008 survey undertaken by the Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project showed that, amongst Catholics in the US, those more likely to attend church weekly included those aged 65 and over, women and those living in the Midwest and Southern regions.


Table 4: Religious attendance by social group, Catholic adults in Britain

Variable Category

Frequently (%)

Infrequently (%)







Sex Male








Age group 18-29
















Ethnic group White British








Social class AB
















Education Has a degree




Does not




Children None




One or more




Party support Labour








Lib Dem




Other party




None/don’t know




Region North East




North West




Yorkshire and the Humber




East Midlands




West Midlands




East of England








South East




South West












Source: YouGov survey of Catholics adults in Britain, August-September 2010 (n=1,636). Weighted data.


For the purposes of historical comparison, further analysis of the 1978 Roman Catholic Opinion Survey (which sampled 1023 Catholic adults living in England and Wales only), shows a similar social profile for frequency of attendance (based on the following question: ‘’How often do you go to Mass?’). That is, there are some similar differences based on sex, age, social class and party support. For example, 72.5% of those aged 65 and older attended frequently compared to 36.7% of those aged 15-29. In terms of social grade, 62.5% of those in the AB category attended frequently, compared to 46.9% for those in the DE category. There were some interesting differences based on age finished full-time education: the highest proportions of frequent-attenders were found amongst those who, on the one hand, had finished school aged 14 or under (60.6%) and, on the other, those who completed their education aged 17-19 years (63.5%) or aged 20 and over (70.0%). The lowest levels were found amongst those who completed their education aged either 15 or 16 years (respectively, 41.5% and 45.0%). Conservative supporters were more frequent attenders (at 59.8%), compared to Labour supporters (47.5%) or those who expressed support for another party (55.3%). Levels of attendance were not too dissimilar for men (51.8%) and women (54.5%).

Finally, BRIN readers who are interested in looking further at scholarly research on this subject, focusing on Britain or elsewhere, may like to consult the following sources;

  • Brenner, P. S. (2011), ‘Exceptional Behavior or Exceptional Identity?: Overreporting of Church Attendance in the U.S.’, Public Opinion Quarterly, 75 (1): 19-41.
  • Chaves, M. (2011), American Religion: Contemporary Trends. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, chapter 4.
  • Conway, B. (2013), ‘Social Correlates of Church Attendance in Three European Catholic Countries’, Review of Religious Research, 55(1): 61-80.
  • Lee, L. (2011), ‘Religion. Losing Faith?’, in A. Park et al. (eds), British Social Attitudes 28. London: Sage, pp. 173-184.
  • Lünchau, P. (2007), ‘By Faith Alone? Church Attendance and Christian Faith in three European Countries’, Journal of Contemporary Religion, 22(1): 35-48.
  • Voas, D., and R. Ling (2010), ‘Religion in Britain and the United States’, in A. Park et al. (eds), British Social Attitudes. The 26thReport. London: Sage, pp. 65-86.

Dr Ben Clements, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester


[1] The unweighted number of Catholics in each BSA survey on which the data presented in Figure 1 are based is as follows: 1983: 169; 1984: 190; 1985: 197; 1986: 321; 1987: 280; 1989: 335; 1990: 252; 1991: 290; 1993: 302; 1994: 328; 1995: 335; 1996: 328; 1997: 145; 1998: 280; 1999: 278; 2000: 331; 2001: 331; 2002: 318; 2003: 399; 2004: 279; 2005: 396; 2006: 391; 2007: 376; 2008: 420; 2009: 281; 2010: 286; 2011: 287; 2012: 291.

[2] The unweighted number of Catholics in each EB survey on which the data presented in Figure 2 are based is as follows: 1973: 177; 1975: 100; 1976: 188; 1977: 182; 1978: 183; 1980: 133; 1981: 110; 1988: 87; 1989: 272; 1990: 314: 1991: 309; 1992: 208; 1993: 224; 1994: 363; 1995: 117; 1998: 103.

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Census 2011: Muslims in Britain

The 2011 census allows us to explore the national origins and ethnic composition of different religious groups.  In this initial analysis, we consider the profile of Muslims in England and Wales. Two thirds are Asian, mostly South Asian.  The majority of Muslim Asians, and 38% of all Muslims, are of Pakistani origin.  Bangladeshis come well behind, with 15% of the total.

One of the changes made to the census question on ethnicity in 2011 was to add an ‘Arab’ option.  This group contributes 6.6% of Muslims, exceeding the 4.8% classified as ‘other white’ (e.g. Turkish, Turkish Cypriot, or Bosnian).  Notwithstanding the existence of these categories, an appreciable number of Muslims (2.9%) describe themselves as white British; some are likely to be the descendents of Muslim immigrants and an unknown number are converts.

In total, then, 68% of Muslims in England and Wales are of Asian ethnicity, 14% are white or Arab, and just 10% are black.  The remainder are of mixed or other ethnicity.

The majority (53%) of Britain’s Muslims were born in Europe, although the proportion born in the UK is slightly less than half (47%).  Of Muslims born outside the UK, the majority (54%) come from South Asia.  Other regions that contribute substantially to Muslim immigration include Africa (19%) and the Middle East (12%).

Although a majority of Muslim immigrants are from South Asia, only a minority (47%) of South Asian immigrants are Muslim.  And while a slight majority of Muslims are first generation immigrants, only 19% of people born outside the UK are Muslim.  Like the white British, the foreign-born population is predominantly Christian (48%) or has no religion (14%).


