This question was prompted by some figures I recently came across from the UK based polling organisation Ipsos Mori, which argued that the British public ‘were wrong about everything’, especially it seems about the numbers of those who attribute themselves to certain religions. Commenting about the results, Bobby Duffy from Ipsos Mori argued that the British public significantly overestimated the number of Muslims in the UK, but significantly underestimated the number of Christians. In regard to the later, Ipsos Mori say that according to the 2011 British Census, 59% (or just over 33.2 million) of the UK population identified themselves as Christian, but that when asked as part of the survey, the public perceived the number at only 34%. Is this true? Are 59% of the UK population Christian? I’m not so sure, and here’s why.
Firstly, we need to define what it means to be a Christian, and in order to do so it surely makes good sense to go back to the original source text, the Bible. Observe what the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 about what it is that results in one’s salvation (thus making them a Christian):
‘Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.’
Now, the 2011 Census data on which the Ipsos Mori survey relies asks respondents to simply identify which religion they feel they belong to, without offering a definition of what it means to believe and/or belong to such. Whilst I can understand why the Census producershave opted for this relatively straightforward methodological approach, it does have a number of significant flaws which means that not all respondents who identify as Christian might actually be saved in the way the Bible describes.
This issue is particularly pertinent in the UK, which arguably has a Christian heritage and which some might say is ‘culturally Christian’, adhering to ‘Christian values.’ Indeed, it appears on the basis of more Ipsos Mori survey evidence that a significant proportion of those who ticked the Christian box might describe themselves as ‘culturally’ or ‘traditionally’ Christian, but who don’t necessarily believe in the Gospel and Lordship of Jesus Christ, key Christian doctrines or participate in Christian activities such as Church attendance.
Indeed, data relating to primary Christian doctrines (that is those which the Bible holds as unequivocally true) such as the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ (Luke 24:36-42), Jesus being the Son of God (Mark 1:9-11) and Jesus being someone’s personal Lord and Saviour (John 14:6 and Acts 4:12) suggests that far fewer than the 59% of those who described themselves as Christian in the above survey actually ascribe to these doctrines and beliefs. Indeed, 32% of those who took part in the above survey who stated in the 2011 Census they were Christian said that they believed Jesus came back to life physically after being dead, 44% said Jesus was the Son of God and 22% said that they have accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. Therefore, based on these figures can we really say that 59% of the British public are Christian?
In regard to participation in Christian activities, such as attending a church service (going to church on a Sunday doesn’t in any sense ensure salvation, although its likely that many who believe the gospel will attend, see this excellent article) according to analysis conducted by Christian Research based on the 2005 Census, 6.3% of the population attended church on ‘Census Sunday’ (8th May 2005) which equates to just over 3.1 million people. This figure relates to churches upholding the Trinitarian tradition (Anglican, Protestant, Free Churches, Catholic, and Orthodox.)
In summing up, based on what we know about how the British Census asks from its respondents in terms of defining their religion, and what survey data says about those who say they are Christians, I think that if we take the Bible as the authority in defining what it is to be Christian and what the key tenets of Christianity are, then far fewer than 59% of the British public are probably truly Christian. Thus, maybe the public’s perception of the number of Christians in the UK is closer to the truth than previously thought, or on the basis of the evidence presented here, lower than the perceived number. More importantly though, it seems sad that there are those who think they’re Christian but who according to the Bible aren’t. Therefore, for those of us that are Christians, why not take the opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ coming into the world, dying and rising again so that those who believe in him might not perish but have eternal life.