The Church of England have released a poll they claim shows the vast majority of people believe in the power of prayer, when it does no such thing. There is nothing at all wrong with ICM’s actual polling, which asks people “Irrespective of whether you currently pray or not, if you were to pray for something at the moment, What would it be for?” (emphasis is mine). A perfectly reasonable question, asking people what they would pray for, if they were the sort of person who did pray.

However, the Church of England have gone rather rogue in interpreting the results, deciding that everyone who gave an answer to ICM’s hypothetical question of what people would pray for if they prayed must therefore believe in prayer – putting out a press release claiming that “Four out of five British adults believe in the power of prayer”. The Telegraph has gone on a similar flight of fancy, declaring “Six out of seven people still believe that prayers can be answered despite a dramatic drop in formal religious observance, a study has found.”

In a population where only around half of people believe in a god at all, any claim that 80% of people believe prayer works should ring alarm bells anyway. For the record the last poll I can find that actually asked whether people believed that prayer worked was by YouGov for the Sun in 2012. That found 31% of people believed that prayer worked in some way (that is they thought prayers were heard by God, or were physically answered in some other way), compared to 45% who did not and 25% who weren’t sure.

Hat tip to Alex Hern at the New Statesman for spotting it – his own mockery is here.

Meanwhile this morning’s YouGov poll for the Sun had topline figures of CON 30%, LAB 41%, LDEM 13%, UKIP 11%. The thirteen points for the Liberal Democrats is the highest that YouGov have shown them since November 2010. While all the usual caveats about individual polls apply, it is indicitative of a broader underlying trend – since the end of last year there has been a definite uptick in levels of Lib Dem support in YouGov’s daily polling. Last autumn YouGov were typically showing them at 8-10%, in recent weeks they have typically been showing them at around 11-12%.

I didn’t get chance yesterday to do a full rundown of the Sunday Times poll, so with full tabs long since up, here are a couple of things worth noting.

1) The problems of the new child benefit rules. The principle of withdrawing child benefit from households with a higher rate taxpayer remain very popular, with 64% of people supporting it and only 25% opposed. However, the practicalities whereby a household with two earners paying basic rate could have a higher income than a single higher rate taxpayer, yet still get child benefit, is still seen as unfair by 68% of people.

2) Perceptions of coalition. In principle 22% of people now think that coalitions are a better form of government than single party government, 55% think single party government is better. 21% of people say that the experience of the current coalition government has made them more positive about coalition, 39% more negative (ideally of course there would a “attitudes towards the principle of coalition” question from before the last election to compare things to, but alas, I couldn’t track one down)

3) Selective education. 37% of people would like to see more schools select by academic ability, 20% are happy with existing grammar schools to stay but oppose any expansion, 27% think the existing grammar schools should be opened to children of all abilities. There was a surprisingly positive response to the idea of re-introducing the assisted places scheme, suppored by 67% of people.

4) Religion. 12% of people think religion is more often the cause of good in the world compared to 58% of people who think it is more often the cause of evil. Conversely, only 17% think Britain is too religious while 36% think it is too secular (the apparantly paradox is probably a difference between thinking globally, and the thoughts of terrorism and armed conflict linked to religion that would almost certainly have come to some people’s minds, and thinking locally)


Judging by twitter Prof Richard Dawkins was his usual emollient and self-deprecating self on Radio 4 this morning promoting the results of a new Ipsos-MORI poll commissioned by his Foundation for Research and Science. I didn’t hear it myself so I won’t comment, but what of the poll itself?

The poll was conducted straight after the census last year (why they’ve held it back till now I do not know), and sought to identify people who described themselves as Christian in the census and measure in more detail what their actual religious beliefs were. Unsurprisingly it found they were not universally very religious. In many ways, this is an obvious finding. In the 2001 census 72% of so of people said they were Christian, but we know from survey data and church census data that most of these people don’t go to church, and from many other surveys that at least some of them don’t believe in a god. I wrote about it in more detail back in 2007 here.

