by Asad Mirza
Official census figures from Britain point to the falling number of Christians in the country, while in America a demand is growing to declare the country a Christian nation.
Over the years, it was believed that Christianity was ebbing in the United Kingdom, but now the fear has been proved right. The figures made public on November 29, from the 2021 census published by the Office for National Statistics show that, for the first time, less than half of the population of England and Wales consider themselves to be Christians.
Their number fell by 17 per cent in a decade, to 27.5 million; the number of people who ticked the “no religion” box rocketed by 57 per cent, to 22.2 million. Though some may say that now the UK is becoming more secular, but others also point to the fact that at the cost of Christianity, some other religions are growing.
The annual British Social Attitudes Survey, by contrast, found in 2020 that 53 per cent of British adults belong to no religion, with only 37 per cent Christians. Separately a poll commissioned by Humanists UK in 2019 showed that 29 per cent of British adults hold all the fundamental beliefs and values of humanists, hinting at the widespread shift in popular values, opinions, and identity the UK has undergone in the twenty-first century.
The census showed that the number of Muslims has risen by 42 per cent, they now constitute 7 per cent of the British population. British Hindus hit the million mark for the first time.
These changes also reflect big demographic shifts. One in six of those who filled in the census were born abroad, compared with one in ten a decade ago. Three cities are “majority-minority”: Birmingham (51.4 per cent), Leicester (59.1 per cent) and Luton (54.8 per cent), i.e. Christians have become a minority in these cities.
The Economist magazine says that some on the right are bewailing the revelation that Christianity is now a minority religion. But will passing this symbolic threshold actually change anything? It could influence discussions over the state funding of faith schools. Most are still Christian amidst concerns that non-Christian faith schools may exacerbate ethnic segregation: Hindu schools, for example, tend to be populated only by children of immigrants from south Asian countries.
There is another related worrying thought, if immigration continues to rise, secularisation will slow. As it is assumed that immigrants tend to have a reviving effect on all religions; that is largely why church attendance has held up better in London than it has in other places.
Meanwhile, the Labour Party is proposing to abolish the House of Lords, bishops and all. Yet, the most distinctive element of Britain’s form of theocracy is likely to adapt rather than disappear. Though he promised in September 2022 to “inviolably maintain and preserve the settlement of the true Protestant religion” King Charles III seems taken by the practices of other believers, too. At his coronation next May, he may try to cast himself as a defender of all faiths. It helps that he is king alongside a Hindu Prime Minister and a Muslim Mayor of London, opines The Economist.
The ONS figures also revealed that the majority of Muslims are living in the areas of England and Wales with the worst levels of deprivation. Muslims now account for 7 per cent of the population in England and Wales, some 3.9 million in 2021, however, the data showed 61 per cent of them live in the lowest 40 per cent of areas ranked by deprivation score, The Guardian has reported.
Added to it, immigration has always been one of the major drivers of the UK’s politics and there is a belief amongst the ‘Whites’, that immigration is responsible for changing the UK’s nature and character. Brexit was chosen as a direct result of this fear along with related economic woes.
In the US, however, growing numbers of religious and political leaders are embracing the ‘Christian nationalist’ label and some dispute the idea that the country’s founders wanted a separation of church and state. On the other side of the debate, however, many Americans – including the leaders of many Christian churches – have pushed back against Christian nationalism, calling it a ‘danger’ to the country.
According to a report released by the Pew Research Centre on October 27, more than four-in-ten US adults say the country should be a ‘Christian nation,’ but far fewer want churches to endorse candidates, speak out on politics
Most US adults believe America’s founders intended the country to be a Christian nation, and many say they think it should be a Christian nation today, according to the survey designed to explore Americans’ views on the topic. But the survey also finds widely differing opinions about what it means to be a ‘Christian nation’ and to support ‘Christian nationalism’.
For instance, many supporters of Christian nationhood define the concept in broad terms, as the idea that the country is guided by Christian values. Those who say the United States should not be a Christian nation, on the other hand, are much more inclined to define a Christian nation as one where the laws explicitly enshrine religious teachings.
Overall, six-in-ten US adults – including nearly seven-in-ten Christians – say they believe the founders “originally intended” for the US to be a Christian nation. And 45 per cent of US adults – including about six-in-ten Christians – say they think the country ‘should be’ a Christian nation. A third say the US ‘is now’ a Christian nation.
These juxtaposing findings lead us to wonder whether the Western world is trying to really abandon Christianity as the state religion, or taking a leaf from the current Indian politics. Are they going to reassert and re-establish themselves as leading Christian nations that need to be watched? Does it also sound to be a death knell of a secular state, needs to be seen.
(Asad Mirza is a senior journalist based in New Delhi. In his career spanning more than 20 years, he was also associated with BBC Urdu Service and Khaleej Times of Dubai. Views are personal.)