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?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst- Insurance

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst - Insurance ...

Recruitment Genius: Property Manager

£25000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This independent, growing Sales...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Multi-skilled graphic designer ...

Austen Lloyd: Court of Protection Solicitor

£30000 - £50000 per annum + EXCELLENT: Austen Lloyd: Court of Protection Solic...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A CCTV camera is seen in front of a large poster opposite in central London  

Home Office is creating more powers to turn everyone into suspects – but leave us no safer

Shami Chakrabarti
 

David Mellor has been exposed as an awful man, but should he have been?

Simon Kelner
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches