The census: are reports of the death of religion just being exaggerated?

You can be religious in the traditional sense, but not follow conventional traditions. The census should have asked about community.

Share
Related Topics

It is unlikely that if he were alive today, Mark Twain would have seen fit to comment on the results of the 2011 British census, esteemed survey though it is.

But to misquote him, are reports of the death of religion being greatly exaggerated?

At first glance, the results appear to confirm that in Britain, faith is no longer fashionable. Asked for the second time in census history “what is your religion”, fewer respondents said that they had one. Although Britain is still predominantly Christian, since 2001 the numbers identifying as such have dropped by 13 percentage points, down by four million.

While the numbers identifying as each of Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist or Jewish either rose or remained largely consistent, more than a quarter of respondents said they had no religion, up from 14.8 per cent ten years ago.

When surveys or news stories point to a supposed threat to religious life in this country – the Scouting oath being adapted for atheists, for example - the doomsayers tend to warn that society as we know it is on the verge of breakdown; that the community structure that helped make Britain great is collapsing with no word on its replacement.

Perhaps in another decade we will be a country of faithless degenerates, with no moral code or appreciation of compassion. Or perhaps we will be as we are today – but defining our identities differently to past generations.

When I filled out my census form, I responded that my religion was “Jewish”. It was a fairly simple question – I grew up as part of the Anglo-Jewish community and continue to live much of my life within it. But if the census had demanded that I dig deeper – for example, if it had questioned how actively observant I was, or whether I believed in every word of the scriptures, or even in God - it would have required further consideration.

Religion, at least in Western tradition, is and always has been about those things – sin, divine truth, posthumous judgment and so on – but it is has long been about much more besides. For me, and for many day to day adherents, religion is less about the wording of ancient texts or attending formal services, and more about tradition, lifestyle and community, and the centrality of values such as kindness and respect.

A decline in formal identification of religion points not at all to a decline in living good and meaningful lives; the Victorian conflation of faith and lifestyle surely no longer applies.

You can be religious in the traditional sense, yet use your religious identity as a basis to be intolerant or divisive (for example to justify the oppression of women) and likewise you can scoff at the idea of a man on a cloud in the sky, but still accept and advance the moral guidelines that happen to be promoted by religious thought. You certainly don’t have to believe in the truth of a religion to appreciate its teachings about how to live your life.

Without a population that places weight on such values, we might have cause to fear for the future. But there’s no reason to assume that the census results mean the core teachings of religion are on course to disappear. Look no further than the clean-up after the London riots – organised not in a formal hall of worship but via social media – or the many street parties held for the Jubilee, to see the community spirit alive and well in Britain.

There are many benefits to being part of a faith community. But it comes down to definitions – what do we mean by “religion” and how do we define “identify”. The census asked about religious identification as a label – not whether citizens believe in the value of community, or support the general ideas advanced by different faiths. If it had asked the latter, I suspect we'd be a lot more “religious”.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A pack of seagulls squabble over discarded food left on the beach at St Ives on July 28, 2015  

Number of urban seagulls in Britain nearly quadruples: Hide food and avoid chicks to stay in gulls’ good books

Tom Bawden
 

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen