Ye of little faith

The Church of England should drop religion and take up politics
December 12, 2013


It won’t happen, but the message from YouGov’s latest poll for Prospect is clear: the Church of England should abandon religion and become a political party.

Back in 1957, Gallup asked people a range of questions about their faith. They found that most people were Christians who regarded Jesus Christ as the son of God. Most people drew a clear distinction between religion and politics and wanted religious leaders to worry about our souls, but not about government policy.

Half a century later, YouGov has repeated Gallup’s questions and discovered a precipitous decline in religious belief. The decline in church attendance reflects more than a stay-at-home culture dominated by television and computer technology. It flows from a collapse of faith in the central tenets of Christianity.

Back in the 50s, fully 78 per cent thought either there was a personal God (41 per cent) or “some sort of spirit, God or life force” (37 per cent). Just 22 per cent were either atheists (6 per cent) or agnostics (16 per cent). Today there are almost exactly the same number of religious as non-religious Britons. And atheists now easily outnumber believers in a personal God.

There has been an even sharper collapse in the belief that Jesus Christ was the son of God: down from 71 per cent to 27 per cent. And the decline looks set to continue. Whereas 35 per cent of people over 60 hold this belief, the figure among people under 25 is only 9 per cent.

Large numbers of doubters can even be found among people who declare a religious allegiance. One third of the public count themselves as part of the Church of England or Scotland; only 45 per cent of them say that Jesus was the son of God. The figure is higher among Catholics, at 67 per cent—but this still means that one Catholic in three does not share this belief. (Too few respondents to our survey belong to other Christian groups to analyse with confidence.)

As in 1957, we are more likely to believe in life after death than in the devil, but both figures are much lower. Here, as in much of the poll, there is a marked gender gap. Women are more likely to believe there is life after death (39 per cent) than not (26 per cent). Men divide in the opposite direction; by 41 to 27 per cent they reckon that when we die, that’s the end of us.

One issue that was little discussed in the 50s but is more controversial today—especially in the US, but also in Britain whenever creationists wish to set up new schools—is evolution. A clear majority of us think Darwin was right, and life has evolved through natural selection over billions of years. Church of England adherents divide similarly to the population as a whole, but Catholics don’t: just 39 per cent of them accept Darwinian evolution, while slightly more, 44 per cent, either think the Bible tells the real truth (16 per cent) or believe in intelligent design (28 per cent).

Given all these findings, it’s not surprising that only 19 per cent of the public reckon religion can answer most of today’s problems, compared with 46 per cent in 1957—while the proportion saying religion is “largely old-fashioned and out-of-date” has more than doubled from 27 per cent to 58 per cent. Even among Anglicans and Catholics, belief that religion has the answers is a minority view.

Nor should we be amazed that, by almost two to one, we would like to separate Church and state, an issue on which people were evenly divided in the 50s. And the really bad news for the Archbishop of Canterbury is that there is only modest enthusiasm for the link among Church of England adherents, with 46 per cent favouring it, 36 per cent opposed and 18 per cent undecided.

All of which makes our final finding all the more striking. In 1957 most people thought church leaders should keep out of politics. Today, slightly more of us think that senior members of the clergy, including Justin Welby, should be free to “express their views on day-to-day social and political questions” than think they should keep their views to themselves.

In short, we have more respect for what the Archbishop says about greed and poverty than what he says about faith and theology. Perhaps he should consider spending Easter not in a cathedral but at a political conference, pondering resolutions and not the resurrection.