Quantiphobia and Other News



Quantiphobia – the fear or suspicion of statistics – surfaces among religious leaders from time to time, and, of course, has some biblical foundation in David’s alleged sin in numbering the Israelites (2 Sam. 24:1-25, 1 Chron. 21:1-30). It is particularly likely to manifest itself during periods when religious performance indicators are perceived as unhealthy, such as during the Edwardian era in Britain, when, according to one noted historian (Keith Robbins), there was ‘a crisis of Christendom’. Thus, Charles Booth, the pioneering religious sociologist, concluded his multi-volume assessment of religious forces in London in 1902 with the verdict: ‘Spiritual influences do not lend themselves readily to statistical treatment … The subject is one in which figures may easily be pressed too far, and if trusted too much are likely to be more than usually dangerous.’ And the Protestant leadership in the capital was so paranoid about declining church attendance in 1913 that it frustrated an attempt by the Daily News and Leader to replicate a census of churchgoing first taken in 1902-03, reminding the newspaper that: ‘The influence of the Church is often in inverse proportion to its numerical strength, as in the early days, under the Roman Emperors.’ (I have written up the story of this long forgotten episode as an article for forthcoming publication). 

Notwithstanding some pockets of church growth, few informed observers would deny that most branches of organized Christianity in Britain today are facing another crisis, with downturns in key metrics of religious belonging, behaving, and believing, and with the social significance of religion declining in the non-institutional arena, too, in a quantitatively measurable way. Statistics of the Churches, therefore, rarely present a good news story from their perspective these days, causing occasional voices to be raised against their use. The latest example is to be found in an article by Edward Dowler (Vicar of Clay Hill in the Diocese of London) on ‘Lies, Damned Lies, and the Gathering of Data’ which is published in the Church Times of 19/26 December 2014, p. 12 (only available online to subscribers). In it the author advises us to ‘be wary of an overemphasis on statistics at the expense of faithfulness to the gospel’. He is especially critical of the ‘data-driven approach’ which has characterized the Church of England in recent years, exemplified (he writes, in somewhat garbled fashion) by ‘the British Religion in Numbers project associated with Professor Linda Woodhead, and her surveys on the part played by religion in public life …’ In reality, the piece is a bit of a rant by Dowler against ‘the prevailing managerialist delusion of contemporary Western society’ and ‘a clear connection between collecting data and wielding economic power’. 

Of course, statistics should never be used in complete isolation, and they must be understood and interpreted within the context of relevant and rigorous qualitative evidence, where it exists, as well as against the historical background. And we should be on our guard against ‘bad statistics’, gathered in methodologically inadequate ways and presented without due regard to their limitations. But a plea for recourse solely to qualitative data (or none at all) can often degenerate into a reliance on the anecdotal and a tendency to generalize from the atypical, with the consequent potential to mislead. What is worse, it may result in self-delusion on the part of religious leaders, and being in denial of reality. Caution and moderation in the use of statistics would be wise counsel, yet Dowler goes beyond that, which is why, in the last resort, we are unpersuaded by his arguments. Doubtless his retort to BRIN would be, in the misquoted words of one of the principal characters in the Profumo scandal (who died last week), ‘well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?’      

Religion in the 2011 English and Welsh census

For some unexplained reason, the Office for National Statistics rereleased on 16 December 2014 Table QS210EW from the 2011 census of England and Wales, giving national totals for the six principal faith communities, as well as an analysis of the write-in answers for those who ticked the ‘other religion’ and ‘no religion’ boxes. The table will be found at: 


Religion in colonial and Commonwealth censuses

Anthony Christopher explores ‘The “Religion” Question in British Colonial and Commonwealth Censuses, 1820s-2010s’ in Journal of Religious History, Vol. 38, No. 4, December 2014, pp. 579-96. The focus is on how investigation of religious affiliation in such censuses has developed, since being pioneered by the Australasian and North American colonies in the late 1820s, rather than on the presentation of results from them (which would have been difficult, given the diversity of approaches which are described). Nevertheless, drawing as it does on a range of primary and secondary sources, it is very useful to have all this information brought together in one place, seemingly for the first time, although its value would have been enhanced by inclusion of an appendix listing for each country or territory the dates for which religion data were collected. The article, which complements the author’s summary of the coverage of religion in the UK censuses (in Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 65, No. 3, July 2014, pp. 601-19), can be accessed at: 


News stories of 2014

For its end-of-year review, Opinium Research asked 2,001 members of its UK online panel on 9-12 December 2014 which of 30 events of 2014 they considered to be most memorable. Unsurprisingly, the Ebola outbreak (49%), the First World War poppy display at the Tower of London (44%), and the Scottish independence referendum (44%) occupied the top three spots. But Islamism had also made a big impression, with the rise of Islamic State in fourth place (41%) and the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram in eleventh (26%). The canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, by contrast, was relegated to twenty-seventh position, being deemed memorable by just 5% of all adults (equivalent to about half the Catholic population), albeit the proportion rose to 14% in London (with its concentration of immigrants). Data tables are at: 



Asked to select their three most important personal values from a list of twelve, just 8% of 1,317 UK residents chose religion in the latest Eurobarometer (wave 82.3), undertaken by face-to-face interview by TNS UK between 8 and 17 November 2014. As the table below indicates, this was tenth in the UK’s value rankings, although not as bad as in the European Union (EU) as a whole (where religion came bottom of the list). Apart from Malta and the Republic of Cyprus (both on 17%), religion was not deemed an important personal value in most EU countries, falling to 2% in three instances. Even fewer (3% in both the UK and the EU) viewed religion as one of the three values best representing the EU, although 12% in the UK and 9% in the EU were willing to concede that religion helped create a feeling of community among EU citizens. These questions have been posed in previous Eurobarometers, with very similar results. Topline data for the latest wave are at: 


Important personal values (%)



Respect for human life






Human rights






Individual freedom



Rule of law






Respect for other cultures









Solidarity for others






Christmas traditions

The Salvation Army’s UK Territory issued a series of five (one national and four regional) press releases between 4 and 8 December 2014, lamenting the disappearance of British Christmas traditions, both secular and religious, based on the evidence of a survey of the public which it had commissioned. Among the vanishing traditions was attendance at midnight Mass or the Christmas Eve church service, which just 7% reported plans to attend in 2014. Nativity plays and carolling were also investigated, apparently. The press releases did not present an especially coherent overview of the research and have attracted minimal media attention. BRIN’s efforts to obtain from the Salvation Army further details of the survey’s methodology and findings have gone unanswered thus far, but we will keep trying. The national press release is at:


Church Commissioners

The Church Commissioners are the eighth largest charitable donor in the world, and the second in the UK (after the Wellcome Trust, in second place globally), according to City AM’s World Charity Index 2014, published on 18 December 2014. In their last reported year the Commissioners made £208 million of charitable donations to support the Church of England. More information about the Index can be found at: 



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