Turning to the new survey, first off it projected that 54% of people had described themselves as Christian on the 2011 census. This would be a very significant fall on 2001 if it was the case, but it’s probably worth waiting to see what the actual census figures are before getting all excited about it. People answer censuses very differently to polls and the survey’s projection may end up being wrong.

Moving on the survey contains all sorts of stuff about whether people who put Christian on the census believe in ghosts and astrology, or whether they know which books of the Bible come first and similar stuff which the press release from the RDFRS gets excited about, but basically it boils down to what we already know – some of the people who put Christian on census forms would not be Christian by some other definitions.

Cutting through the chaff on this the best questions to actually illustrate this are these:

– Q16 on whether people believe in God. Of those who put Christian on the census form 54% believe in a personal God, 10% don’t believe in a god, but think there is some sort of supernatural intelligence out there, 22% believe in God as being the laws of nature or the cause of the universe, 6% don’t believe in any sort of God.

– Q11 asked people who put Christian on the census form to define their religious views – 30% said they had strong religious beliefs and were Christian, 48% said they did not have strong religious beliefs, but thought of themselves as Christian or had been brought up to do so, 12% didn’t consider themselves religious at all, 8% thought they were spiritual rather than religious. Further on a question asks directly if people consider themselves to be religious or not – 45% say they do, 50% say they do not.

– Q24 & Q25 asked about some of the core beliefs of Christianity – Jesus being the son of God who was resurrected after being crucified. 32% believed in Jesus’s physical resurrection, 39% that he was resurrected spiritually but not physically, 18% that he wasn’t resurrected at all. 44% believed that Jesus was the Son of God, 32% that he was a good role model, 13% that he was just a man. Again, percentages are of people who put Christian on the census form, not the GB population overall.

Exactly how one defines what constitutes a Christian is an unanswerable question – you may equally well define being Christian as what people believe or by how they define themselves. What we can say with some certainty is that a fair proportion of people who put Christian on the census form don’t believe in a personal God, don’t consider themselves to be religious or don’t believe in some of the core tenets of Christianity.

This means that while there are other interesting questions on the poll, one can’t really use them to say X percentage of British Christians think this or that, because it is impossible to define British Christians. If one defines them as people who put Christian on the census form then you’d find only 54% believe in a personal God. If you define them as people who attend church at least once a month I expect you’d find the vast majority believe in a personal God. This is the difficulty of saying anything about ill-defined populations.

At the end of the day a lot of the survey and the PR around it seems to be aimed at knocking down the strawman argument that all those who put Christian on the census are devout, church attending, bible believing Christians when it is fairly clear from the outset that they are not. That’s not to say that the strawman argument of 72% of people are Christians so you should do this hasn’t actually cropped up in the political debate before – it has, and I’m sure it will continue to do so in the future.

Weekend polls

YouGov in the Sunday Times have topline voting intentions of CON 42%, LAB 37%, LDEM 12%. It also has what I think are the first questions on William Hague’s statement – the balance of opinion comes down strongly on Hague’s side on whether he is telling the truth or not (46% think he is, 12% think he isn’t) and whether he was correct to release his personal statement (59% think he was, 17% that he wasn’t). However, on the question of whether the initial decision to share a room with his advisor was an error of judgement, the public are more evenly divided – 43% think it was an error, 42% think it was not.

There is also a YouGov poll in the Scottish Mail on Sunday. Holyrood constitutency voting intentions there are CON 19%, LAB 39%, LDEM 11%, SNP 29%. Holyrood regional voting stands at CON 15%, LAB 36%, LDEM 12%, SNP 26%. Note that the write-up in the Herald says the poll was conducted a month ago. I guess they’ve got the dates wrong there, and it was actually carried out this week – I’ll confirm when I get in the office on Monday.

As we get close to the Pope’s visit to Britain this month, there are also two polls asking questions about it. A poll for the Tablet by MORI found 25% supported the visit, 11% opposed it with 63% having no strong view. 29% of Catholics interviewed said they were likely to go to one of the events during the Pope’s visit.

