Sex, Guilt, and Religion and Other News

Our lead story today features the second instalment of findings from the YouGov survey commissioned for this year’s series of Westminster Faith Debates. There are also four other items of more general religious statistical news.

Sex, guilt, and religion

The second of this year’s Westminster Faith Debates, organized by Linda Woodhead and Charles Clarke with support from the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Programme and Lancaster University, took place last Wednesday before a capacity audience. The theme was ‘Too Much Sex These Days – the Sexualisation of Society?’ To provide context for the discussion, the organizers issued a press release which included the main findings from a survey commissioned from YouGov, in which 4,437 adults were interviewed online on 25-30 January 2013. The press release, which has been picked up by The Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, and other media, can be read at:

The full data tables are located at:

A particular focus of the questions asked was on the degree of guilt respondents would feel if they engaged in four different sexual activities, all of which are condemned by the Roman Catholic Church. But while those who affiliated to a religion were somewhat more likely to feel guilty than individuals who had no faith, Catholics did not generally experience a deeper sense of guilt than religious people as a whole. Indeed, it was Baptists, Pentecostals, and Muslims who stood out as most guilt-ridden, albeit the sub-samples were fairly small.

The least acceptable of the four sexual activities was extra-marital intercourse, the prospect of which incited guilt in 56% of all adults (64% of the religious and 48% of the non-religious). The other three activities precipitated guilt in only a minority of the sample: 26% said they would feel guilty if they used pornography for sexual stimulation (33% of the religious – albeit 55% of practising Anglicans – and 15% of non-religious); 13% if they engaged in pre-marital sex (20% of the religious and 5% of the non-religious); and 5% if they used contraception (6% of the religious and 3% of the non-religious).

Multivariate analysis filled out this picture in an intriguing way. It revealed that the group least likely to feel guilty about indulging in these sexual activities were men who regarded their own judgement or intuition as the authoritative guide, did not identify with nor participate in a religion, and were definite that there is no God. Most susceptible to guilt were women who described themselves as religious, regarded religious sources as authoritative, were active members of a religion, and definitely believed in God. They felt four times as much guilt as the most guilt-free men. 

Although religious and non-religious adults did not differ markedly in their agreement that sex is important to a fulfilled life (the national average being 68%), there was a big gender gap in those who strongly took this line, with men almost twice as likely as women to do so, and this was true of both religious and non-religious people. However, religious affiliates were more inclined than the norm (66%) to consider that the profile of sex is too high in society, rising to 70% for professing Anglicans, 74% for Catholics, 79% for Baptists, 81% for Muslims, and 81% for all religious respondents who currently participate in religious activities; these figures compare with 61% of the non-religious.

On the vexed subject of birth control, only 9% of nominal Catholics and 12% of practising Catholics entertained any reservations against using it, 89% and 87% respectively feeling no guilt. This bears out other surveys (such as that by the Von Hügel Institute for The Tablet in 2008, which found extensive recourse by mass-going Catholics to a variety of contraceptive practices). The religious body with most qualms about the use of contraception are now the Muslims, but even their guilt factor only reaches 23%.

This particular finding, together with the general claim in the press release that Catholic guilt about sex is a myth, will make uncomfortable reading for the authorities of the Roman Catholic Church which is in a state of some turmoil following the resignations of both the Pope and the most senior British Catholic leader. For Woodhead the clear message of the poll is that ‘most Catholics are taking authority more from their own reason than from the Church’s teaching’.

Jewish neighbourhoods

The Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) has recently (19 February 2013) published its second report on the Jewish population of England and Wales as revealed by the 2011 census, and correcting for non-response. It reveals that Jews are spatially concentrated, with nine-tenths living in under one-fifth of the country’s 8,500 wards, and one-half in just 66, although no individual ward actually contains a Jewish majority (Kersal in Salford has the highest Jewish density, of 41%).

The largest single Jewish neighbourhood is Golders Green in London, which experienced one-third growth between 2001 and 2011, now numbering 7,661 Jews. Even bigger decennial increases were recorded by Sedgley in Bury (42%) and New River in Hackney (35%), both predominantly haredi (strictly Orthodox) communities with 4,748 and 4,093 Jews respectively. Another haredi neighbourhood, Seven Sisters in Haringey, expanded by 103% from a lower 2001 base, to reach 3,162 Jews. By contrast, significant decline was recorded in some formerly dominant Jewish communities, notably by 43-55% in four Redbridge wards, and 26-29% in three Harrow wards. Natural increase and migration are identified as the two principal engines of Jewish demographic change.

The report 2011 Census Results (England and Wales): Initial Insights into Jewish Neighbourhoods by David Graham is available to download from:

JPR intends to complement the information which can be gleaned from the census with its own National Jewish Community Study, sponsored by many major Jewish organizations, and to be conducted early this year.

Knowledge of historical documents

When it comes to key historical documents, the British public seems to have a better knowledge of those with ‘political’ as opposed to ‘religious’ interest. This is according to an Ipsos MORI survey for King’s College London which was reported recently, although the actual fieldwork took place on 20-24 October 2012. Telephone interviews were held with 1,005 adults aged 18 and over.

Read a list of eight historical documents, 90% professed to have heard of the United States Declaration of Independence, 89% of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, 87% of the Domesday Book, and 85% of Magna Carta (whose 800th anniversary will be commemorated in 2015). Knowledge was a little shakier about the actual details of Magna Carta, although 25% thought that it had guaranteed freedom of religion (presumably a reference to clause 1, which concerned the freedom of the English Church).

The other four documents on the list had a stronger religious component. Seven-tenths of the public were aware of the King James Bible (Authorized Version), a relatively high visibility which presumably owed something to the 2011 quatercentennial celebrations. However, far fewer claimed to know about the three manuscripts: 39% about the Lindisfarne Gospels (held at the British Library), 13% about the Codex Sinaiticus (substantially at the British Library, and bought for the nation following a public appeal in 1933-34), and 5% about the Textus Roffensis (at Medway Archives). The Textus is a hybrid document subsuming the oldest English law code and the oldest register of Rochester Cathedral.

As with all such polls about professed knowledge, we should be on our guard against inflated claims. These may arise either from an unwillingness to admit ignorance about something which people think they ought to know about (or believe they would be expected by others to know about) or from genuine confusion, misunderstanding, or misrecollection.

There is a blog about the survey, written by Sir Robert Worcester (chair of the Magna Carta 800th Anniversary Committee), at:

Pastoral Research Centre reports

The Pastoral Research Centre (PRC) Trust has started to make available a number of past PRC reports as free downloads via the Trust website. The first batch of three such downloads includes: Pastoral & Population Statistics of the Catholic Community in England & Wales, 1958-2002: A Report to Parishes, edited by Tony Spencer (2004); and Tony Spencer, Secrecy in the Catholic Church: The Case of Catholic School Statistics in England and Wales (2010). They can be found at:

Faith in Research Conference

The seventh annual Faith in Research Conference takes place on Thursday, 20 June 2013 (please note the new date) at Church House, Westminster. It has been organized by the Church of England’s Research and Statistics Department and the Oxford Centre for Ecclesiology and Practical Theology. Bishop John Packer will take the chair. The programme begins with a keynote session by Professor Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University on ‘The Church of England Today: A Changing Church in a Changing Culture’, followed by sessions on three parallel themes: Church and society; mission; and ministry. Full programme details are available at:

The standard conference fee is £65 (£55 if paid before 5 April), or £25 for students. Registration is online at:


British Religion in Numbers: All the material published on this website is subject to copyright. We explain further here.

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