A Gradual Reversion?

I have an odd theory about religion in Britain. Here we go…

Census time has come round again. People across the country are getting white and purple forms through the post. These forms ask questions on various topics, most of them rather dull. But controversially, a question on religion was added into the 2001 Census. That’s still there in the 2011 census.

And it brought an odd phenomenon to public attention.

Basically, a lot of people tick ‘Christian’ on that question; the 2001 Census found that about 72% of the country described themselves as such. Nothing odd so far, obviously – Britain is at least theoretically a Christian country. However, a lot more people call themselves Christian than actually seem to be. Church attendance is low. Polls tend to suggest ambivalence about religious ideas; as one example, a 2006 ICM poll found that only about 33% of people described themselves as ‘religious people’. In the same poll, 43% also said that they never attend religious services. Also overt, evangelical proselytising is both rare and also generally somewhat disapproved of. (As a purely anecdotal example, in my area we have a very active Mormon church. The reaction it gets in my social circle is one of some irritation! It doesn’t help that they like to jump in front of you when you’ve got heavy shopping bags…)

By and large, the British public seems to use the term ‘Christian’ effectively as an ethnic descriptor, rather than as a religious one. (On factor feeding into this, I suspect, could possibly be misgivings over overtly-racial bases for collective identity.)

That said, characterising the British people as atheistic seems to me to be a step too far. Certainly some of us are non-believers (hi! *waves*), and the country as a whole has no particular problem with non-theism. Thing is, while many of the British people may not identify with a specific church in terms of their beliefs, they do seem to have a spiritual sense of sorts. As one piece of evidence, a 2005 Eurobarometer poll (pdf) found that 38% believed that ‘there is a god’ and 40% believe there is “some sort of spirit or life force”, whereas only 20% said they wholey-disbelieved.

So, that’s the nice, data-based section of the post out of the way. Now we proceed to my speculation…

Britain certainly appears to be more post-Christian than Christian as such. That said, people do also appear to have a sense of spiritual need. However, by and large they do not seem to be finding their answers to said needs in traditional churches.

I think I know where at least some of them are going instead.

Now, over the last decade I’ve lived in several very different areas, both demographically and geographically. I’ve also worked in the public sector, the private sector and also studied and researched at various universities. I’ve been in a sufficiently wide range of environments that you wouldn’t really expect to see any patterns at all.

But there is one that I’ve seen. In all of these places, I’ve met practising pagans.

Now, I should make a note here. The word ‘pagan’ is a bit of a trite label to pin on a vast field of beliefs and practises. The impression I have is that it means as many different things to people as there are practitioners! In fact, it’s questionable whether the word itself is really even that useful. I use it here solely as a shorthand for a large and diverse group of people, I do not mean to imply or exclude any particular school of belief or thought.

Now, the funny thing is, I seem to know quite a lot of pagans. But the surveys suggest said population to be relatively small – the 2001 Census returned about 42,000 out of a national population of 58.7 million, or 1 out of every 1,397. This is odd, because on that ratio I wouldn’t expect to know any – any! – pagans! And yet I actually know quite a few. In fact, doing a quick extrapolation, the numbers from my own experience are consistent with a population more on the order of 500,000 – 1,000,000.

One possibility is under-reporting. Certainly I can well imagine that a lot of people feel uncomfortable revealing these sorts of things on census forms. (In 2001, I didn’t answer the religion question.) But order-of-magnitude under-reporting? Even by brown dwarf science standards that would be a rubbish signal-to-noise ratio! In fact, if the census is regularly off by as much as a factor of ten, then the whole exercise would be fatally flawed.

Another is that my social circle is unusual and thus gives a distorted picture. This is probably true at the moment, but it hasn’t always been so in the past. Generalising from postgrad astronomers is going to be unreliable, certainly, but I’m not so sure about generalising from my days at That Mortgage Company or a certain Local Authority. And yet there were definitely pagans there too!

Certainly, I think under-reporting is probably part of it. Probably also me having an odd social circle factors in too. But I think there could be more. Another qualitative impression that I have is that I’m meeting more pagans now than I was back in 2005, and I was meeting more in 2005 than in 2000. I will be very interested to see what numbers this year’s Census finds for pagans, because I think there’s a high growth rate there. A much higher growth rate than any other religious group.

This, in a nutshell, is my suspicion. I think what we could be seeing at the moment here in Britain is the very beginnings of a reversion to paganism.

Of course, I can’t prove this hypothesis, and I don’t intend to try. I find it interesting as a possible social speculation but definitive proof won’t arrive for decades or even centuries – if it arrives at all. Certainly I don’t think this is anything to be worried about – in my experience pagans are almost always reasonable, intelligent, responsible people! And I don’t think Christians have anything to fear, either. Christianity may be experiencing a relative decline, but it’s hardly in any danger of dying out. It will almost certainly remain the single largest religious group for decades and possibly centuries to come.

As to what could be causing this shift, well, now there’s an interesting question. I’m not going to supply a definite answer, but I’ll make one allusion toward my own private theory: if the Internet has been good for anyone, it has definitely been good for people with minority interests!

Now there’s a dangerously radical idea if there ever was one … religious change being mediated by technological change.



4 Responses to “A Gradual Reversion?”

  1. I haven’t looked yet, but I’ve seen someone elsewhere complain there’s no ‘pagan’ option to tick, ergo people have to write it in, if they’re even thinking about it when they get that far.

    The religion quesiton is a poorly designed and thought through statistical quirk, I had actually started working with a couple MPs to get it fixed for this time (ie ask a sensible question) but, well, it never got finished.

    • I think there’s definitely room for improvement on it, yes. And of course what it completely doesn’t measure (and probably can’t measure) is sincerity of belief, regardless of what said belief might be.

      • Considering how many pagans there are in this country I’m suprised there isn’t a box for it, so I’m afraid I’m going to be one of the annoyed people having to write it in 😦

        Other than this, is it me or has the census just got totaly out of hand? Does the goverment really need to know whether I have a driving license or not? They are asking for so much information it will take ages for it all to processed. Anything useful will just get lost in the sea of irrelevant information.

      • I was surprised by how vague a lot – nearly all – of the questions were. There were a lot of them, and they didn’t really seem to gather much useful information. Plus given the volume of other data that the government now regularly collects on us in our increasingly semi-panopticon country, it’s fairly hard to see what the point of the census is now, to be honest.

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