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Religious Census 2011 – What happened to the Christians? (Part II)

As discussed in December 2012 on BRIN, the sharp fall in the ‘Christian’ population has been the big story on religion from the 2011 census.  If the 2001 results posed one problem for religious statisticians – why was the Christian figure so high? – the latest findings are just as puzzling: why has it fallen so fast?  The more detailed tables just released provide partial answers.

Religion by age

One new table provides the breakdown of declared religious affiliation by age and sex.  For present purposes we exclude minority religious groups (though of course their size and distribution of is an important topic to which BRIN will return).  Omitting Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Buddhists and others leaves us with people who ticked Christian, no religion, or did not answer the question.  We can then calculate the Christian fraction of those subtotals by age.  The results are shown in the graph below.

Christians as a percentage of the population, minority religious groups omitted (England and Wales, 2001 and 2011 censuses)

Census Christians

The first point to note is that the pattern by age is very similar in the two years.  Parents answer the census questions for their children, and unsurprisingly children around age 10 are described as Christian with about the same frequency as their parents (approximately age 40).  Many people are not inclined to ascribe a religious affiliation to infants or very young children, and conversely adolescents aged 15-19 are starting to demonstrate their independence: these two factors produce the characteristic hump in the reported affiliation of children.  Thereafter one finds the typical generational profile of religious belonging, and affiliation rises steadily from young adults to the elderly.

Although the shapes of the graphs are much the same in 2001 and 2011, the levels are remarkably different.  Excluding minorities, more than three quarters of people aged 20-24 were labelled Christian in 2001; in 2011 the proportion in that age group was only one half.  The gap narrows as age rises, however.

If for the moment we ignore immigration, the groups aged 10-14, 15-19, 20-24, etc. in 2001 correspond to those aged 20-24, 25-29, 30-34, etc. in 2011.  We can calculate the amount of drift away from Christian affiliation within each cohort, as shown in the graph below.

Percentage of Christians in 2001 no longer identified as Christian in 2011, by cohort (England and Wales, 2001 and 2011 censuses)

Defecting Christians

The first two cohorts consist of children who for the most part would have been ascribed a religious affiliation by their parents in 2001; the very high level of apparent defection is no great surprise.  The change among young adults is very striking, however.  Of people in their 20s and early 30s in 2001 who called themselves Christian, a quarter no longer did so in 2011.

The effect of immigration

These figures are all the more remarkable because they underestimate the amount of drift away from Christian self-identification among people born in the UK (or present in the country in 2001).  The population in 2011 includes immigrants who would not have been counted in 2001.  The non-Christians have been excluded, as explained above, but many immigrants are Christian and relatively few describe themselves as having no religion.

The number of Christians born in the UK declined from 35.0 million in 2001 to 29.7 million in 2011.  Over the same period, the number of Christians born outside the country increased from 2.3 to 3.6 million.  In consequence, the total number of Christians dropped by just 11%, although the number of native-born Christians fell by 15%.

Immigrants are disproportionately young adults.  Of people aged 25-34 in 2011, fully one quarter were born outside the UK.  All of those individuals who did not self-identify with a minority religion are included in the figures used above.  Some would also have been present in 2001, and some will be counted as having no religion or religion not stated, but a high proportion will be Christian.  The defection from Christian affiliation between 2001 and 2011 is therefore underestimated in the graphs above, particularly among young adults, because it is offset by an infusion of Christian immigrants.

One caveat should be added for the sake of completeness.  This analysis assumes that the numbers of people describing themselves as having no religion, or not answering the question, have not been substantially inflated between 2001 and 2011 by people of non-Christian heritage.  Further checks can be done in due course, but for the moment these results seem reliable.


The overall position, as a reminder, is that the population of England and Wales increased by 4.0 million between 2001 and 2011, but the number of Christians (according to the census) fell by 4.1 million.  We know from mortality statistics that 5.1 people died during the decade, of whom not quite 4.3 million are likely to have been Christian.  They have been replaced in the population by 2.8 million Christians under the age of 10 in the latest census, for a net loss of 1.5 million.  This loss is largely offset by the arrival of 1.3 million Christians from elsewhere.  Cohort replacement and immigration combined, therefore, only account for a drop of 0.2 million in the Christian total.  The implication is that 3.9 million people who were described as Christian in 2001 do not appear as such in 2011.  (This value is the net change: if some people moved into the Christian category in 2011, the actual number going the other way would be correspondingly larger.)

Defection is strongly age-related; the younger the respondents, the more likely they are to have moved away from self-identification as Christian.  The result is that the generation gap in religious affiliation in the census now looks more similar to that found in other national surveys than was previously the case.  In the British Social Attitudes survey, for example, about 80% of elderly respondents but only 35% of young respondents (excluding ethnic minorities) regard themselves as belonging to a religion.  As shown above, the
corresponding values for Christian affiliation from the 2011 census are 85% and 50%.  The gap is still only 35 rather than 45 percentage points, but it is not as dramatically at odds with other sources as the 18-point gap was in 2001.

Why so many individuals – especially young adults – described themselves one way in 2001 and another way ten years later remains an open question.  Perhaps levels of anxiety about national and cultural identity eased, so that reactive self-identification as ‘Christian’ became less frequent.  Or perhaps people decided that not being the ‘other’ (Muslim, Hindu, and so on) could just as easily be asserted while having no religion.  The generally positive connotations of being Christian might have been eroded over the decade.  We shall continue to report on the characteristics of the defectors as more data become available.






