Are there really more Atheists than Christians in the UK?

So the news … as reported via Sky and many others is this …

Atheist Numbers Surge In England And Wales

Research says that the Anglican and Catholic churches are failing to hold on to those brought up as Christians.

According to new research, around 48.5% of those surveyed in 2015 said they had no religion, compared to the 25% that said the same in the 2011 census.

Those who identified themselves as Christians, including Anglicans, Catholics and other denominations, made up 43.8%.

The percentage describing themselves as Anglican slid from 44.5% in 1983 to just 19% in 2014.

In the same year, Catholics made up 8.3%, other Christians were 15.7% and those of non-Christian religions were 7.7%.

Where Does this data come from?

It comes from a report prepared by Dr Stephen Bullivant who is a Senior Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at St Mary’s University, and is designed to …

to provide a set of reliable, up-to-date statistics on the overall state of Catholicism in England and Wales. This report is the first to be published as part of the Catholic Research Forum, a stream of initiatives based within the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society.

… so anybody claiming that the report has an atheist bias would be a tad challenged to do so.

None of the media stories link to it, but worry not, here is a link where you can find it (and the actual PDF is here).

How exactly did they gather this data?

Like this …

Each year the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, administered by NatCen Social Research, conducts face-to-face interviews with over 3000 British adults, selected by random probability sampling. Those invited to participate are contacted by post twice in advance of the interviewer’s visit. The response rate, typically in the region of 50%, is high. With weighting, the BSA dataset is nationally representative across a range of key demographic variables (e.g., region, age, and sex). It is accordingly held in high regard by sociologists and statisticians.

The full 2014 dataset was released to researchers in October 2015, and is thus the most up-to-date available for this report. Most of
the analyses herein are based, however, on a combined (‘pooled’) dataset, comprising the 2012, 2013, and 2014 waves. This has been done for two reasons. Firstly, to increase the overall sample size (including, of course, the number of Catholics). This is particularly important when one is breaking down the data into more and more precise subgroups (e.g., ‘cradle Catholics, who still identify as Catholic, and who live in the East Midlands’). Secondly, averaging out one’s data over three years guard against the risk of undue credence being accorded to an anomalous year.

So this is based upon data from 2014, and in all probability things will have moved on since then.

To be frank, even if the conclusion is one that you like, I’d still recommend taking it with a pinch of salt because extrapolating an accurate measurement of the thinking of 66 million humans from a data sampling size of just 1500 is only ever going to be at best almost equivalent to sticking your finger in the air for a weather forecast.

You will still however at least get an idea of which way the wind is blowing and how hot or cold it feels, so it is still potentially interesting.

What does the Data Actually Tell us?

OK, so the first important point to note that the primary goal of the report is to outline the specific state of Catholicism within a UK context, so it is not a general religious survey. However, the metrics that are of general interest is where they lay out generic christian statistics and that quite rightly is what has been picked up upon by many.

The first big number (in Chapter 1) is this … the 48.5% …

the largest single category belongs to those who identify as having ‘No religion’. These ‘nones’, as they are sometimes called, account for almost one half of the total population of England and Wales.

… and that 48.5% is larger than all the variations of Christian belief added up, because that other religious total only comes to about 44%. I quibble about these numbers for two reasons …

  • I suspect the actual number of nones is larger … this data is 2 years old
  • What exactly does it measure? Are they asking people if they attend (some do for just social and cultural reasons), or if this 44% actually believe? We just don’t know.

What does clearly appear to be happening is that huge numbers of people are giving up belief. Many born into a specific variation of belief no longer embrace or practise that belief and are now nones …

Belief by its very nature involves people also joining, and so these groups do have converts (people who were not born into it, but instead decided that they wanted to convert from something else). However for every convert that joins, they have all been seeing far more leave …

Will this downward decline of religion continue?

Given the following observation that they make towards the end of Chapter 4, then I think we can very safely assume so …

Women aged 65+ alone make up almost a quarter of all weekly-or- more church attenders among English and Welsh Catholics. Overall, the over-65s (male and female combined) make up just under half – i.e. 46.7% – of all such regular attenders.

Why the huge decline?

Well gosh, that is an interesting question to ponder over because clearly a dramatic shift is taking place. Vast numbers of those born Catholic and Anglican are walking away and abandoning their heritage.

So why oh why would people feel disloyal towards Catholicism, an organisation that has been revealed to have been guilty of systematically covering up child abuse and protecting the abusers on an almost industrial scale all around the planet in every nation?

What about the ever so gay unfriendly Anglicans who insist that those born gay are guilty of being wicked and evil simply because they were born that way and so should be denied the same rights that everybody else has, and should be discriminated against?

So does anybody have any thoughts to explain why people are walking away from these “loving” jolly religious clubs in vast numbers?

Perhaps it has something to do with the vast majority of humans in the UK being decent human beings who don’t wish to be members of a club that can at times be a tad obnoxious when it comes to specific things.

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