This isn’t really a opinion poll, but its the same sort of rubbish media reporting of surveys. The Sunday Telegraph had a survey at the weekend which claimed “only one in five schools are­ planning to perform a traditional nativity play this year.” It showed no such thing.

The results showed 64% of the primary schools they surveyed were putting on a religious nativity play, the headlines about only one in five were based on taking only what they called “traditional” nativity plays, excluding all the modern versions. Personally you might find all the modernised musical nativity plays appallingly cheesy, but things like “Hosanna Rocks”, “Whoops-a-Daisy Angel” and so on are nativity plays: they do involve angels, censuses, Bethlehem, Herod, baby Jesus being born in a manger and so on. They also sometimes involve bashful sheep, or stuck up angels or other peripheral nonsense or alternative POVs, but the core story is there. They might well be an affront to good taste, but not a threat to Christianity.

Why does it matter? Well, anyone reading the Sunday Telegraph story with a critical eye will have picked up the real picture, but after that people will quote the headlines and give a false picture. Mark Pritchard has an adjournment debate this week on ‘Christianophobia’ and is quoted as saying that the debate is particularly topical, “as recent findings suggested four fifths of schools were not staging nativity plays this year”. There it goes – dodgy representation of survey findings and, two days later, we have a bit of misinformation happily ensconced in the debate that will probably crop up for years to come.

Since the religion question was added to the census in 2001 this has become a recurring debate on blogs – I was reminded of it when I saw Cramner’s blog talking about Iain Dale’s little survey of his readership where Cramner wrote “The 45% who profess belief in a deity is massively beneath the national average. In the 2001 census, just over 70% professed the Christian faith”.

Iain’s poll was just of a self-selected group of his readers, so isn’t of interest to anyone other than Iain anyway, but on the wider question of how Christian Britain is these days the two questions aren’t comparable. One is belief in a god, the other what religion people identify with. There are obviously some differences anyway, one can believe in a god or gods and be a member of a religion other than Christianity, but leaving that aside a the polling evidence normally suggests that there is probably a substantial chunk of people who said on the census form that they were Christian, but who don’t actually believe in a god.

A MORI poll for the Telegraph in December 1999 found 71% believed in a God, an ORB poll in April 2000 found 62% of people believed in God, MORI poll for the BBC’s Heavan and Earth show in 2003 found 60% believed in a God, a YouGov poll for the Telegraph in Dec 2004 found 44% believed in God, a poll by Populus for the Sun in June 2005 found 70% believed in “God or some form of higher power”, Communicate Research poll for Premier Christian Radio and the Evangelical Alliance in Jan 06 found 45% of people believed in “God or a higher spiritual force”.

A couple come close, but generally speaking polls show a smaller percentage of people believe in God than the 72% who described themselves as Christian on census forms (and that’s ignoring the 5% or so of people who are adherents of other religions). In some cases there is a very large discrepancy. The difference between the highest and lowest figures is probably largely down to methodology – the Populus poll lumped in people who believed in some vague higher power, the YouGov and Communicate Research polls that showed the lowest levels of belief in God were both carried out online, suggesting that however secular Britain might seem, there is still societal pressure to say one believes in god when talking to a human interviewer (in the USA Harris interactive tested this in parallel online and telephone polls and found an 8% difference in the number of people who were prepared to admit they didn’t know if they believed in God or not when they didn’t have to say it to another human being).

So, we can’t tell for sure how big the group is, but we can be fairly confident that at least some of that 72% of Christians don’t actually believe in God. The reasons is presumably people who don’t have particularly strong feeling about religion at all still consider themselves culturally Christian. The concept of a Jewish atheist is more established, Jews who don’t believe in a god at all but are culturally Jewish, have bar mitzvahs and so on. One can only assume that the census is picking up similar in terms of Christianity, people who don’t believe or don’t give a fig about a god, but who are clearly culturally Christian, celebrate Christmas (even Richard Dawkins reluctantly celebrates Christmas, though suspect he didn’t put Christian on his census form), give eggs at Easter, may well get married or buried in a church and so on.

YouGov did a poll for John Humphreys earlier this year that gave a more detailed and nuanced list of options for people to chose from, rather than a straight yes or no: only 22% of people said they believed in a personal God who hears prayers, another 6% believe in a personal God who created the world but doesn’t intervene in it. 26% of people do believe in ‘something’, some sort of higher power but aren’t quite sure what. Beyond that people are largely irreligious – only 16% of people describe themselves as atheists, but between that 28% of people who believe in a personal god, 26% of people who believe in ‘something’ and 16% of athiests there is a block of 30% of people who are agnostic, or who would like to believe but can’t, or most often aren’t really sure what they believe and don’t really think about it.