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Christmas and Other Themes

Today’s ‘bumper’ round-up of religious statistical news features seven stories. Two are Christmas-themed; two summarize public attitudes to the religious dimensions of the same-sex marriage debate; two report on new research among Roman Catholics; and the last highlights reflections on the 2011 religion census of England and Wales by the Director of the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society programme.

Churchgoing at Christmas

One-quarter of the national population claims they will attend a church service over the Christmas period this year (5% on Christmas Day itself, 11% on Christmas Eve, and 8% on another day around Christmas). The range is from 20% of men and residents of the Midlands and Wales to 30% of Londoners. Two-thirds say that they will not worship at Christmastide with one-tenth uncertain what they will do. Interestingly, when asked to indicate which of a list of Christmas Day activities they would pursue, an additional 2% (making 7% in all) mention going to church. Even so, apart from going to work (4%), this is the least favoured pastime on Christmas Day. Two-thirds anticipate singing Christmas carols over the festive period, women the most (51%) and men (31%) the least, closely followed by Scots on 32%. Among those with children under the age of ten, 45% expect them to take part in a nativity play, and 30% not. If past form is anything to go by, actual religious practices at Christmas will be significantly less than these aspirations.

Source: Online survey by YouGov for The Sun among 1,729 adults aged 18 and over in Great Britain on 9-10 December 2012. Data tables published on 14 December at:


Nativity knowledge

Britons’ knowledge of the nativity story is somewhat variable, according to a new survey. Asked ten specific questions about the first Christmas, on average they scored six out of ten, with 22% of parents and 18% of children scoring eight out of ten or more. The best-known facts about the nativity are that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (98%), Mary put the baby Jesus in a manger (89%), and that the Angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth (83%). At the other end of the spectrum, only 14% knew that the three wise men travelled West following the star, 26% that Mary and Joseph were espoused (and thus not married) when she found out she was going to have a baby, and 32% knew that Immanuel means God is with us. A notable feature of the incorrect answers was the not infrequent appearance of Father Christmas, especially among parents’ responses. Over half of families (52%) said they planned to go to a school nativity play this year.

Source: Online survey by ICM Research on behalf of the Bible Society, undertaken between 6 and 12 December 2012 among approximately 1,000 parents of children aged 12 and under and 1,000 children. Full data tables are not yet available, but headline findings were reported on 17 December, notably in the online edition of the Daily Telegraph at:


The Bible Society’s press release is at:


Same-sex marriage (1)

Three-quarters of the British public (73%) are in favour of the legalization of same-sex marriages, but they divide over whether religious organizations should be required to provide religious weddings for gay couples. Some 28% of the population feels that these organizations should be put under such an obligation, and this is especially the view of the 18-24s (44%) and Liberal Democrat voters and public sector workers (37% each). Legalization of same-sex marriage but without requiring faith bodies to offer religious ceremonies is backed by 45%, while 17% oppose same-sex marriage but countenance civil partnerships, and a further 7% are hostile both to same-sex marriage and civil partnerships.

Source: Telephone survey of 1,023 adults aged 18 and over in Great Britain, undertaken by Ipsos MORI on 8-10 December 2012 on behalf of Freedom to Marry. Full data table published on 11 December and available at:


Same-sex marriage (2)

The British public is evenly divided about whether ‘marriage is a sacred act between a man and a woman and cannot be a sacred act between same-sex couples’; 42% say yes and exactly the same number no, albeit over-55s (56%) and Conservative voters (52%) are more inclined to take the former view and under-35s (52%) and Liberal Democrats (50%) the latter. This is notwithstanding that 60% (and 73% of under-35s) indicate that they support the legalization of same-sex marriage (in a question worded differently to that in the Ipsos MORI poll, above), albeit it is not generally regarded by the public as a priority for Parliament.

A majority (53%) backs same-sex marriages in churches, provided that churches are willing to conduct such ceremonies, rising to 63% of under-35s and 61% of Liberal Democrats; 39% are hostile, including 53% of over-55s, and 9% undecided. Only 35% endorse the Government’s proposal to prohibit the Church of England from conducting same-sex religious marriages, the majority (54%, including 60% of under-35s and the AB social group) wanting to see Anglican clergy offering such ceremonies if in accordance with their individual consciences. At the same time, 58% believe the Church of England is entitled to oppose the whole concept of same-sex marriage (with 26% disagreeing and 16% unsure). 

Source: Online survey of 1,003 adults aged 18 and over in Great Britain, undertaken by Survation on behalf of The Mail on Sunday on 14 and 15 December 2012. Summarized in Simon Walters, ‘Britons Vote in Favour of Same-Sex Marriage’, The Mail on Sunday, 16 December 2012, p. 13, available at:


Full data tables located at:


Bible engagement

Roman Catholics have a relatively low level of engagement with the Bible, according to a new survey. Of those who attend Mass once a month or more, 57% do not read the Bible week-by-week outside of a church setting. This is despite the fact that around two-thirds of them contend that the Bible has something useful to contribute to contemporary life and society, and that one-third assert that a passage in the Bible directly influenced a decision they made in the past week. For Catholics who worship less frequently than monthly or not at all, 81% seldom or never read the Bible. Less than half of both groups of Catholics feel confident about describing five specific passages from the Bible, with familiarity greater among Catholics aged 18-34 than their older co-religionists.

