Opinion polls track opinions, with varying degrees of accuracy - sometimes dependent on the wishful thinking of those commissioning the polls. But many think that censuses are really accurate, because the entire population is included. Really accurate? There lies the rub,
Back in 2001, the UK included in its official census the question "What religion are you?" for the first time. Why? The British government was under attack for using tax payer dollars to fund church schools, services and chaplaincies. The result showed 72% of the population declared themselves to be "Christians". Hurray, responded the politicians, and ordered the coffers to remain open to supporting schools, churches and vicars.
After all, the UK does have its own State religion, the Church of England, Which under the guise of the Episcopalian Church, has been successfully exported to many countries: it even has a foot hold in the USA.
"Hang on a cotton picking minute!" protested Richard Hawkins, along with humanists and secularists of all colors in the UK. Their objection was that the question was phrased as if it was the natural state to have a religion, and,even more sinister, the answers were going to be poured over by civil servants of various hues and colors. Factors that were bound to induce a huge bias towards false reporting they suggested.
So, they conducted various opinion polls, and came to the conclusion that "true theism" accounted to less than 50% of the UK population. Despite any census, the nation had gone secular while no one was looking.
Fast forward to the 2011 census - whose numbers are even at this moment being studied deeply by pundits all around the globe. The number of Christians has dropped from 37.3 million to 33.2 million, or down to just 59% of the population. A result that is claimed to be the result of a secular campaign called "For God's sake vote No". Moreover, those who now declared to have no religion at all increased to 25% of the population.
(Hidden in all the statistics is the fact that 12% of Londoners now state that they are Muslims, but that is the subject of a different article).
Evens so, 59% of Brits are Christian, so the claims of the secular are dashed? Not necessarily.
A survey (with all that allows for inbuilt inaccuracy) of those who stated that they are Christian revealed that only 31% of them said that they tried seriously to follow the teachings of Christ. Half of the them said that they were not really religious at all, and 15% had never read any pat of the bible. But, if those figures are accurate, and can be extrapolated, there are over 10 million people in that Nation still deeply committed to "hard core" Christianity. Claims by Hawkins that the church is a spent force seems somewhat premature and goes in the face of the available evidence.
In the larger context, it is observed that there does seem to be a world wide swing away from organized theism. The latest example being the New Zealand government's leaking ahead of time that their latest census will reveal the shocker that that nation has gone secular.
But there seems to be two issues that really ought to bring both sides to the debating table in order that we in the middle can get on with our more mundane lives. What, exactly, do both sides accept that the man in the street means by "religion"? Not such a silly question, for some everyday folk include the notion of having a vague sense of spirituality to mean religion. Indeed, some maintain that to believe in astrology means that you have "got religion".
Secondly, and far more important, how, exactly, are theist and non-theist going to agree to some common ground where it would not be impossible for us to work together for the common good? The constant bickering over the extremities of their differences makes some despair at how much money is wasted on mindless attempts to change unchangeable minds and attitudes.
Mr Hawkins is a decent man, with honestly held opinions. But he does seem, to me, to make your average angry-atheist seem as easy going and relaxed as a life long Buddhist. But then, when he hears of the latest antics of the Westboro Baptist Church, one can understand why he sometimes gets so passionate in his outrage.