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surveys report that 46% of young people have never sung a traditional Christmas carol and 47% think midnight mass is out of date.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.
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.
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.