These findings are consistent with a ‘meta analysis’ of over 150 British sample surveys relating to the Bible and undertaken since 1945, which the present writer has almost completed, one of whose findings is: ‘Protestants in general and Free Church affiliates in particular are more Bible-centric than Catholics (apart from some indicators of literalism)’. Indeed, the faith of Catholics seems to be as much underpinned by the teachings and authority of the Roman Catholic Church as by the foundational text of Christianity.

Source: Survey of 1,012 self-identifying Roman Catholics aged 18 and over undertaken by Christian Research between 17 November and 4 December 2012, and on behalf of the Bible Society, in partnership with the Home Mission Desk of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. The sample divided between 502 Catholics who said that they attended Mass once a month or more and 510 who went less frequently or never. Headline findings are contained in a press release from the Bishops’ Conference dated 7 December, two days before Catholic Bible Sunday, and available at:


Roman Missal

It is just over a year since Catholic parishes in English-speaking countries started to use the revised English translation of the Missale Romanum edition tertia, which aimed to offer a more literal rendition of the Latin, replacing the translation introduced after Vatican II, with its emphasis on capturing the sense of the words. However, initial responses to the new Missal among the faithful seem to have been decidedly mixed, according to one local survey. In it only 22% described the general experience of their parish with regard to the Missal as positive, with 31% neutral, and 42% negative. Factoring in their personal views brought the negative total to 45%, with 28% positive, and 25% neutral. This underwhelmed reaction is despite the fact that 83% claimed to have been at least somewhat prepared for the new translation, the most common forms of catechesis being at Mass (69%), the parish newsletter (50%), and from a priest or deacon (41%). Pew cards (71%) and parish leaflets (30%) were commonly made available as ‘people’s aids’ at Mass. Qualitative data were collected alongside the statistics, it being noted that ‘concerning the language of the people’s responses and prayers, a panoply of [negative] adjectives and descriptors that would be the envy of Roget’s Thesaurus is wheeled into line’.

Source: Survey conducted by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portsmouth between 1 January and 30 April 2012. The survey form was posted on the diocesan website and was thus accessible to people from outside the diocese. Although the majority of the replies came from within the diocese, a significant number came from elsewhere (mainly Northern England). They were received, either in written form or as email attachments, from a self-selecting sample of both laity and clergy. ‘There is no indication of any particular group with an agenda “packing” or skewing the responses’. Even though statistics are cited to two decimal places, the number of respondents (307) is not specified until the very last page of Paul Inwood’s summary of the survey, which can be found at:


The weekly Catholic magazine The Tablet is currently running an online survey on the same subject. To participate, go to:


Religious census

The religious life of the country is more diverse and complex than a superficial reading of the 2011 census data for England and Wales might suggest, according to the latest commentary on the initial results which were released a week ago. In particular, there is no hard-and-fast fault-line between ‘Christians’ and those professing ‘no religion’. ‘The census is a poor guide because it asks a single question about identity and offers a limited range of answers … The census still works with simple, unitary categories of religion. If forced, most of us can squeeze ourselves into one of these boxes. But if asked what we really mean, we display a heterogeneity which simplistic readings of the census ignore … Most people no longer identify with the labels of religious affiliation … Religion, like secularity, has become a matter of choice. We do not obey authority as we once did, and we no longer take our religious identities “off the shelf”. We explore for ourselves and assemble spiritual packages we find meaningful.’

Source: Linda Woodhead, ‘Faith that Won’t Fit the Mould’, The Tablet, 15 December 2012, p. 8.


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Surveyitis and Other News

Today’s digest of religious statistical news highlights a thought-provoking blog about ‘surveyitis’ by the Director of the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society programme, as well as headline findings from two actual surveys, among evangelicals and adult learners.

A bad case of surveyitis

In our last post, on 4 December, we briefly anticipated the publication of Professor Linda Woodhead’s blog inspired by the recent Theos report, Post-Religious Britain? The Faith of the Faithless. This blog was published on The Guardian’s Comment is Free website on 5 December under the heading ‘Surveying Religious Belief Needs Social Science Not Hard Science’. In it Professor Woodhead provides some salutary advice on the difficulties of measuring public opinion in relation to religion, which she characterizes as an ever-changing and often also a vague and contested area. She particularly counsels against ‘surveyitis’, ‘a disease that afflicts people who stay indoors too long poring over data’, and whose ‘symptoms include credulity about the accuracy of survey responses and morbid attachment to outdated questions’, the latter ‘working with zombie categories’. She detects ‘a new outbreak of surveyitis’ occasioned by an upsurge of interest in ‘nones’, people who do not identify with or practice religion. She emphasizes ‘doubt, subtlety, uncertainty and cognitive modesty’, in contrast to the idea of ‘a fantasy rational man with clear and distinct ideas’ who ‘lurks behind many survey designs’. The blog can be read at:


Evangelicals living the Christian life

Three-quarters (76%) of lay evangelicals have been Christians for more than twenty years, with an average of twenty-two years, ‘reflecting, perhaps, a lack of priority in evangelism’. Indeed, evangelism is only seen as the fourth most important (of six) key dimensions of church life. Stability is also suggested by the fact that two-fifths have never attended any other than their existing place of worship. Notwithstanding, the overwhelming majority of lay evangelicals consider that their faith has grown during the past year, the principal reasons for such growth being the fellowship and teaching (in services) of their church and house groups. The Bible is also deemed a significant influence, not just for faith development but in shaping attitudes to family and world; this is especially true of the over-40s. Prayer is widespread, 71% of these laity praying every day and a further 22% several times a week. However, they rather struggle with the concept of Christlikeness, which is typically expressed in terms of kindness, while 54% have a concern that ‘becoming more Christlike will increasingly alienate Christians from the culture around them’.

