What the census tells us about Britain, Christianity, and brussels sprouts

The most recent census from England and Wales brings us the news that less than half the people who answered the question called themselves Christians. In some circles, that’s raising the question of why the country still has a state church. In others it’s causing the hysteria scale to be reworked so it can accommodate the ensuing shock, horror, and newspaper headlines.

Does the change have a real-world impact? We-e-ell, other surveys report that 46% of young people have never sung a traditional Christmas carol and 47% think midnight mass is out of date. Even more shockingly, 38% can’t stand that essential element of the British Christmas meal, brussels sprouts. 

Yes, today’s headline was clickbait. The census didn’t ask about brussels sprouts. Or Christmas carols. I had to call in subcontractors to get my hands on that data.

But let’s extend the hysteria scale upward by 7 points anyway. The country’s going to hell in a combine harvester. You could measure in months the time that elapsed between the day young people first pushed away their brussels sprouts and the day Rome fell.

Irrelevant photo: A begonia in warmer days.

What accounts for the falling number of Christians? It’s not that other religions are taking over. The number of people belonging to other religions has grown slightly, but not enough to account for the drop. The real impact comes from the number of people checking the No Religion box–it was the second most common response, rising from a quarter in the last census to a third in this one.

An interesting but statistically insignificant percentage of the population–0.6%–checked the Other Religion box. 

What does Other Religion mean? Well, No Religion, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, and Sikh all got prefabricated little boxes of their own, but since there’s too much variety in the Other Religion category to fit inside one small box, the people who checked it could go one to describe themselves any way they wanted. That means we get people who are spiritual and others who are spiritualists. We get people who are mixed religion. We also get (in order of popularity) pagans, Alevis, Jains, Wiccans, Ravidassia (I’m not sure that’s a plural; the question reduced Lord Google to tears), shamanists, Rastafarians, and Zoroastrians.

Some of those are traditional religions and some (bias alert for the remainder of the sentence) are things people make up as they go along. To be fair, though, traditional religions might well have gotten their start the same way. If you do something for a few thousand years, or even a few hundred, it takes on a certain sobriety that a few decades just can’t match.

Disappointingly, we didn’t get enough Jedis in this census to show up in the statistical summaries. In 2001, almost 400,000 people claimed to be Jedi Knights, but that was in response to a campaign claiming that if enough people identified it as their religion the government would have to recognize it. The claim was as complete and utter bullshit, but it was a lot of fun. 


Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland census seems to have made a distinction between people who were brought up in a religion and people who still belonged to it. When religion’s a flash point, the religious community you come from can still define you, even it you leave the religion behind.

So Northern Ireland has a population that’s: 42% Catholic, but when you include people who were brought up Catholic you get 45.7%. The population’s 43.5% Protestant, including those who once were, and the category breaks down into Presbyterian, Church of Ireland, Methodist, and an odds and ends box of other Christian denominations. 17.4% checked No Religion, and 1.3% checked Other Religion.

In case anyone’s interested, the laws of copy editing say you should never start a sentence with a numeral, but I couldn’t be bothered turning that last one inside out to get the percentage away from the leading position.

The No Religion category has grown In Northern Ireland too. Ten years ago, it was 10.1%, and 9.3% of the population was brought up in no religion, up from 5.6% ten years ago.


What about nationality, though?

In a country (Britain) made up of nations (Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland, England, and at least arguably Cornwall), it’s always worth asking what nationality people consider themselves. In the ten years since the last census, the number of people calling themselves British went up 206% and the number calling themselves English went down 76%. The number calling themselves both went up 67%. 

That sounds drastic and fundamental, and it’s not impossible that the shift says something about how people see themselves, but it’s more likely to say something about the way the questions were asked.

The number calling themselves Welsh went down 7% and the number calling themselves Welsh and British went up 23%. 

For people who identified themselves as Cornish or Cornish and British, we have to throw percentages out the window because the information was compiled by a different source: they went up from 80,000 to 100,000 and from 5,000 to 9,000.

People could, and did, also choose Non-UK Identity (9.7%) and a mix of that and UK Identity (2%). 


How the questions were asked

An article in the Conversation asks whether (or more accurately, states that) the way the questions about the languages people speak are worded in a way that makes the information–well, not entirely useless but not accurate either. It asks about people’s main language, which it defines as the language they use most naturally, but the article points out that multilingual people speak two or more languages naturally. How are they to choose between them?

People who listed English as their main language weren’t asked what other languages they speak, because, hey, who cares, right? People who listed something else were asked, but they could only list one language. As we all know, anything more than that is just showing off.

We can assume, then, that the questions were put together by someone who speaks one language naturally but thinks they speak French because they can say say, “La plume de ma tante est sur la table.”


But what happened to Scotland?

The census was postponed in Scotland because of Covid. I know: We had Covid south of the border too. But postpone it they did, and if the results are in yet I haven’t found them. The closest I’ve been able to come is return rates. Once I woke up from the nap that induced, I made myself a nice cup of tea and felt very British. Even though someone who genuinely was British wouldn’t bother feeling that way and the census didn’t ask about it.

