Christian Country and Other News


Christian country?

The recent public and media debate about whether Britain is a Christian country or not, sparked by Prime Minister David Cameron’s comments before Easter, rumbles on. It has gained added impetus through Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg renewing the call for disestablishment of the Church of England (which is his Liberal Democrat Party’s long-standing policy).

In the last BRIN post, on 24 April 2014, Ben Clements subjected the controversy to empirical scrutiny by charting how the level of Christian affiliation has changed in Britain over recent decades, as reflected in sample surveys.

Here we offer a couple of poll-based time series about the public’s perceptions of whether Britain is a Christian country and should be one. In both cases there have been variations in methodology and question-wording between individual surveys, so the comparison is not entirely like-for-like, but we do get a sense of how attitudes have changed. The two tables appear at the end of this news item.

In terms of Britain being perceived as a Christian country, there has been a notable decline since the first poll on the subject, by NOP in 1965, when four-fifths of adults characterized Britain as Christian. This decrease is much as one might have expected, given the downward movement in most other indicators of Christian religious belonging, behaving, and believing since the 1960s.

Less anticipated, however, is the fact that the number considering Britain to be a Christian country reached a nadir after the Millennium and has risen since. The effect is probably exaggerated by the fact that the two YouGov surveys in 2007 asked whether Britain was mainly a Christian country, but question-wording alone probably does not fully explain what has been happening.

There appears to have been a reawakened sense of Britain’s Christian heritage and character. This may perhaps be attributed to: i) a growing backlash against multiculturalism and immigration and, particularly, deteriorating attitudes toward Islam and Muslims; ii) the influence of media and legal campaigns against allegedly ‘Christianophobic’ attitudes and behaviour, exemplified in ‘aggressive secularism’ and diversity legislation viewed as penalizing Christians; and iii) explicit and tacit support for Christianity as a bulwark of all faith on the part of some sections of non-Christian communities.

Interestingly, there seems to have been no parallel trend in response to the question whether Britain should be a Christian country. This indicator has decreased continuously since the 1960s, although it is notable that, even today, a majority (58%) thinks Britain should remain a Christian country. This is probably not true of most of those who profess no religion, but, unfortunately, there are no breaks by religion in the published tables for YouGov’s 2014 poll, despite a question on religious affiliation being asked.

So there is definite support for David Cameron among the British public in saying that Britain both is a Christian country and ought to be one. Precisely what Britons mean when they express these sentiments, given that de-Christianization mostly continues apace in practice, is pretty unclear. The fact that there are more ‘don’t knows’ on the topic than ever may suggest that there is genuine confusion.

Is Britain a Christian country?

% Agency



Don’t Know

3/1965 NOP




12/1989 Gallup




4/2007 YouGov




12/2007 YouGov




11/2010 ComRes




2/2012 YouGov




4/2014 YouGov




4/2014 ICM




Should Britain be a Christian country?

% Agency



Don’t Know

1-2/1968 ORC




3-4/1984 Harris




6-7/1987 Insight




2/2012 YouGov




4/2014 YouGov




Meanwhile, Michael Lipka of Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project has a statistical take on ‘Cameron’s “Christian Country”’ (using census and British Social Attitudes Survey data) at:

Or post-Christian nation?

Britain’s cultural memory may be ‘quite strongly Christian’, but the reality is that it has become ‘post-Christian’ in that it is no longer ‘a nation of committed believers’. So says former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, in an interview with Cole Moreton for The Sunday Telegraph today (27 April 2014). The story is enriched by a poll which the newspaper commissioned from ICM Research, for which 2,001 adult Britons were interviewed online on 23-25 April 2014. The data tables will presumably appear on ICM’s website in due course (they are not there at the time of writing), but there is reasonable coverage of the findings in the article on pp. 1-2 of the newspaper which can be found at:

Notwithstanding the fact that only 14% of respondents described themselves as practising Christians, with a further 38% as non-practising Christians, 56% continued to regard Britain as a Christian country, rising to 73% of over-65s and, surprisingly perhaps, including more men than women. Less than one-third (30%) said Britain was a non-religious society, although 41% thought of themselves as non-religious. A plurality of the whole sample (48%) asserted that Christians are afforded less protection for their beliefs by the state than adherents of other faiths, with the proportion reaching 57% among the over-65s, 56% for practising Christians, and 62% for non-practising Christians. Overall, 28% perceived Christians as having the same and 8% greater protection than other religions. One-half of respondents also agreed that Christians had become afraid to express their beliefs because of the rise of ‘religious fundamentalism’, with 32% disagreeing and 18% uncertain. Even two-fifths of non-religious people agreed with this statement compared with over three-fifths of Christians (both practising and non-practising).

Surrogate religion

Confirmation that football is a surrogate religion for its devotees, a periodic theme in the sociological literature, appears to come from a recent survey conducted by The Leadership Factor (TLF) on behalf of the makers of Warren United, a new animated sitcom about a fervent fan of a chronically disappointing football team (no, not Manchester United, which has been in the news for all the wrong reasons last week!) Through its YourSayPays online panel, TLF quizzed 1,201 football fans (all of whom attended one or more professional games a season) in March 2014. They were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement that ‘I am more likely to change my religion than the football team I support’. The majority of fans (56%) agreed with this proposition and only 18% disagreed. For the sub-set of 255 really dedicated fans who were season ticket holders with their clubs, the level of assent was still higher (75%) and dissent reduced to 10%. A press release about the poll was issued on 17 April 2014 and can be found at:

An ancient saint

St George’s Day has been and gone for another year (it was on 23 April, in case you missed it). According to a YouGov poll for Channel 5 among 1,461 adults on 22-23 April 2014, England is seen as the UK’s home nation least good at celebrating its patron saint’s day. Just 7% think the English excel at honouring St George, compared with 8% for the Scots and St Andrew, 12% for the Welsh and St David, and 59% for the Northern Irish and St Patrick. Two-thirds would like to see the English do more to celebrate St George’s Day, disproportionately Conservative and UKIP voters and with the Scots (24%) being the main dissentients, and 69% support the day being made an official bank holiday in England. The data tables are at:

A modern saint

Two of the great leaders of the twentieth-century Roman Catholic Church, Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, were canonized by Pope Francis in a ceremony in St Peter’s Square, Vatican City today (27 April 2014), which was also attended by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. So far as BRIN is aware, no surveys have yet been carried out in Britain to test the reactions of the public or the Catholic faithful to the canonizations. However, John Paul II was the subject of polling during the time when he was Pope (from 1978 until his death in 2005), not least in connection with his pastoral and ecumenical visit to Britain between 28 May and 5 June 1982 (which was overshadowed by the war between Britain and Argentina for control of the Falkland Islands). A digest of this polling forms part of my forthcoming article in Journal of Religion in Europe on ‘No Popery’s Ghost: Does Popular Anti-Catholicism Survive in Contemporary Britain?’ However, given the canonization, a few anticipatory points may be made here, although we will not be summarizing the many polls by Gallup about the visit itself (you will need to read the article for them).

John Paul II’s papal visit, combined with the length of his pontificate, meant he became a well-known figure in Britain, 62% of adults being able to name him in August 2003 (MORI), albeit only 7% recognized his birth name of Karol Wojtyla in November 2004 (BMRB). On the eve of his visit, in April 1982 (NOP), he was rated a very good or good religious leader by 78% and a very good or good world leader by 45%. His religious leadership qualities were still positively assessed (by 74%) in March 1993 (Continental Research), albeit he was eclipsed by fellow Catholic Mother Teresa in Gallup popularity rankings of religious figures in December 1987, December 1988, and September 1989. One-fifth of Britons continued to regard John Paul II as inspirational in December 2000 (MORI), but, by this time, his influence was waning through increasing frailty and conservatism. In June 2004 (Harris) he was rated positively by just 31% in Britain, and negatively by 29%, the positive score being lowest of the five Western European nations surveyed (and well behind Italy, on 78%). The worst of the worldwide revelations about child sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests came out since John Paul II’s death, but they clearly occurred on his ‘papal watch’, and many have opposed his canonization on the grounds that he did not do enough to root out the scandal and punish the perpetrators. More generally, the perceived inadequate response to the abuse crisis by the Roman Catholic Church has been a major factor in increased polling negativity toward it during recent years, both among the public and Catholics.

When we’re 42

Newly released to the UK Data Service’s Nesstar catalogue as SN 7473 is the latest wave of the 1970 British Cohort Study, which has been following the lives of babies born in Britain one week in 1970. Information was gathered by TNS BMRB between May 2012 and April 2013 from 9,841 members of the cohort at the age of 42, by a combination of face-to-face interview and self-completion questionnaire. Here we present the topline findings for the religion questions for all those who provided valid answers. No weighting is applicable.

Affiliation: Two-thirds of the cohort received a religious upbringing, but only half still profess a religion now, all Christian denominations losing market share, but especially the Church of England. The figures are as follows:



At age 42




Non-denominational Christian



Church of England



Roman Catholic



Other Christian






Practices: Three-quarters never or very rarely attend any religious services, while 10% claim to go monthly or more and 15% occasionally. Attendance has diminished slightly since cohort members were aged 29, when 11% went monthly or more, 17% occasionally, and 72% never or rarely. Membership of a religious group or church organization is claimed by 7%, as is readership of factual books on religion or philosophy.

Beliefs: Disbelievers in God number 22%, with a further 14% disbelieving in a personal God. The uncertain amount to 21%, while 12% believe in God some of the time, 19% believe but have doubts, and 12% are absolutely convinced that God exists. A slim majority (52%) definitely or probably does not believe in life after death, with 18% definitely believing and 30% probably.

Opinions: Very few (6%) agree that ‘we trust too much in science, not enough in religious faith’, 57% disagreeing and 36% undecided. One-half agree that ‘people with strong religious beliefs are often too intolerant’, with just 14% saying the opposite and 35% uncertain. Still more (67%) concur that ‘around the world, religions bring more conflict than peace’, 11% dissenting and 22% expressing no view.


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