Source: Surveys undertaken by Brierley Consultancy in 2012 among 1,999 English evangelicals from three groups: a) churchgoers in seven congregations (three Anglican, one Baptist, three Independent); b) laity answering advertisements in Christian newspapers and magazines (and thus self-selecting); c) ministers from a range of denominations. The research was commissioned by the Langham Partnership (UK and Ireland), whose purpose is ‘to help churches grow in maturity or simple Christlikeness’, and which is running the ‘9-a-day: Becoming Like Jesus’ campaign in January-July 2013 ‘to encourage Christians in that transformative process’. A summary of the study (which BRIN found rather confusingly presented) appears in the 16-page pamphlet Living the Christian Life: Becoming Like Jesus (Tonbridge: ADBC Publishers, 2012). This can be obtained (for £2, inclusive of postage) from Brierley Consultancy, The Old Post Office, 1 Thorpe Avenue, Tonbridge, Kent, TN10 4PW, email peter@brierleyres.com. Also available for purchase from the same source are detailed reports of the research among laity in the seven participating congregations (Vol. 1) and the ministers (Vol. 2), priced £7.50 each. Cheques should be made payable to Peter Brierley.

Religion and belief in adult learning

Just over one-half (53%) of adult learners at further education colleges in England consider themselves to have a religion, a further 10% say that they have some form of non-religious belief (agnosticism, atheism, humanism, and spiritualism being most often mentioned), while 37% have neither. Students with religion are disproportionately to be found among the over-25s, women and ethnic minorities. Of those reporting a religion, 57% are Christian and 27% Muslim, and 53% claim actively to practise their religion. Within the learning environment 56% are fully or partially open about their religion or belief, typically through the expression of their opinions or the wearing (by 22%) of some form of religious dress or symbol. Although religion and/or belief are not widely seen as barriers to learning opportunities, 11% of adult learners with religious beliefs report that they have experienced bullying or harassment due to their religion and 4% due to their beliefs. This compares with 11% of those with non-religious beliefs who have been victims of bullying or harassment on account of their beliefs and 5% of those without any religion or belief. Fewer than one-third of victims have notified somebody in the learning environment about their experience of bullying or harassment. One-quarter of all adult learners state that they have had positive learning outcomes as a result of their religion or belief, rising to 35% of those with a religion.

Source: Survey of a self-selecting sample of 1,139 adult learners aged 19 and over (with 49% aged 19-29) attending further education colleges in England who completed an online questionnaire between 16 February and 11 May 2012. Women (63%) were overrepresented by 6% relative to the adult learning sector as a whole. The study was undertaken by Babcock Research on behalf of the Skills Funding Agency, with take-up of the survey being promoted by further education providers. It is reported in Donna James, Clare Lambley and Kay Turner, Religion and Belief in Adult Learning: Learner Views (Coventry: Skills Funding Agency, 2012), which is freely available at:



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Faith of the Faithless

‘Whatever the trends in affiliation to formalised religion in Britain, we are not a post-religious, still less a post-spiritual, society, and … even those “beyond the fringe” – who do not call themselves religious, attend religious services or believe in religious teachings – still have vestiges (and sometimes more than that) of religious and spiritual faith.’

‘It is quite wrong to assume that the … population falls into two categories: those who are committed religious believers and those who are wholly secularised. The reality is that there are many shades of gray between these two poles.’ Indeed, ‘overall, the proportion of people who are consistently non-religious … is very low at 9%.’

These are the conclusions of a new report by Nick Spencer and Holly Weldin, Post-Religious Britain? The Faith of the Faithless, which was published on 3 December 2012 by the Theos think tank and is available on its website at:


The Theos claims are based upon secondary analysis of three existing datasets: the NatCen/British Social Attitudes Survey of 2,229 British adults in June-November 2008 (BSA); a ComRes/Theos survey of 2,060 UK adults in October-November 2008 on attitudes to Charles Darwin (Darwin); and a ComRes/Theos survey of 1,749 English adults in August 2012 on attitudes to English cathedrals (Cathedrals).

Using these data, Theos investigated three groups of ‘faithless’: the ‘nevers’, those who say that they never participate in a religious service as a worshipper, amounting to 47% of the population (Cathedrals); ‘atheists’, those who say they disbelieve in God, representing 24% (Cathedrals); and the ‘non-religious’, the 44% (BSA) who reply ‘no religion’ in answer to the question ‘do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?’

