Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Census results - one figure we shouldn't underestimate

The results of the 2011 census were published today, and some of the stats on religion are interesting.

Thanks to a poll commissioned by the Richard Dawkins Foundation (findings outlined here and here) we already knew that the number of people self-identifying as Christians was significantly down on the 2001 figure.  This is encouraging, particularly on a day when supporters of the Church of England are standing up in the Commons to defend its right to define marriage for what it pleases to term our Christian nation.

But a figure that's new to me and by which I think we should be immensely encouraged is the percentage of people now identifying as having "no religion", which has risen to 25% from 15% in 2001.

Superficially, this looks a bit obvious.  The figure for Christianity has gone down significantly while the figures for other religions that have risen have done so only slightly.  So y'know - I mean, duh, where else could all those people have gone?

But there are two things worth noting here, as they have a bearing on the finding.

One; the religion question in the census is heavily loaded to give false positives.  It is not "which, if any, of the following religions do you practice?" or even "which, if any, of the following religions do you identify with?".  Instead, it's "what is your religion?", followed by a list of options.  The options do include "no religion", that's true; but the way the question is phrased is shockingly leading and led the BHA to run this campaign in the run up to the 2011 census.  The fact that the "no religion" figure has risen so steeply is testament to the growing unwillingness among the British population to identify out of habit with the religions with which they were raised - and they've registered that opinion in spite of this heavily loaded question.

Two: the religion question in the census is a voluntary question.  Nobody was obliged to answer it, as with all the other questions. Non-believers were completely free to just ignore the question completely, skip it if they didn't think it mattered or if they have no opinion on religion in policy.

But 25% of the population of England and Wales, as it turns out, are not religious... and felt that position needed to be stated.

I was among them (of course).  I'm not religious myself, but I can't ignore religion as I would like to because it affects too many things in my life and in the lives of others.  I didn't skip the question thinking religion is irrelevant to me; I deliberately identified as non-religious, I stood up to be counted.  So did twenty-five percent of the rest of the country.  I can't say this often enough; twenty-five percent.

A quarter of the population of England and Wales are not only non-religious, but have voluntarily chosen to be identified and represented as such.  That's HUGE. That's EPIC.

That's a start.

Our politicians need to get caught up.  We know that even the majority of people who identify as Christian don't support a lot of what the Church of England and others want to do in their name, using their numbers to back its demands.  And the number of people actively troubling to say they have no religion has risen from 15% to 25% in just ten years.  That's a far bigger chunk of the population than is accounted for by any group except Christianity, but everybody's too busy panicking about offending religious sensibilities to have noticed us.

How big a group of voters must we non-believers show ourselves to be before our politicians start pandering for our approval?  I don't know, but judging by the news coverage it's not enough yet.  People ask me all the time why I'm so vocal against religion.  This is part of the reason; non-religious people are now the second largest group in England and Wales, but nobody seeks our opinions or worries about offending us.  This MUST change.