Take away the agnostics and atheists and I suspect you have your 70% of Christians: made up as they are of around a third or so people who definitely believe in a personal Christian God who hears their prayers, a third of so who believe in something but aren’t quite sure of the details and a third or so who really don’t know, but who are culturally Christian and, when push comes to shove, identify themselves as Christian.


Gay Adoption

An ICM poll for Friday’s Newsnight showed the majority of people supported gay couples being allowed to adoption children. 64% of people said they thought gay couples should be allowed to adopt, 32% said they shouldn’t.

ICM also asked specifically about male homosexual couples and lesbian couples – 55% of respondents thought that male couples should be able to adopt, 59% of people thought that lesbian couples should be able to adopt (which do appear somewhat strange figures on the surface, perhaps the 64% of people supporting gay adoption thought that homosexual couples should be able to adopt, but not those gays or lesbians! Most of it is probably simply people thinking that only gay couples of one gender should be able to adopt, though there are also small proportions of people in any poll who give logically inconsistent answers).

This doesn’t, however, mean that people are necessary opposed to an exemption for adoption agencies run by the Catholic church. A YouGov poll for the Telegraph on Friday found that support and opposition to an exemption were almost exactly balanced – 42% were in favour of an exemption, 43% were opposed. Clearly there are plenty of people out there who support gay adoption in principle but don’t think that religious organisations should be forced to take part.

YouGov also asked how important an issue respondents considered it to be – 47% of respondents thought it was an important issue of principle that they felt strongly about. Amongst those people, 54% of people thought there should be an exemption, 41% of people did not.

UPDATE: There was also a Populus poll on the subject for the Daily Politics – full results here.

Round up

Welcome back! In the next couple of days I’ll be putting up some articles looking at how the polls have fared for the three main political parties over the last year and what they are indicating for the year ahead. In the meantime, here’s a round up of polls that have crept out over the Christmas period.

Communicate Research’s monthly poll in the Independent has voting intentions (with changes from last month) of CON 36% (+2), LAB 37% (+1), LDEM 14%(-3). The poll was conducted back on the 19th-20th December, so isn’t actually more recent than the pre-Christmas polls. As ever it is worth pointing out that Communicate do not use any political weighting in their polls, so compared to pollsters like ICM and Populus they will tend to produce figures that are more favourable to Labour – hence the Labour party lead in their last two polls.

It isn’t the first time that Communicate have produced such a low level of support for the Liberal Democrats either, but the polls in December have all been poor for the Lib Dems. YouGov’s last poll had them down at 15%, Populus down 1 to 19% and both MORI and ICM (the pollster whose methodology normally produces the strongest Lib Dem figures) down 2 to 18%. I’m always slightly dubious about how much weight to put on polls done in the immediate run up to Christmas, as most of this month’s were – in the same way that bank holiday weekends make it difficult to get a high quality sample, I’m sure that the Christmas shopping rush must have some impact on the quality of samples. The Lib Dems may yet pop back up in next month’s polls. If not it could be worrying trend for them.

Just before Christmas there were also some Christmassy polls from Populus and ICM. Populus found that 47% of people said they would be going to church over Christmas – in what the Times suggests is a cracking example of people not being strictly honest with pollsters – actual head counts at church services suggest that only around 6% of the adult population actually went to a church service last Christmas Eve or Christmas Day (though looking at the Populus question, it doesn’t look as though they specified Christmas Eve/Day, so respondents may well have been thinking of carol services and similar in the run up to Christmas). 81% of people told Populus they thought children should be encouraged to believe in Father Christmas, apparantly up from 70% in 2004.

An ICM poll for the Guardian found 54% of people saying they would attend a religious service at some point over the Christmas period. The survey included some wider questions on religion, reporting that only 33% of people considered themselves to be religious, with 63% saying they were not – including more than half of those describing themselves as Christian.

Veils and Crosses

There are two recent ICM polls on wearing religious symbols and clothing in public. The first for the News of the World last weekend found overwhelming opposition to BA in the “necklace row” – 80% of people said that British Airways had been wrong to enforce their uniform policy over a women who wanted to wear a cross over rather than under her cravat. Overall 92% of people thought that people should be allowed to openly wear a cross in the workplace, with 6% disagreeing. 85% thought people should be able to wear a turba (12% disagreed) and 67% thought it was acceptable to wear the hijab (28% disagreed). 41% of respondents thought that Christians were being discriminated against compared to other religions, a majortiy (53%) rejected this suggestion.

A second ICM poll, this time for the BBC, asked specifically about wearing veils. 33% of people told ICM they would support a legal ban on wearing the veil in all public places, with 56% opposed. This is a rise from previous polls – in October only 20% said they favoured legal restrictions on wearing the veil. Asked about bans in specific places, a majority (61%) woudl approve of a ban on wearing the veil at airports and at passport control or in courtrooms (53%) or schools (53%). 41% of people would approve of a ban in schools, with 47% opposed while a majority (56%) would oppose a ban on wearing the veil on public transport.