The report reviews the socio-demographic attributes of the ‘nevers’ and ‘atheists’ (pp. 11-15) before turning to the evidence for residual Christianity or spirituality to be found among all three groups (pp. 16-31). Specifically (data based on Cathedrals study, unless otherwise stated):

  • Nevers: 31% identify themselves as Christians, while 44% believe in a human soul, 35% in God or a higher power, 28% in life after death, 22% in reincarnation, 21% in angels, 20% in God as a universal life force, and 13% in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead 
  • Atheists: 11% identify themselves as Christians, 8% claim to worship at least once a year, with 23% believing in a human soul, 15% in life after death, 14% in reincarnation, 7% in angels, 5% in God as a universal life force, and 4% in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead 
  • Non-religious: 16% consider themselves to be very or moderately spiritual (BSA), 18% pray at least once a year (Darwin), 17% read the Bible at least once a year (Darwin), 22% attend a religious service at least once a year (Darwin), 34% (BSA) or 28% (Darwin) believe in life after death, 24% in heaven (BSA), 20% in the supernatural powers of deceased ancestors (BSA), 15% in hell (BSA), 10% that God designed and created the universe and remains involved with it (Darwin), and 7% that the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God (Darwin)

It seems inevitable that the report will excite some controversy, not least on the eve of the publication of the 2011 census of religious affiliation, which is likely to reveal an increase in those professing no religion since 2001. Some cynics (but naturally not BRIN) may even suggest that the timing of the release by Theos is designed to mitigate the ‘bad news’ which the census may well bring to people of faith.

The potential for such a row is notwithstanding the assurance of Spencer and Weldin that ‘there is no intended polemic within these findings’, their hope simply being that they will ‘prompt further research into non-religiosity in Britain’ (which is obviously a desirable goal). They warn that ‘using this data as ammunition in an on-going conflict’ between atheist and religious apologists would be ‘somewhat counterproductive’. But that is precisely what seems likely to happen.

Of all the statistics in this report, the claim that ‘those who are consistent in their rejection of all forms of religious and spiritual belief, affiliation and practice’ number a mere 9%, which appears on pp. 7 and 32, could prove most contentious, unless and until Theos can produce the detailed workings which show how they have arrived at this figure. Hopefully, they will provide such clarification at an early opportunity.

Other findings will come as no great surprise to many BRIN readers. Thus, while a decline in churchgoing is one legitimate indicator of ‘secularization’, few would regard it as the sole measure or mutually exclusive of faith. It is a practice upheld by the Church over two millennia, and backed up by legislation in England and Wales until (theoretically) as late as 1969. In opposition to it, it has long been a popular assertion, made well before the days of national sample surveys, that it is unnecessary to go to church to be a religious believer, ‘good Christian’, and so forth.

The fact that apparent ‘non-believers’ exhibit residual characteristics of religious belief and practice is also well-established. It was quantified in the first real sample survey devoted to religion, undertaken by Mass-Observation in the London Borough of Hammersmith in 1944-45, and published as Puzzled People in 1947. But it has also been demonstrated qualitatively in several important oral history projects at the start of the twentieth century.

There may be several explanations for the phenomenon, including the simple one that many people do not subscribe to a systematic, logical and consistent set of beliefs, in the way that theologians might like to expect us to behave. Rather, individuals assemble their own ‘theology’ from a spectrum of options spanning the orthodox to folklore and alternative.

Additionally, the ‘prestige factor’ associated with surveys on religion may still cause some to be wary of admitting that, in reality, they have rejected some conventional religious belief or practice. There is a particular tendency to exaggerate claims of churchgoing frequency, noted by Kathleen Bliss as early as 1948 in the Christian News-Letter, in which she quoted the experience of Mass-Observation and the BBC as pointing towards an inflator of two, i.e. halve the claim and you get somewhere near the ‘truth’.

It is likewise worth remembering that similar inconsistencies are to be found among many professing Christians, who appear to have abandoned much traditional Christian belief and practice and to be, effectively, secularized. The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science made much of these anomalies in publicizing its Ipsos MORI poll of April 2011, as featured by BRIN at:


So, while Post-Religious Britain? is certainly to be welcomed, not least for providing further data from the Cathedrals study to set alongside those previously reported by Theos in Spiritual Capital, as well as for stimulating debate, perhaps it does not really tell us quite so much that is new.

Certainly, for understanding the socio-demographics of those who claim no religious affiliation, the forthcoming 2011 census data will be a far more authoritative source.

Finally, watch out for Professor Linda Woodhead’s blog provoked by Post-Religious Britain? This is forthcoming on The Guardian’s Comment is Free website.


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British Cohort Study + Fostering

Our main story in today’s round-up of religious statistical news features initial findings from the current wave of one of the few genuinely longitudinal studies covering religion in this country, which further illustrates some of the methodological challenges involved in framing questions about religious affiliation. We also briefly note a survey of attitudes to inter-religious fostering in the wake of the recent row over fostering in Rotherham.

British Cohort Study: art of asking questions about religion

Among adult Britons now (2012) aged 42 years, 68% recall that they had some form of religious upbringing (32% as Anglicans, 10% as Roman Catholics, 8% as Christians in a specified denomination, 14% as undenominational Christians, 4% as non-Christians) and 32% none. However, today almost half (47%) regard themselves as belonging to no particular religion, with the biggest drop in affiliation (11%) being among those raised as Anglicans. Moreover, claimed attendance at religious services or meetings by these 42-year-olds is a distinctly minority activity, 74% never or rarely going, 16% occasionally but less than once a month, with 11% monthly or more often.

