Although most white Britons call themselves Christian, most admit religion plays little part in their lives, a government study shows. But a strikingly different picture emerges in black and Asian communities, who say that their faith is a crucial part of their identity.
And in a sign that Britain’s religious map is likely to change dramatically over the next decade, the numbers of young Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus who stressed the importance of their religion far outstripped the young Christians who professed a similar strength of faith.
The first detailed Home Office survey of the nation’s belief found almost four out of five people expressed a religious affiliation, a result some officials regarded as surprisingly high in an increasingly secular society.
The highest number (74 per cent) called themselves Christian, with Muslims (2 per cent) and Hindus (0.8 per cent) the largest of other faith groups. Almost 22 per cent, nearly all white, said they had no faith.
But there are signs religious affiliation made little difference to the lives of its white adherents. When asked what they considered important to their identity, religion was cited by only 17 per cent of white Christians, behind family, work, age, interests, education, nationality, gender, income and social class. For black people, 70 per cent of whom say they are Christian, religion is third, and Asians placed it second, only behind family. People of mixed race ranked their religion seventh.
Nearly all people who called themselves as Christian (98 per cent) were white, and 2 per cent were black. The majority of respondents who were Muslim were Asian (76 per cent), and most Hindus (83 per cent) and Sikhs (88 per cent) also described themselves as Asian.
Signs of a rapid demographic change in Britain’s religious make-up emerged. Just 18 per cent of Christians aged 16 to 24 viewed their religion as important, but 74 per cent of young Muslims, 63 per cent of young Sikhs and 62 per cent of young Hindus said they did.
Followers of Islam, the country’s fastest-growing religion, tended to live in more deprived neighbourhoods than other faiths. Muslim respondents were also more likely than any group to never have had a job.
Fewer Christians and Muslims had degree-level qualifications than those of other religions; Hindus and Jews had more higher qualifications than the national average. Highest levels of home ownership were among Sikhs (88 per cent), Hindus (76 per cent), Jews (74 per cent) and Christians (74 per cent), with the lowest among Muslims (52 per cent), nearly one quarter of whom rented local authority accommodation.
Most people believed ministers and employers were doing enough to defend and respect religious rights and customs. But in a sign of growing discontent among ethnic-minority youths, some young Muslims and Sikhs said the Government was doing too little. One-fifth of Christians of all ages accused the Government of doing too much to protect religious freedoms.
More than two-thirds of people surveyed were allowed to take time off work for religious ceremonies and festivals. But most said their employers did not provide prayer facilities. Researchers found no apparent link between religious affiliation and participation in the local community, such as by contacting councillors or signing petitions.
A Home Office spokesman said the research, based on nearly 15,500 interviews, was aimed at ensuring government policy reflected social change and tapped into the talents of the ethnic minorities. He said: “We are committed to building stronger and more cohesive communities and to reach out to people at risk of social exclusion.”
Fiona Mactaggart, the Home Office minister, said: “For many people, their religious affiliation is important to their sense of identity. Our job is to take account of this in our policy-making. It is encouraging that most people questioned felt the Government was doing enough to tackle religious discrimination.
“Mutual understanding is important for building strong, active communities in which citizens have the power to shape their future.”