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.

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