In terms of belief, 43% of these 42-year-olds say they believe in God (13% without doubts, 18% with doubts, and 12% some of the time). A further 14% believe in a higher power but not a personal God. Of the rest, 22% definitely do not believe in God and 20% are uncertain. The proportion who believe in life after death is slightly higher than in a personal God (49%, 19% definitely and 30% probably), with 18% replying definitely not and 34% probably not. In an echo of Mass-Observation’s classic 1947 study of Puzzled People, 23% of those who believe in God do not believe in life after death, and 21% of those who disbelieve in, or are uncertain about the existence of, God do believe in an afterlife.

Source: Analysis of initial responses (n = 2,197) to the May-December 2012 wave of the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70), which is following the lives of more than 17,000 people born in Britain in a single week during Spring 1970. By 2012 panel members were, accordingly, aged 42. They supplied information about religion by means of self-completion questionnaire in connection with the face-to-face interviews being conducted by TNS-BMRB. An important health warning is given by the researchers: ‘These [initial] responses may not be representative of the sample as a whole, and we have not investigated the characteristics of this subsample.’

The preliminary analysis appears in Alice Sullivan, David Voas and Matt Brown, The Art of Asking Questions about Religion, published on 28 November 2012 by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS), Institute of Education, University of London. The CLS, which oversees BCS70, is a resource centre funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. The report also summarizes the replies to religious affiliation questions given by cohort members in 1986, 1996, 2000, and 2004, making comparisons with British Social Attitudes Surveys, and highlighting how ‘apparently small differences in question wording can lead to dramatic differences in responses’. Of course, the fact that consistent question-wording has not been used for each wave of BCS70 does somewhat undermine the value of the longitudinal approach in charting changes in the behaviour of panel members as they age. 

The press release by CLS, with a link for downloading the report, and observations on the findings by BRIN’s David Voas, can be found at:



The majority (70%) of Britons think it definitely or usually acceptable for children to be fostered by foster parents who practice a different religion to that of the children being fostered. This is a higher proportion than believe that people with criminal records should be allowed to foster children (15%), or those with extreme political views (36%), the over-65s (44%), smokers (46%), and gays or lesbians (66%).

However, there is somewhat less approval of fostering by persons of a different religion to the foster child than is the case with fostering by unmarried couples (81%) or people of a different racial group to the child (85%). One-fifth (20%) contend that fostering across the religious divide should not be permitted, with Londoners and Conservative voters (each on 23%) and men (22%) being most likely to hold this view. The remaining 11% express no opinion.

Source: Online survey of 1,910 Britons aged 18 and over, undertaken by YouGov on 26-27 November 2012, and prompted by the current row in Rotherham where foster children have been taken away from foster parents who are members of the United Kingdom Independence Party. Full data tables, published on 28 November, are available at:



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Labour Force Survey

Professing Christians in this country are declining by one and a half percentage points annually and, on present trends, ‘the number of people with no religion will overtake the number of Christians in Great Britain in twenty years’. This prediction is made in an article by Oliver Hawkins in the January 2012 edition of Social Indicators (House of Commons Library Research Paper 12/05), and updated on 14 February 2012. It is available at:


The analysis is based on the Government’s Labour Force Survey (LFS), a quarterly study of around 50,000 households (and 100,000 individuals), for 2004 to 2010 inclusive. The religion question asked in Great Britain (different wording was used in Northern Ireland, which is excluded from the following figures) was: ‘What is your religion even if you are not currently practising?’ Responses covered persons of all ages (since proxy replies were permitted).

The data indicate that between the fourth quarters of 2004 and 2010 professing Christians in Britain fell by 3,410,000 (or 8%), from 44,820,000 to 41,410,000, or by 570,000 each year. At the same time, the number of people with no religion increased by 4,380,000 (49%), from 9,010,000 to 13,390,000, equivalent to 730,000 per annum. Starting from lower baselines, there was also significant six-year growth in Buddhists (74%), Hindus (43%), Muslims (37%), and religions other than the main world faiths (57%).

The decline in Christian market share, from 78% in 2004 to 69% in 2010, would have been still more serious had it not been for the effect of net migration (which was at a substantial level during this period). Among those born outside the UK there were 730,000 more Christians in 2010 than in 2004, partly offsetting the fall of 4,140,000 in UK-born Christians. People with no religion were the most likely to be born in the UK (94%), albeit net migration also improved their numbers by 320,000 between 2004 and 2010. The majority of Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims were born outside the country, with migration accounting for 43% of the growth in the Muslim population.

From 2011 the LFS dropped the qualifying phrase ‘even if you are not currently practising’ and also altered the running order of response categories, moving no religion from last to first position. These changes had an immediate effect, comparing the fourth quarter of the 2010 LFS with the first quarter of 2011. In particular, the number of professing Christians reduced by a further 2,800,000 and of persons with no religion rose by 2,750,000, a 5% swing in religious allegiance. This is a graphic reminder of the effect which question formulation can have on religious data.


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Islamophobia in the West

Islamophobia in the West: Measuring and Explaining Individual Attitudes, edited by Marc Helbling (of the Social Science Research Centre, Berlin) was published by Routledge on 16 February 2012 (ISBN 978-0-415-59444-8, hardback, £80). The book comprises 13 essays exploring the views of ordinary citizens toward Islam and Muslims as revealed by survey evidence.

