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British Opinion Polls Reveal a Dramatic Decline in Impact of the Bible on the UK - Does This Spell the End of Christianity

24/09/2014 14:40 BST | Updated 23/11/2014 10:59 GMT

A recently published review of opinion poll data, from 123 national sample surveys of the UK adult general population, documents dramatically declining allegiance to the Bible over recent years, even among regular churchgoers.

The overall emerging picture is that household ownership of the Bible has slumped, readership of the Bible has declined (with only around one in ten reading it at least weekly and three-quarters less than once a year, or never).

The study, just published in the 'Journal of Contemporary Religion', also found that knowledge of the content of the Bible is decreasing, only a small and dwindling minority believes the Bible to be true, word for word. Key storylines in the Bible--Creation, Virgin Birth, gospel miracles, Resurrection--are being progressively rejected as historically inaccurate.

The analysis, published by Clive Field, from the Universities of Birmingham and Manchester, included as well 35 national and local sample surveys of adult religious populations.

Entitled, 'Is the Bible Becoming a Closed Book? British Opinion Poll Evidence', the investigation suggests one interpretation of this mass of data might be that Christianity is becoming 'de-coupled' from the book on which it is founded.

Opinion poll surveys representative of the general population began in Britain in 1937, with the launch of the British Institute of Public Opinion (later Gallup Poll), which first covered the Bible in a question in 1938: "What book of all you have read impressed you most?" The Bible was mentioned by 16% of interviewees.

Since then there have been 123 national sample surveys of the adult general population, conducted between 1948 and 2013, where the relentless decline of the impact of the Bible on the UK population is documented.

In the first national polls from the 1940's and 1950's, nine-tenths of homes possessed a Bible, but this has since decreased to 79% in the 1990's, reaching a low of 52% in 2010.

In a fairly recent poll of 2004, individual Bible ownership was: men 56%, women 72%, 18-24s 39%, 65+ 85%. Protestants were significantly more likely to own a Bible than were Roman Catholics.

The number of Britons claiming to read the Bible at least weekly has fallen from 16% in 1973 to 9% in 2010.

Asked about the town in which Jesus was born, just under three-quarters named Bethlehem in the most recent polls, a drop of over 10 percentage points from the previous decade. During the 1990s, around two thirds could name the angel said to have told Mary she was with child, while in 2007, 27% did not even know the messenger was an angel, let alone his or her name.

Only 26% knew that Mary was engaged (not married) when she discovered she would give birth to the Son of God. Four polls in the 1990s put awareness of the Resurrection on Easter Day at two-thirds, but the proportion fell to 55% in 2000, and 48% in 2004.

In 1973, 56% proclaimed belief in 'Bible truth', but, by 1982, just 27% described the Bible as God's message to all mankind, and 21% accepted all the stories in the Bible as true. Even 18% of definite believers in God struggled to give credence to much of the Bible. Men were more likely than women to argue the Bible is untrue (38% versus 22% in 2008).

The account of the creation in Genesis is now widely rejected in favour of evolutionary theory. Back in 1968, 80% of Britons contended God had created the universe and 62% still believed this in 1987; at the other end of the spectrum, just 32% subscribed to the theory of evolution in 1973.

But over the last two decades God (and thus the Bible) has been marginalised. Two-thirds to four-fifths now accept that human beings have developed from earlier species of animals, while believers in the so-called young earth creation theory (that God made human beings in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years) fell from 29% in 1995 to 20% or less in the most recent polls.

Doubt about the New Testament similarly manifests itself in the matter of the miracles described in the gospels as performed during Christ's lifetime. In 1968, 70% agreed these definitely or probably happened, yet by 1987, this was down to 54%. Four polls between 1984 and 1996 reveal that only around one-fifth considered the miracles historically true, fewer than regarded them as legends, and fewer still than as interpretations by gospel writers.

The Welsh were more inclined to believe that the miracles really happened.

Approximately one-half of the British believed in Christ's Resurrection during the 1990s and early 2000s, but the latest figures from 2012 and 2013 are down to 31%, with 44-47% not believing and 22-25% uncertain.

The personal significance of the Bible has also been in dramatic decline. The Bible is now deemed far less important than a daily newspaper, while for around one-half of adults and two-thirds of under-25s, it now has absolutely no significance in their personal lives.

Whereas, in 1982, just 29% said that the Bible did not influence their lives in any way, by 2010, the number claiming it helped shape their lives was 21%.

In 2010, only 19% considered that UK politics would be improved if more MPs read the Bible; 76% disagreed, including 84% of 18-24s.

The lowest levels of 'Biblecentricism' are to be found among the youngest cohort of adults (aged 15-24) while the highest level is among the over-65s.

Clive Field, the author of this, the most comprehensive analysis of opinion poll data to date on biblical belief, suggests that, short of any future widespread conversion of the young, or perhaps people taking up religion as they get older, all the 'Bible indicators' (eg ownership, belief, personal significance) will continue to decline, as the older generations die out, and are replaced by today's youth.

If the Bible is seen as essential to Christianity, and at the heart of Christian belief, then this research is possibly predicting the relatively imminent demise of Christianity as religion in the UK.

Perhaps the rise of science is linked to the fact that it never tied itself to any one book, but instead adhered to methods for knowing the truth, such as experiments, which keep being refined.

Maybe in order to survive, Christianity will need to tear a leaf out of science's pages? Could it be saved by a similar shift?

But does this inevitably involve a dramatic split away from the Bible being at the centre of this religion?