There is extensive academic evidence that the census question on religion heavily inflates the number of religious people because the text of the question, 'What is Your Religion?' presumes and positively encourages a religious response. That's why it's so surprising that today's figures from the 2011 census show such a slump in the percentage of Christians (down from 72% of England and Wales to 59%) and such an increase in those saying they have no religion (up from 15% to 25%). The figures represent a relative rise in the non-religious of 67% which, in the terms of the question, represents a really significant shift in cultural identity. If this rate of change were to continue (by no means a certainty, of course) Christians would be in a minority in England by late 2018. The results in Scotland, expected next week, might see Christians there set to become a minority even sooner.
Of course, the real figure of people who are actually religious in any meaningful sense that the man or woman on the street would use the word is even lower. We know from research done since the last census that most people who tick 'Christian' do so for cultural or ethnic reasons rather than religious ones and only 48% of those who tick 'Christian' believe that Jesus Christ was real person who was the son of god and rose from the dead. Even fewer go to any sort of religious service - in fact about 90% of the population does not attend a place of worship on an average week. It was one of the aims of the British Humanist Association's Census Campaign last year to encourage such nominal but not actual 'Christians' to tick 'No religion' in 2011.
In spite of this, for ten years Christian lobby groups and activists have made extensive use of the 72% Christian result of 2001 to argue for more influence in public life, more state-funded faith schools and greater privilege for religion. Now that the new results show that the proportion of 'Christians' - even in census terms - has gone down, we might hope that the special pleading the last results engendered will not be repeated. I imagine, however, that it will: the same lobbyists will point to the fact that the 'Christian' population still represents a majority and they will probably - as they have done before - attempt to claim for themselves some of the non-religious population as well, saying they are culturally Christian or have some belief in god notwithstanding their 'non-religious' identity.
The big cultural change reflected in the census results should give lawmakers and government good reason to resist this sort of Christian rhetoric. What is needed in a society that is increasingly diverse and increasingly non-religious is a secular approach to law and policy which does not favour or disadvantage anyone because of their religion or beliefs. Whether it is the policy of increasing the number of state-funded 'faith' schools, the contracting out of public services to discriminatory religious groups, keeping automatic places for Church of England Bishops in the House of Lords, or defending the continued legal requirement for all pupils in state schools in England and Wales to take part in a daily act of 'broadly Christian worship', there is much that government could be encouraged to re-think in light of today's results - and should be.