A new Home Office report has found that four out of five people in England and Wales say they feel an affiliation with an organised religion. The largest number – 74% – say they are Christians.
However with church attendance on the decline and only 7% of Christians in the UK attending church, the figure seems remarkably high.
Why do so many people who have no formal contact with a religious organisation still claim to believe in some form of higher power?
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Hanne Stinson, director of the British Humanist Association, says she thinks many of them are “cultural Christians”.
They see themselves as being Christian in the same way as they are British, almost in a tribal way.
“People label themselves with what they were brought up with,” said Hanne.
“If they haven’t gone to church for 20 years they still put themselves down on official forms as Church of England.
“Even one of our members put himself down as Christian on the census – it’s a common reaction of someone who’s been brought up Christian.”
Shirley Lumsden, a Roman Catholic, and her husband Chris, a Presbyterian, chose a humanist naming ceremony instead of a christening for their son Archie.
She agrees she is probably a good example of a cultural Christian.
“I tick catholic on forms because it’s my background but I can’t tell you the last time I was inside a church,” the mother-of-two said.
“We felt it would be hypocritical to have a christening and we didn’t like the structure of a traditional service with the words and music the same for everyone.
“With the humanist service we could choose words that meant more to us.”
Prof Roddy Cowie, a psychologist at Queen’s University, Belfast, agrees that Europe-wide, culturally our values are rooted in Christianity.
“But it is also true to say that a lot of people whose outlook is shaped by Christian values attach themselves to practices which are not Christian, like yoga or astrology.”
He says the narrow options of some surveys distorts the wide-ranging degrees of people’s beliefs.
Ms Stinson blames the way forms such as the census are worded, with a choice of organised religions or “none” on the boxes to be ticked.
“Some people have a vague belief in some sort of deity and they don’t like writing ‘none’.
“You have to be fairly convinced to write ‘none’.”
While Dr Cowie said both figures from census-style questions and church attendances are “not very meaningful”, a “very clear majority” of people have some spiritual sense.
And that there is evidence that under extreme pressure the number who turn to prayer is even higher than the figures quoted by the Home Office.
The answer to the gaping void between church attendance and people who claim an affiliation with a religion appears to be twofold.
People may tick the Christian/Jewish/Muslim boxes because of their cultural heritage but psychologists say the need to believe in a higher being is almost innate in humans.
“There is an inner aspect to our consciousness which can’t be fully explained away in purely material terms,” said Dr Les Lancaster, of the School of Psychology Liverpool John Moores University.
“And aspiring to something greater than themselves, for many people does not mean going to a place of organised worship.”
The problem of the gulf between faith and active worship seems one peculiarly belonging to established Christian churches.
The situation is almost the reverse for Islam, said Inayat Bunglawala, of the Muslim Council for Britain.
“The is a growing consciousness that Muslims are part of a worldwide community.
“Of course we are losing quite a few of the younger generation, who go out clubbing and even take drink. But it is nothing like the Christian churches.
“If someone misses prayers, someone will ask where they were – there is a mutual solidarity that tries to keep the faith.”
The Home Office survey shows people want to believe in a supernatural power so why is that failing to fill the pews on Sundays.
“I don’t think the structures of the past are answering everyone’s needs,” said Dr Lancaster.
“They can buy into Buddhism, and Islam is very attractive. It’s beliefs that are bound up in institutions that are different.
“Christianity seems to have difficulty incorporating a contemporary view of the world.”