Census Christians

‘UK residents who think of themselves as Christian show very low levels of Christian belief and practice’ and ‘are overwhelmingly secular in their attitudes on a range of issues from gay rights to religion in public life’, according to research released yesterday (14 February 2012) by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (UK).

The study was conducted for the Foundation by Ipsos MORI through face-to-face interviews with UK adults aged 15 and over between 1 and 7 April 2011, immediately after the decennial population census schedules had been completed, including the voluntary question on religious profession, which was being posed for the second time.

Ipsos MORI’s main questionnaire was directed to the 1,136 individuals (equivalent to 54% of the full screening sample of 2,107) who said that they were recorded as Christians in the census by the person completing the household schedule – or would have recorded themselves as Christians if they had answered the question themselves. The Foundation characterizes them as ‘Census-Christians’, and the following topline data relate exclusively to this sub-sample.


45% regarded themselves as a religious person, but 50% did not. More nuanced answers emerged from another question in which 30% considered themselves to have strong religious beliefs and to be a Christian, 29% to be a Christian but not to have strong beliefs, 19% to have been brought up to think of themselves as a Christian but not to have strong religious beliefs, 12% not to be religious at all, and 8% as spiritual rather than religious.

Asked why they were recorded, or would have recorded themselves, as Christian in the 2011 census, 41% said that they tried to be a good person and associated that aspiration with Christianity, 31% that they genuinely attempted to follow the Christian religion, 26% that they had been brought up as Christian even though they were not religious now, 6% that they had ticked the option automatically without thinking, 5% that they felt uncomfortable about the growing influence of other religions, and 4% that Christian was another way of expressing their Britishness.

In reply to a different question, 40% equated being a Christian to being a good person, against 24% who mentioned upbringing, and 22% who spoke in terms of belief in Jesus Christ.

Quizzed more generally why they identified themselves as Christian, 72% cited baptism, 38% parental affiliation, 37% their Sunday school attendance as a child, 28% their belief in the teachings of Christianity, 21% their education in a Christian school, 19% their previous churchgoing, 19% their current churchgoing, and 13% their partner’s Christianity (multiple responses were possible).

35% said that, as a child, they had learned most about Christianity from a church or Sunday school, 30% from their parents or family, and 29% from their school.

Although 60% claimed that Christianity was important in their life, 81% said that it had no influence on their social networks, 69% no influence on their choice of marriage partner, and 78% no influence on which candidate they would vote for in a general election. 


54% believed in God (two-thirds of whom said that Christianity is just one way, rather than the only true way, of knowing Him), 32% thought of God in terms of the laws of nature or some kind of supernatural intelligence, and 6% disbelieved.

44% regarded Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the saviour of mankind, 32% as a man and role model, 13% as a mere man, with 4% disbelieving in His existence.

32% believed in the physical resurrection of Jesus, 39% in His spiritual but not physical Resurrection, with 18% disbelieving in the Resurrection.

20% did not believe in heaven and 40% did not believe in hell, versus 63% and 41% who did believe (completely or to some extent). There was a strong attachment (64%) to fate and, to a lesser extent, to other alternative belief systems.


29% claimed to have attended a Christian church service (other than a rite of passage) at least once a month during the previous year, but 49% had not worshipped during the year (two-thirds of whom had not been to church within the past five years or had never been).

27% stated that they had participated in some religious activity remotely during the past month, for example by watching or listening to a religious broadcast on television, radio or the internet, or by receiving a home visit from a member of their church pastoral team. 17% had so participated between one month and one year previously, but 53% not at all during the past twelve months.

35% prayed independently and from choice (i.e. when not at church) once a week or more, 25% less frequently, and 37% never or almost never. 21% did not even believe in the power of prayer compared with 63% who did.

15% had read the Bible independently and from choice within the last week, 32% within the last month or up to three years ago, 36% more than three years ago, and 15% never. Reflecting this limited acquaintance with the scriptures, just 35% of these Christians correctly named the first book of the New Testament.


