New UK opinion poll shows continuing collapse of 'Christendom'

By staff writers
December 23, 2006

Church leaders preparing for Christmas, people who justify violence in the name of religion, and protagonists of anti-gay causes in the Anglican Communion and elsewhere, woke up to a shock this morning – far more people in Britain think that religion causes harm and division than good, according to an ICM survey conducted on 12-13 December for The Guardian newspaper.

The results of the poll, released today, indicate that an overwhelming majority see religion as a cause of division and tension - greatly outnumbering the smaller majority who also believe that it can be a force for good.

The survey is the latest confirmation that the Christendom alliance of establishment faith, governance and civil society is coming to an end, say UK Christian think tank Ekklesia in response. The poll reveals that non-believers outnumber believers in Britain by almost two to one.

According to The Guardian itself, the ICM results paint a picture of “a sceptical nation with massive doubts about the effect religion has on society: 82% of those questioned say they see religion as a cause of division and tension between people. Only 16% disagree. The findings are at odds with attempts by some religious leaders to define the country as one made up of many faith communities.”

Only 33% of those questioned describing themselves as "a religious person". A clear majority, 63%, say that they are not religious - including more than half of those who describe themselves as Christian.

Today's results come hard on the heels of an Ipsos MORI poll published four weeks ago, reported on Ekklesia but mostly ignored elsewhere. This painted a picture of Britons as non-religious in their ethics and view of the world.

Simon Barrow, co-director of the UK Christian think tank Ekklesia, which has been arguing for some time that the majority “Christendom” settlement is coming to an end, said that the survey results – which confirm the earlier one carried out under the auspices of the British Humanist Association – should act as “a reality check” for Britain’s churches.

He commented: “At the moment Christianity seems obsessed with sex and self-preservation. Institutionally, it has lost touch with the radical nature of the Gospel and has become, for many, an irrelevant cultural artefact. The result is massive decline. The idea of ‘a Christian nation’ is collapsing – but this notion, which some church leaders still try to cling on to, has nothing to do with the person of Jesus, whose message remains a huge challenge to both religious and political establishments.”

Barrow added that “while narrow versions of faith based on dogmatic certainty appeal to some who fear change, and are growing, a great number of people see through them. Sadly, many would affirm Gandhi’s observation that ‘we like your Christ, but not your Christians’. The onus on churches now is to wake up and dream a new future after Christendom.”

Ekklesia argues for an end to collusion between religion and state, suggesting that Christianity, in particular, should adopt a more creative and subversive role within civil society – sponsoring activities which promote reconciliation, social justice, hospitality and equality.

The new poll suggests that religious observance in modern Britain has become a habit reserved for special occasions. Just 13% of those questioned claimed to visit a place of worship at least once a week, while 43% say they never attend a religious service.

Those of other faiths are the most regular attenders. 29% say they attend a religious service at least weekly. And while 54% of Christians questioned saying they intended to go to a religious service over the holiday period, research indicates that only 6% of the population do so – according to a report in The Times newspaper yesterday.

The economically privileged are most likely to visit church this Christmas. 64% of the wealthiest expect to attend, compared with 43% of those in the lowest income group.

Only 17% think that Britain is a ‘Christian nation’. The clear majority, 62%, agree Britain is better described as "a religious country of many faiths".

Reaction to the new poll has been predictable. The Church of England says that its one million attenders are still the largest gathering in the country. It denies that mainstream religion is a source of tension and says that the "impression of secularism in this country is overrated".

However, Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association declared: 'This is the evidence for what most people are increasingly accepting as common sense. Britain is not a Christian country and the churches, in spite of their continuing privileges and increasingly shrill insistences to the contrary, have lost the right to speak for Britain. Still less is it possible to claim that Britain can be defined instead as "multi-faith", when such clear majorities disown religion.”

He added: “The fact that the Government does not accept this fact, but continue to define the communities of Britain in faith terms, continue to promote faith schools, and to pay unjustified attention to unrepresentative religious ‘leaders’ must be a source of increasing frustration for many.”

Other suggest that the onus of change is now on churches and religious bodies themselves, to define a fresh role for themselves and revisit the roots of their traditions for resources to root out bad religion.

Writing this week on the Guardian’s Comment-is-Free, the think tank’s co-director Simon Barrow observed: “At Christmas [the churches] proudly announce that it's all about the Christ-child, while pretty comprehensively ignoring most of what he said or did as an adult.”

He continued: “Jesus showed no great interest in organised religion. He blessed peacemakers and advocated love of enemies. He broke popular taboos against people regarded as disgraceful or "unclean". ..He ate and drank with the worst of them… he saved his sharpest condemnations for those who thought they had some monopoly on God. It should hardly need saying that very little of this stacks up with what most people find when they go to their local church - at Christmas, or at any other time.”

The full Guardian report is here. The paper’s leader response is here.

[Also on Ekklesia: Redeeming Religion in the Public Square A ground-breaking new approach to faith and politics. Faith and Politics After Christendom - a comprehensive overview of how and why the church-state settlement is unravelling, and the alternative; New opinion poll shows British attitudes are increasingly non-religious - 24 November 2006]

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.