Atheist poll: U.K. Christians not religious

Militant atheist Richard Dawkins says faith is a spent force in Britain and should not affect policy. Photo: Christopher Halloran/
Militant atheist Richard Dawkins says faith is a spent force in Britain and should not affect policy. Photo: Christopher Halloran/
Published February 18, 2012

A survey commissioned by Richard Dawkins, Britain’s high priest of atheism, reports that U.K. residents who call themselves Christian show very low levels of Christian belief and practice.

A poll, carried out last April by Ipsos MORI for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science in the week after the 2011 Census, focused on the beliefs, attitudes and practices of U.K. adults who were recorded as Christian in the 2011 Census.

Of the 2,107 people (age 15 and up) polled, a total of 1,136 defined themselves as Christian. When asked why they think of themselves as Christian, the research found that fewer than three in 10 (28%) say one of the reasons is that they believe in the teachings of Christianity.

According to the poll, people are much more likely to consider themselves Christian because they were christened or baptized into the religion (72%) or because their parents were members of the religion (38%) than because of personal belief.

As many as half do not think of themselves as religious and less than a third claim to have strong religious beliefs. Many Christian practices, including regular reading of the Bible and independent praying, appear to be unsupported among respondents self-identifying as Christian.

Among the poll’s other findings:

? One in six (15%) admits to having never read the Bible outside of a church service, with a further one in three (36%) not having done so in the previous three years.

? The majority (60%) have not read any part of the Bible, independently and from choice, for at least a year.

? Around two-thirds (64%) were not able to identify Matthew as the first book of the New Testament.

? More than one-third (37%) have never or almost never prayed outside of a church service.

? Only one-quarter (26%) say they completely believe in the power of prayer, with one in five (21%) saying they either do not really believe in it or do not believe in it at all.

Asked why they had been recorded as Christian in the 2011 Census, only three in 10 (31%) said it was because they genuinely try to follow the Christian religion, with four in 10 (41%) saying it was because they try to be a good person and associate that with Christianity.

Only half (54%) of the self-identifying Christians describe their view of God in Christian terms, with the others using the term in the sense of the laws of nature (13%), some form of supernatural intelligence (10%), or whatever caused the universe (9%). Six per cent do not believe in God at all.

Just a third (32%) believe Jesus was physically resurrected, with one in five (18%) not believing in the resurrection even in a spiritual sense; half (49%) do not think of Jesus as the Son of God, with one in 25 (4%) doubting he existed at all.

This research found that at the time of the 2011 Census, just over half (54%) the public thought of themselves as Christian, compared with almost three-quarters (72%) in the 2001 Census.

Welcoming the findings, atheist Dawkins said, “Despite the best efforts of church leaders and politicians to convince us that religion is still an important part of our national life, these results demonstrate that it is largely irrelevant, even to those who still label themselves Christian.”

Calling faith a spent force in the U.K., he urged policy-makers to wake up to that reality and stop “trying to impose beliefs on society that society itself has largely rejected.”

Commenting on the survey, Simon Barrow, co-director of the Christian think tank Ekklesia, said: “While we can argue over details, the broad outline of what this survey reveals should not come as any shock or threat to church leaders who have been paying attention to what has been happening in recent decades.

“Top-down and institutional religion is in decline. Trying to restore or maintain the cultural and political dominance of religious institutions in what is now a mixed-belief ‘spiritual and secular’ society is a backward-looking approach,” he said.

“Churches have a creative opportunity here. It is to rediscover a different, ground-up vision of Christianity based on practices like economic sharing, peacemaking, hospitality and restorative justice. These were among the distinguishing marks of the earliest followers of Jesus. They have always been part of the ‘nonconformist’ tradition shared in different ways by Anabaptists, Quakers, radical Catholics, Free Churches and faithful dissenters in all streams of Christian life.”


  • Diana Swift

    Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.

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