Following an introduction by the editor (chapter 1), including discussion of the complex definitional issues, there are case studies of Islamophobia in the United States (chapters 2 and 12), Great Britain (3, 11 and 13 – each summarized below), Norway (4), Sweden (5), Spain (6), Switzerland (7), and The Netherlands (8, 9 and 10). The full contents table can be viewed at:


Chapter 3 (pp. 39-55): Erik Bleich and Rahsaan Maxwell, ‘Assessing Islamophobia in Britain: where do Muslims really stand?’

This is a study not merely of national attitudes to Muslims but also of Muslim attitudes toward British society. The principal source is the Government’s Citizenship Surveys from 2001 to 2009, with some subsidiary use of the Pew Global Attitudes Surveys and Eurobarometers. The authors conclude that ‘Islamophobia may be a real challenge and an obstacle to intergroup harmony but is not yet the most significant cleavage defining the nature of group divisions in British society’. They likewise highlight that ‘despite the tense atmosphere in contemporary British society, Muslims have remarkably high levels of positive national identification and political trust’.

Chapter 11 (pp. 147-61): Clive Field, ‘Revisiting Islamophobia in contemporary Britain, 2007-10’

The attitudes of ordinary Britons towards Muslims and Islam are reviewed through 64 opinion polls conducted in 2007-10. Comparisons are also drawn with 2001-06 (the subject of an earlier article by the author). Islamophobia is shown to be multi-layered, affecting one-fifth to three-quarters of adults, the actual level depending on topic. It is said to be undoubtedly increasing, albeit still less pervasive than other western European countries, and is by far the commonest form of religious prejudice in Britain. Muslims are seen as slow to integrate, to have a qualified patriotism and, sometimes, to be drawn to extremism. Negativity is found to be disproportionately concentrated among men, the elderly, the lowest social groups and Conservative voters.

Chapter 13 (pp. 179-89): Marco Cinnirella, ‘Think “terrorist”, think “Muslim”? Social-psychological mechanisms explaining anti-Islamic prejudice’

The author ‘draws upon an eclectic mix of different theoretical traditions from social psychology’, in particular social representations theory, terror management theory, social identity theory, self-categorization theory, and intergroup threat theory. Their aggregate applicability to Islamophobia is demonstrated by two small-scale research projects among British students, in 2006 and 2008. The first project revealed that ‘exposure to media social representations of Muslims is likely to be a causal factor in Islamophobia’. The second discovered that perceived cultural threat from Muslims, realistic threat from Islamist terrorism and strength of British national identity were all predictors of Islamophobia.

This post’s inevitable focus on the three chapters affecting Islamophobia in Britain is not to imply that the remainder of the volume should be ignored by BRIN users. Several authors provide invaluable comparative insights, while chapter 2 offers us an Anti-Muslim Prejudice scale developed for the American context. This can be compared and contrasted with the equivalent scales which have been proposed in the UK by Adrian Brockett, Andrew Village and Leslie Francis (the Attitude toward Muslim Proximity Index in 2009 and the Outgroup Prejudice Index in 2010).


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ONS Opinions Survey Religion Module

On 18 January 2012 the Economic and Social Data Service released for secondary analysis the dataset from the ‘ONS Opinions Survey, Census Religion Module, April, May, June and July, 2009’. This is available, under special licence access to approved UK researchers (accredited by the UK Statistics Authority), as SN 6938. For further information, see:


The Office for National Statistics (ONS) Opinions Survey (OPN), previously known as the ONS Omnibus Survey, is a regular, multi-purpose study carried out by the ONS Social Survey Division. It started operating commercially in 1990 and was conducted for eight months of the year until April 2005 and monthly thereafter.

A census religion module (MCG/MCGb) was included in the OPN for April-July 2009 inclusive, as part of the final testing of question-wording for the 2011 population census. Citizenship was also covered in the same module (in April and May). A total of 4,235 Britons aged 16 and over living in private households were interviewed face-to-face.

The question which was tested on religion is one which is not often used in sample surveys. ‘Which of these best describes you?’ was followed by eight reply options: Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, any other religion (specify), and no religion. In the May and July 2009 surveys no religion was made the first option, ahead of Christian. Any spontaneous comments made by the respondent to the question were also captured by the interviewer.

As well as through the OPN, ‘Which of these best describes you?’ was evaluated through: a postal test in England in March 2009 (with no religion given as the first option), cognitive testing, and engagement with key stakeholders. For comparative purposes, another question – ‘What is your religion, even if not currently practising?’ – was included in the core questionnaire for the April-July 2009 OPN.

In the end, ONS decided against using ‘Which of these best describes you?’ in the 2011 census and in favour of ‘What is your religion?’ – which many commentators regard as potentially leading. The ONS rationale for doing so is set out in the October 2009 report Final Recommended Questions for the 2011 Census in England and Wales: Religion, which is available through the Government web archive at:


In Annex A of this document ONS tabulated the results from the core and module questions on religion in the April-July 2009 OPN. ‘Which of these best describes you?’ was found to increase the proportion professing no religion compared with ‘What is your religion, even if not currently practising?’ But the difference was especially noticeable in May and July, when no religion headed the list of options. In this instance, perhaps it was the running order of options more than the question-wording per se which most affected the results.

So, these April-July 2009 OPN data do not simply have historical significance. They remain important methodologically in demonstrating how variations in questionnaire design can impact upon the statistics generated by enquiries into religious affiliation. Doubtless, the first results from the religion question in the 2011 census, when they come, will reignite the debate about what is the ‘right’ way to formulate this question.


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