Asked about the Catholic church in general 49% had a positive view about the Catholic church having strong moral views. 41% agreed it was a force for good, with 17% disagreeing (this was asked as a split sample – the other half of respondents were asked about religion in general, where 52% thought religion was a force for good, and 22% a force for bad. On the specific issue of the child abuse scandal, 55% thought the Catholic church had responded badly, only 11% thought they had dealt with th

MORI also tested if people could identify Pope Benedict – 65% correct identified a photo of him. This compared to 50% who recognised Rowan Williams, 73% Fabio Capello, 86% Simon Cowell, 90% David Cameron and 95% Prince Charles.

There was also a ComRes poll on the visit for Theos. ComRes asked if people agreed or disagreed with 12 statements taken from the Pope’s encyclical letter, Caritas in Veritate. In almost every case people overwhelmingly agreed, largely one suspects because they were pretty bland, inoffensive, non-religious statements, such as “We must prioritise the goal of access to steady employment for everyone” or “The natural environment is more than raw material to be manipulated at our pleasure”. The only statement that people disagreed with was the sole one to mention god: “Poverty is often produced by a rejection of God’s love”, which 81% of people disagreed with.

Despite agreeing with most of the statements he made, people were broadly negative towards whether or not the Pope should comment on world issues. Only 18% thought he responded wisely to issued (49% disagreed), 40% said they generally disagreed with the Pope’s views (20% disagreed) and 41% thought the Pope should not speak out on social and political issues (36% disagreed). I suspect the apparent disconnect between these two banks of questions is down to people associating the Pope with his views on things like abortion, homosexuality, contraception and the church’s child abuse scandal, rather than his views on the environment and the economy.

There is also a new ComRes poll out today, commissioned by pressure group Theos. The topline voting intention figures, with changes from their previous poll a week ago are CON 38%(-2), LAB 30%(+1), LDEM 20%(-1).

These two polls were either side of Gordon Brown’s interview with Piers Morgan, so the natural inference is that it did indeed help Labour. However, ComRes’s previous poll was a bit of an unusual creature – it had shown the Conservatives increasing their lead in the face of a wider trend of a narrowing lead, so this is probably just a reversion of that. With the exception of Angus Reid, all the polls are now floating around a Tory lead of about 8 points – with some lower (like YouGov yesterday), and some higher (like YouGov on Wednesday or Populus last week). That’s a significant narrowing from the ten point lead that seemed to be the norm a couple of months back, or last summer’s mid-teen leads.

As might be expected from a Theos poll, the other questions dealt with the role of religion in public life. 27% said they had no religion, 33% that their religion was cultural and didn’t really affect their lives. 22% said their religion was important and had some impact on their lives, 16% that it was very important and had significant affect upon their lives.

ComRes then asked which party people thought had been the most friendly towards particular religions over recent years. 21% thought the Conservatives had been closest to Christians, 20% Labour, 9% the Lib Dems. 36% thought Labour had been friendliest to Muslims compared to 10% for Conservatives and 7% for the Lib Dems.

If you look at the answers amongst the groups themselves, amongst Christians whose faith is of great importance to them (a very small sample of 144, but the ones who this is presumably most likely to make a difference to), the Conservatives lead 28% to 18% for Labour. Amongst the 100 Muslims in the sample 49% thought Labour had been most friendly to the Muslim faith, followed by 9% for the Lib Dems and 6% for the Conservatives.

Finally ComRes asked if people agreed with a series of statements – 32% agreed that religious freedoms had been restricted in Britian in recent years (opinions on this had a sharp religious skew, only 26% of people with no religion agreed, 52% of those whose religion was of great importance to them did). 31% of people thought that the law should prevent people from expressing religious views in the workplace (surprisingly opinions on did’t have much of a religious view – 28% of people whose religion was of great importance to them still agreed). 64% of people agreed that religious leaders like the Pope had a responsibility to speak out on issues they were concerned about and, finally, 42% agreed that “in a democracy, extreme political parties should be banned”.