Guardian Fact File not so factual

The Guardian is publishing a series of ‘Factfile UK’ supplements this week. The first of them was on Population (Saturday 24 April 2010).

One of the topics covered is religion (specifically, ‘Religions of England and Wales’); unfortunately their treatment offers a good example of the misuse of religious statistics. There are five sentences (and one large table) in the article; let me take each of them in turn.

“According to the Church Yearbook, more than 26 million of us are members of the Church of England.”

This figure is an estimate of the number of people in who have been baptised in the Church of England; relatively few are ‘members’ in the sense of being on the church rolls. The figure itself is a little inflated – several years ago I did a careful analysis showing that by the end of 2001 slightly fewer than 24 million people living in England were baptised Anglicans, and the number is steadily declining – but that’s another story.

“But no one knows for sure how many members of each religion live in the UK. The best figures we have are from the 2001 census; the next one is due in 2011.”

It’s true that the best figures on non-Christian religious affiliation come from the census. That’s not true, though, for Christian denominations, where the best source on belonging is often the churches themselves.

“Numbers for CofE and Roman Catholic are surprisingly low – possibly because many simply defined themselves as ‘Christian’.”

There’s no ‘possibly’ about it. Here’s the question on the 2001 census form:

What is your religion?
– None
– Christian (Church of England, Catholic, Protestant and all other Christian denominations)
– Buddhist
– Hindu
– Jewish
– Muslim
– Sikh
– Any other religion, please write in

Any Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists, Baptists and so on who wrote in an answer had either misread the question, didn’t realise that they belong to a Christian denomination, or were trying to make a point of some kind. To offer these write-in figures as indicative of church membership in England and Wales is daft.

Of course there are some fascinating nuggets in the list of the 150 or so write-in responses. Scientology (with 1,781 claiming affiliation) only just edges out Druidism (1,781), Pantheism (1,603) and Satanism (1,525). The 278 people who wrote in ‘Heathen’ were reassigned to ‘no religion’ in 2001, but will be treated as (religious) pagans in 2011. ‘Occult’ is recorded as 99 – does that figure have occult significance?!

The largest write-in group of all is mentioned in the Guardian piece:

“It’s also worth remembering that the 2001 census saw an internet campaign to get Jedi Knight registered as a religion – effectively distorting these figures.”

It’s doubtful that there was any distortion. The Office for National Statistics decided that the 390,127 Jedi Knights had no religion and so included them in that category. Were many of them in fact Christians? Maybe, but I suspect that few were very devout.

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