39 thoughts on “What the census tells us about Britain, Christianity, and brussels sprouts

    • Um, I think they’ve kind of put that on hold lately. And credit where it’s due to history’s Christian spin doctors, they managed to make that a highly unlikely selling point for the religion. You’d have thought it would work the other way around.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Interestingly, there is only an established church in England, disestablishment of the Anglican church happened in 1879 in Ireland and in 1914 in Wales. When I lived in Wales, it struck me as a far more religious country than England (where I grew up), maybe I knew more Catholics, Methodists and Muslims as an adult.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t know that about Wales and Northern Ireland, although it seems like something I should’ve picked up on. Thanks for mentioning it. Moving to England has convinced me that giving a church official recognition is a powerful way to undermine it, but then I’m drawing that conclusion based on a short stretch of time. I expect it falls apart if I look at the question in a historical context.

      Which is a shame, because I’m fond of it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have a feeling that being an established church bolstered its wealth and poltical power (there are still bishops in the House of Lords, 21 or so I believe) but also undermined its place in society. Their suppport for WWI probably did a lot of damage – “Why are English church so full of military flags?” – my Irish husband asks. Sort of undermines that “Thou Shalt not Kill” stuff really. I have always liked its mild and inclusive attitude to so many things but it’s not very good at competing with consumerism and they failed to challenge racist attitiudes towards West Indian immigrants and drove away a lot of devote Christians into founding their own churches.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’m like the person who comes into a movie halfway through then tries to review it, or like a friend of ours who was known for sleeping through movies and then giving his opinion (he usually wasn’t impressed). In other words, I don’t know church history in any depth–or even in any shallow–but I have been struck since I moved to England with how casually people take their religion. It’s a relief after the religious frenzy a portion of the US has gone into. I’m sure you’re right about the wealth and power, and I’m sure if I’d come in at some earlier point in the movie the picture would’ve been very different.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. A total non sequitur, but: What’s your view on ‘brussels sprouts’ vs ‘Brussels sprouts’, Ellen? As I know you’re a stickler for such things, my guess is that your choice of ‘laws of copy editing’ allow the former, or leave the choice up to you… but I couldn’t resist posing the question. Just call it my way of saying, “Hi!” ;)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi.

      The most important thought feeding into my position on this important question is, “I’m retired, so fuck it.” When I come to those crucial hair-splitting decisions these days–and even more so when I deal with inconsistencies in my style–I take great joy in reminding myself of that.

      However. When you have to remind yourself that you’re retired and that [fill in the blank] doesn’t matter anymore, that means you do still care and you are still taking note. So yes, I’ve argued both sides of the question with my reluctant self. I lean toward lower case, following the pattern set by french fries and venetian blinds, although I wouldn’t say capitalizing the B is wrong.

      A lot of people drop the S, coming up with brussel (or Brussel) sprouts. I can see why: When you say the words, you just steal the S from the next word and don’t have to pay for it. That makes it understandable but probably wrong. If I was still working, I’d look it up somewhere and see if any impressive source accepts it. But hey, I’m retired, so fuck it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, Ellen, for your excellent explanation. Although I’m sorely tempted to query your failure to employ the subjunctive in your penultimate sentence, as you point out, there are better fish to fry, so I’ll take a leaf out of your book and go fuck it† ;)

        † On reflection, I find it hard to imagine a more fruitless exercise.

        Liked by 1 person

        • For what it’s worth, and in all seriousness, even when I was working I was always torn between spoken English and approved English. I lean heavily toward the spoken version, and trying to balance the two is never an easy trick.

          Your mention of the subjunctive set that off.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. When I joined the U.S. Marine Corps decades ago I was required to pick a religious preference before shipping off to boot camp. I didn’t have a religious preference, so I chose Buddhism because sitting around and thinking on a Sunday morning in silence sounded marvelous while the other 53 women in my platoon toddled off to church. This also meant I was the first to hit the showers on Sunday mornings and so was blessed with a hot water shower once a week. The rest of the days we were force marched through a series of quick cold showers like a herd of cows. Any movie depicting hot shower scene banter among recruits is false advertising, unless it’s the Air Force. They’re so spoiled in the Air Force. We were never served Brussel sprouts, just peas, corn, mashers and “meat” of unknown origin. I’ve always considered Brussels sprouts a fancy vegetable.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The British are a lot more serious about their vegetables than Americans are. Where an American might talk about meat and potatoes, here it’d be meat and two veg. What’s more, brussels sprouts ripen in the early winter, and you can’t turn up your nose at a vegetable that obliging.

      I love your reason for choosing Buddhism–and how that worked out for you. I wonder what the people who looked at your form made of it. It’s not the usual choice.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I think parsnips are available in Winter too. And I’ve had them fried in bacon grease.

    Years ago I learned this song from watching a Joseph Campbell documentary :

    “Let us worship Aphrodite !
    She is beautiful but flighty
    And she does not wear a nighty !
    That’s good enough for me…
    Let us worship Zarathustra
    They don’t make ’em like they useta
    I’m a Zarathustra booster !
    That’s good enough for me !
    Gimme that old rime religion
    Gimme that old time religion !
    Gimme that old time religion !
    It’s good enough for me !”

    Liked by 1 person

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