16/12/2012 06:05 GMT | Updated 13/02/2013 05:12 GMT

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Take a few headline statistics from last week's national census: numbers of people in Britain identifying as Christian, dropping fast, numbers professing no religion, growing, numbers in Britain born outside the country, growing fast. It is not difficult to see what the second paragraph is likely to be following these figures. But one perennial feature of census questions is that they provoke further questions.

The first one is, what's new here? Less than might be imagined. To what extent is this slow but sure collapse over the centuries of what has been called "the sacred canopy" been mainly a matter of deserting religious institutions so that people, for example, no longer put Church of England on their form, yet go on holding beliefs that find no place in scientific discourse? Much research in religious studies suggests this is the case.

There seems to be still plenty of believing in the midst of not much belonging, a growing individualism that shuns institutions, plus a general move away from joining older forms of association, trades unions, political parties. This is not to say that people aren't finding newer ones serving specific needs: book clubs, you want to talk about your solitary pursuit, reading, choirs, singing together feels good and you don't have to be on a football terrace to do it, health spas, me and my body need a lot of loving.

Less obviously sociologically is the question to what extent sacred values and rhetoric characteristic of certain types of religious consciousness have also been retained, but have been transferred and now pervade secular attitudes. By sacred values is usually meant values sustained by non-negotiable positions, non-instrumental approaches, sharp boundaries, taking an authoritative moral high ground.

To illustrate: the contemporary issue of gay marriage is projected as a sacred value both by those who oppose it and by those who promote it. On the one side it is framed in the sacredness of equality as a human right. On the other side in the sacredness of marriage as a hallowed institution bearing core social meanings. Views about gay rights become matters of inclusion and exclusion, the touchstone of acceptance in certain social groupings. This does not make for a very fruitful conversation.

The last Labour Government not surprisingly framed the issue in terms of equality. Civil partnership was given legislative and legal status precisely to create the same equality of entitlement for same-sex partners as held by heterosexual married couples. Civil partners have exactly the same rights as married couples including adoption of children. It is difficult to see what the further quest for a name-change to gay marriage obtains instrumentally other than a rhetorical assertion of what has now become a sacred value, more a quest for respect than a tangible outcome. It is certainly presented as non-negotiable and generates its fair share of moral outrage directed against those who oppose it.

Does this aggressive cohabitation of secular and religious sacred values matter? Yes it does. Modern pluralist societies are involved in repeated negotiations of cultural values between their citizens. Intractable civil conflicts such as those in Palestine-Israel are characterised by clashes of sacred values of exactly this nature, spun out of control through non-negotiable, non-instrumental approaches against a background of violence.

The appalling violence of the totalitarianisms of the last century were partly the product of the perverse sacralisation of land, race, Party, proletariat. Bonhoeffer's religionless Christianity might be seen as a theological reaction to the Nazi sacralisation of the secular as much as to the collapse of Christianity's own sacred values in Germany in the collaboration of the German Christians.

Is there something here that might explain the different levels of institutional attrition within and between the faiths in the UK ? The Anglican Church has been suffering badly. It is par excellence, with its synodal structure, a Church willing to reframe its sacred values and negotiate compromises. The Catholic Church has suffered its losses but these seem recently to be a natural reaction to clerical sexual abuse of children. It can hardly be accused of being relativist. It is generally noted for its non-negotiable stance on a range of issues, not least those that might be expected to drive away the bulk of its members, the role of women and gender. Ditto for most Muslim communities who also sustain high levels of ritual observance, clear boundaries and identity, and are suffering far less losses.

This is clearly only part of the multiple causes of decline in formal religious adherence associated with the urban life and a culture based on an ideology of individualism and choice, a world still of believing but not much belonging. But turning the spotlight on Africa, Latin America and Asia reveals to what degree the UK and parts of Europe show a global exceptionalism. It is an important part of the work of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation to make sure this exceptionalism does not become a dangerous prism through which to view the world and international relations.

The national census can tell us a lot about formal adherence to religious institutions and communities. It tells us nothing about the quest for spirituality in Britain, the growth of new rituals, what is going on outside the churches where the flowers and candles proliferate, and the new non-negotiable "secular" sacred.