Supernatural, Superstition, and Other News

Supernatural and superstition

UK adults are now more likely to believe in supernatural phenomena than in a God, according to a survey published on 27 March 2014. It was conducted by OnePoll among an online sample of 2,000 adults aged 18 and over and commissioned by UKTV’s Watch Channel to coincide with the British launch of the US drama series Believe. The story is about a young orphan girl in possession of mysterious powers who is placed under the protection of an escaped death row inmate.

Belief in the supernatural and superstition ran at 55% against 49% believers in a God. The most widespread supernatural beliefs were in ghosts (33%), a sixth sense (32%), UFOs (22%), past lives (19%), telepathy (18%), the ability to predict the future (18%), psychic healing (16%), astrology (10%), the Bermuda Triangle (9%), and demons (8%).

One-quarter of respondents said that their beliefs in the supernatural arose from witnessing something spooky themselves, while 19% had been convinced by somebody they trusted, and 16% influenced by television or film. Some were prepared to fork out money in pursuit of the supernatural, 4% admitting they spent more than £100 a year on it, but others did not need to. For 10% (and 14% in North-West England) claimed to possess at least one supernatural power themselves (mostly seeing into the future, regressing to past lives, or telepathy), which was more than attended religious services on a weekly basis (8%).

One-third (32%) of adults considered themselves superstitious, rising to 37% in the South-East. The most common superstitions about good or bad luck were associated with walking under a ladder (25%), breaking a mirror (21%), touching wood (18%), opening an umbrella indoors (18%), putting new shoes on the table (17%), finding a penny on the floor (17%), experiencing burning ears when somebody was talking about them (15%), spilling salt (15%), Friday the 13th (14%), and forbidding the groom to see the bride in her dress before the wedding (14%).

Online coverage of this poll is currently rather limited, and OnePoll does not tend to publish its data tables, but there is a press release about the survey on one of the UKTV websites at:

There have also been some news stories in the print and online editions of the Daily Mail at:

and of The Times, with the online article (heavily abridged for the print edition) being accessible to subscribers only at:

In the absence of any further information about question-wording and results, it is hard to compare these headline findings with those from previous polls. This is certainly not the first time since the Millennium that only a minority report belief in a God, but the exact proportion does tend to vary quite a bit, depending on how the question is framed and what response codes are on offer.

Scottish independence

Scots will be voting in the independence referendum in September. Religion has not featured strongly in the debate thus far, but The Universe for 23 March 2014 (p. 11) contained a report entitled ‘Scots Catholics “more likely to vote for independence”’. It reflected recent coverage in The Herald newspaper regarding the attitudes of Catholics in Scotland to Scottish independence. Professor Tom Devine is quoted as saying that Catholics are the biggest supporters of independence, having abandoned their previous apprehensions about it following ‘the death of structural sectarianism and labour market discrimination’. He cited data from the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey (SSAS) in defence of his claim. Professor John Curtice agreed that Catholics had once been unlikely to vote for the Scottish Nationalist Party and (implicitly) for Scottish independence and that this was no longer the case. However, he argued that Scottish Catholics were still more likely to vote Labour than non-Catholics. The Scottish Labour Party is campaigning for the union with the United Kingdom.

SSAS certainly appears to be the main source of information about the subject, since it gathers data on religious affiliation, whereas most opinion polls and sample surveys touching on Scottish independence do not. The 2013 SSAS, which interviewed 1,497 adults, is the latest available, and the independence debate has obviously moved on since then, so we cannot be sure that the picture it reveals is still current. One of the many questions asked was ‘should Scotland be an independent country?’ This is identical to the wording to be used in the forthcoming referendum. The religious break of the combined responses of those who had and had not definitely made up their mind at the time of interview are as follows:

% across



DK/not vote

Church of Scotland




Roman Catholic




Other Christian








No religion








So, at that stage, Scottish Catholics were more likely to support independence than any other religious group, apart from non-Christians, albeit the plurality of Catholics still favoured the union. These figures have been calculated from the extremely valuable What Scotland Thinks website, which brings together all the relevant opinion data and enables online analysis of SSAS results. Besides data, it also has a comment and analysis section, including an interesting blog by Michael Rosie from last August on ‘Religion and Scottish Independence’, explaining that, once age and gender are factored in, the modest differences in attitudes to independence between religious groups fade away. See:

2021 census

As widely reported in national media on 28 March 2014, there will be a decennial population census in England and Wales in 2021 if recommendations by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) are approved by Government. Following comprehensive evaluation of options, and a public consultation exercise, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority submitted proposals to the Cabinet Office on 27 March under which the census would continue, but on the basis of being completed online in the main. Such a change in methodology is expected substantially to reduce the estimated £1 billion cost of taking a conventional paper-based census in 2021, and builds upon the relative success of the 2011 census in which 16% of household reference persons in England and Wales took up the option of filing their returns online. Additionally, ONS is arguing for a change in the law to allow personal administrative data routinely collected by Government departments (examples might be from the tax, benefit, and NHS systems) to be made available to ONS so as to improve the currency and accuracy of its data sources. It is intended that greater use would also be made of sample surveys between censuses. All in all, quite an ambitious ONS shopping list.

The detailed recommendations from the National Statistician and Chief Executive of the UK Statistics Authority in respect of England and Wales (Scotland and Northern Ireland are carrying out separate reviews of options for another census) can be read at:–and-recommendations/national-statisticians-recommendation.pdf

It is naturally far too early to say what the content of any 2021 census (if it happens) would be, and, in particular, whether the voluntary question on religious affiliation asked in 2001 and 2011 will be retained.

2011 census

Meanwhile, new analysis of the results of the 2011 census continues to be published, and a couple of recent releases are worthy of note.

On 27 March 2014 the Office for National Statistics published various outputs on living arrangements and marital status for adults in England and Wales in 2011, demonstrating a marked increase since 2001 in the proportion cohabiting or living alone (including the never married). The highest levels of cohabitation seemed to be associated with local authorities with the greatest incidence of religious nones, and vice versa. The pattern was exemplified by Norwich, which topped the league tables for both indicators, with 16% of adults cohabiting and 43% of the population professing no religion. See table 4 in the report at:

On 19 March 2014 the Registrar General for Scotland published Release 3B of the 2011 Scottish census, including table DC2207SC, containing details of country of birth by religion by sex for all geographies. The full data can be manipulated via the data explorer tool on the Scotland’s Census 2011 website, but a summary of country of birth for each religious group in Scotland appears below (the abroad category including the Republic of Ireland, an important consideration in the case of Catholics):



Rest of UK






Church of Scotland




Roman Catholic




Other Christian
























Other religion




No religion




Religion not stated




Church of England health check

In our posts of 31 January and 14 February 2014 we noted three of the four instalments in the health check of the Church of England which recently appeared in the Church Times, and written by a team of 35 contributors under the leadership of Professor Linda Woodhead. These articles have now been gathered together into a single volume, which will be published by Canterbury Press on 25 April 2014: How Healthy is the CofE? The Church Times Health Check (ISBN 9781848257016, £12.99 paperback). Copies can be pre-ordered on the Canterbury Press website but not yet on Amazon. Orders are also being taken by the Church Times bookshop with a reduced price for six copies or more.

Attitudes to Israel

British Jewry is always sensitive about perceptions of Israel by the British public. It may, therefore, be disappointed to see the outcome of what is arguably the largest-scale test of opinion ever conducted in this country. Ironically, it was published (on 22 March 2014) soon after Prime Minister David Cameron had visited Israel. In the latest Populus poll for Lord Ashcroft, conducted online among a huge sample of 20,058 Britons aged 18 and over between 7 and 20 January 2014, respondents were asked to say how positively or negatively they felt about 21 countries, using a scale running from 0 (very negative) to 10 (very positive). In a league table of mean scores, below, Israel languished in 18th position, just behind Russia (noting that fieldwork predated the Crimean crisis) but ahead of Iran and North Korea, traditionally the least favoured states.

Canada 7.23 China 4.77
Sweden 6.77 Poland 4.74
Switzerland 6.63 Greece 4.63
Norway 6.52 South Africa 4.60
Japan 5.98 India 4.55
Germany 5.74 Russia 4.07
USA 5.73 Israel 3.97
Italy 5.70 Saudi Arabia 3.46
Spain 5.69 Iran 2.69
France 5.08 North Korea 2.40
Brazil 4.90    

Only 7% of Britons gave Israel the most positive scores of 8-10, whereas 53% were fairly neutral (4-7) and 40% very negative (0-3), the last figure peaking at 45% among the 45-54s and the lowest (DE) social group and at 46% for those with no formal educational qualifications. These findings are in line with other evidence, Israel’s reputation in Britain having taken a tumble during recent decades because of its policies and actions on the Palestinian question. The complete favourability of nations ratings can be found on pp. 250-501 (with Israel on pp. 286-97) of the data tables at:


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

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