23% viewed the Bible as a perfect guide to morality, 42% as the best guide even though some of its teachings are inappropriate today, and 24% argued that there were better ways of knowing right from wrong.

In determining right from wrong, 54% mostly looked to their own inner moral sense, 25% to family and friends, and only 10% to their religion.

On specific matters of morality more of these self-identifying Christians took a ‘liberal’ than a ‘traditional’ stance, with 63% endorsing abortion, 61% full legal equality between homosexuals and heterosexuals, 59% assisted suicide, 57% extra-marital sex, and 46% homosexual relations.


54% supported state-funded faith schools for their denomination, 53% for any Christian denomination, and 44% for any religion (opponents numbering 16%, 15%, and 23%). However, almost as many opposed (36%) as endorsed (39%) the statutory requirement that children in state-funded schools should participate in a daily act of broadly Christian worship.

15% wanted religious education in state-funded schools to teach children to believe Christianity, 8% to teach children to believe whatever faith the school subscribed to, 7% to teach knowledge of Christianity but not of other faiths, and 57% to teach knowledge of all world faiths even-handedly.

38% did not want creationism to be taught in science lessons in state-funded schools against 31% who took the contrary line, with 29% uncertain.


78% agreed that religion should be a private matter and that governments should not interfere in it, while 74% did not want religion to have any special influence on public policy. Nevertheless, 32% still agreed (and 46% disagreed) that the UK should have an official state religion. 92% contended that the law should apply to everybody equally, regardless of their religious beliefs.

Only 26% favoured the continuing presence of Anglican bishops in the House of Lords (32% against) and 32% the cost of hospital chaplains being met from NHS budgets (39% opposed).


These results suggest that there may have been a dramatic ten-year fall in the number of professing Christians in the UK, from 72% in the 2001 census to 54% today. It remains to be seen whether this finding will be validated by the 2011 census data when they are eventually published. As BRIN has consistently noted, the measurement of religious profession is notoriously difficult, and differing methodologies and question-wording produce different results. Other Government sources, such as the Integrated Household Survey, still point towards quite high levels of ‘cultural Christianity’.

The ‘revelation’ that many who claim to be Christian fall short of Christian ideals in terms of their practices, beliefs and attitudes is not especially surprising. It has been documented in a wealth of studies since sample surveys began in Britain. Mass-Observation’s report into Puzzled People in Hammersmith in 1944-45 was one of the first to document some of these inherent contradictions in popular religion. Nonetheless, the Ipsos MORI data are helpful in quantifying systematically, and within a census context, the wide variation in the extent to which Christianity impacts upon, and has real meaning in, the everyday lives of Christians in the UK.

Ipsos MORI’s press release, topline results, and full computer tabulations (extending to 366 pages!) will be found at:


Two press releases about the survey from the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science are available at:



A commentary on the statistics by the think-tank Ekklesia is at:


and by the National Secular Society at:


Coincidentally, the Ipsos MORI results appeared on the same day that the Conservative Muslim peer, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, who is currently leading the largest ministerial delegation from the UK to the Vatican (reciprocating the papal visit to Britain in 2010), wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph entitled ‘We Stand Side by Side with the Pope in Fighting for Faith’ and criticizing ‘militant secularisation’.

The newspaper took the opportunity to run an instant online poll of its readers (obviously, being a self-selecting sample not necessarily representative of that readership, still less of the national population). By 10 pm on 14 February 13,493 votes had been cast, with the following (and perhaps surprising) pattern of responses to the question ‘Are you worried by the threat of militant secularism in Britain?’:

  • Marginalising religion is a form of intolerance seen in totalitarian regimes – 17.3%    
  • People should worship in private and not display religious symbols in public – 14.6%    
  • People should feel proud to worship in public and display their faith – 12.7%   
  • Secularisation is not a threat to this country – 55.4%   


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3 Responses to Census Christians

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