The Claim
“Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society. In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate.”
Pope Benedict XVI, visit to the UK, 16 September 2010

Cathy Newman checks it out
The Pope put it more diplomatically than his cardinal. But the well-varnished prose couldn’t quite disguise the Vatican’s fears about the state of Britain’s spiritual health. Clearly the Pontiff and his people are worried an “aggressive” secularism is undermining traditional values.

The government wants to persuade him otherwise. Conservative chairman Baroness Warsi insisted yesterday she and her compatriots – unlike the unholy Alastair Campbell – “do God”. Who’s right?

The analysis
In 2001 the Census asked about religion for the first time and 71.8 per cent of us in Great Britain said we were Christian. 2.8 per cent said they were Muslim, 1 per cent Hindu, 0.6 per cent Sikh, 0.5 per cent Jewish and 0.3 per cent were Buddhist.

In contrast those of us who replied that we had no religion totalled 15.1 per cent – the second largest group – while 7.8 per cent of people not replying to the question.

It’s the most comprehensive set of statistics around, but as it was the first time the question was asked, and the next Census isn’t due until next year, it can’t tell us much about the rise or otherwise of atheism.

And, says Jonathan Bartley from the think tank Ekklesia, you have to recognise that the Census shows those who culturally identify with religion, not those who actively practice religion.

Instead we have to rely on a series of smaller polls and church attendance figures to get a more accurate picture.

What is clear from the different samples is that those who say they have no religion has increased significantly over the last 20 to 30 years that data is available for.

An Ipso Mori poll put those who said they had no religion at 13 per cent in March 1992, compared to around 22 per cent at two separate times during April 2005.

Likewise the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey that runs from 1983 – one year after the pastoral visit of Pope John Paul II in 1982 and the last time a pontiff was on British soil – sees a jump in those saying they belong to no religion from 31.28 per cent in 1983 to 43.19 per cent in 2008.

At the same time the number of people attending Anglican churches has dropped from 39.75 per cent in 1983 to 22.51 per cent in 2008, according to the BSA (57 per cent in 1997 to 42 per cent in April 2005 according to the Ipso Mori poll).

And the Church of England’s own attendance in England figures show a similar decline, dropping from nearly 1.3m at the turn of the century to 1.187m in 2003 and then to 1.15m in 2008. Bartley’s interpretation is that the decrease has “bottomed out into a more gentle decline”, rather than bottoming out altogether.

Yet the Church of England says the number of baptisms remains “stable” with an increase in the number of child and adult baptisms (one year and older) – possibly a reflection of parents looking to get their child into church schools as a staggering one quarter of all primary schools are church schools.

In contrast, those saying they belong to the Catholic Church has remained more constant – staying around 12 per cent according to the Ipso Mori poll and fluctuating around nine per cent according to the BSA. The Catholic Church says there are around six million Catholics in Scotland, England and Wales, with weekly mass attendance around 1.1m.

This may be more due to immigration, particularly from Eastern Europe. “My impression from (statistics) is that immigration stemmed and slightly reversed the decline over 2005-09, rather than created a massive increase,” Nick Spencer from the think tank Theos said. “What will now happen will depend in some measure on the notoriously unpredictable migration trends.”

Other religions have also seen an increase in their numbers, according to the two polls, albeit with smaller numbers. The Muslim population in particular has risen from just over 0.5 per cent to around three per cent according to both polls, due to a mixture of immigration, higher birth rates and conversion.

Yet, while the UK population is turning away from organised religion, that does not strictly mean we are abandoning spirituality altogether.

In 2004, a survey of 10,000 people for the BBC found that 46 per cent of people in the UK said they “have always believed in God”, going up to a total of 79 per cent when that was widened to believing in God, a higher power or some sort of spirituality.

Cathy Newman’s verdict
There’s no doubt that atheism is on the rise and that the number of Anglicans going to church is in decline. But other faiths are faring rather better, with immigration being a significant factor. And even if people are turning away from organised religion, that isn’t the same as abandoning some form of spirituality altogether.

Philip Larkin put it pretty well in his poem Church Going. Church, he said, “never can be obsolete” because “someone will forever be surprising/A hunger in himself to be more serious/And gravitating with it to this ground…/If only that so many dead lie round.”