12/12/2012 05:19 GMT | Updated 10/02/2013 05:12 GMT

2011 Census: The Religion Question

Enjoy it: it may be our last.

Rumour has it that the 2011 Census could be the final one: cost and the pressure of instant communications killing off an institution that dates back to the Napoleonic era. So, while we have it we might as well disagree about what it means.

The headlines are clear enough. Christianity remains the largest religion in England and Wales, with 33.2 million people (59.3% of the population) ticking that box. Islam is next with 2.7 million people (4.8% of the population). Other religions total 4.7 million people, or 8.4%. And then 14.1 million people, or 25% of the population, report they have no religion.

Data points can only be understood in context, however, and the context here is that ten years ago the Christian figure was 72%, the non-religion was 15% and the Muslim figure was 3%. The direction of travel seems pretty obvious.

Except that the picture is more complex than that. It's important to recognise what the Census doesn't measure - what people believe or what they practice - and what it does measure - how they identify themselves with regard to a religion, if they choose to (it was the only voluntary question asked).

Just because someone calls themselves a Christian, it doesn't mean they faithfully live by Christian creeds and practices. We all know that. But the same is true for the non-religious. A recent study by Theos/ ComRes into the non-religious,Post-religious Britain? The faith of the faithless, shows how wrong it is to imagine that someone who calls themselves non-religious, or even an atheist, has no spiritual beliefs. A quarter (23%) of atheists, for example, believe in a human soul, 15% in life after death, and 7% in angels. Similarly, a quarter (24%) of the non-religious believe in heaven, whilst a fifth (20%) believe in the supernatural powers of deceased ancestors. Overall, the proportion of people who are consistently non-religious - i.e. who don't believe in God, never attend a place of worship, call themselves non-religious, and don't believe life after death, the soul, angels, etc - is a mere 9%. The non-religious category is as messy as the religious one, with non-religious people believing in things and behaving in ways that are not particularly non-religious.

What this all means is that if it is increasingly hard to sustain the claim that Britain is still a Christian country, it is even harder to claim it is an atheistic or secular one. What we are becoming is ever more religiously plural: ever more people believe, behave and belong in different ways to their neighbours when it comes to religion and spirituality.

This is not, in itself, a good thing or a bad thing. It is meaningless to celebrate unity or diversity for its own sake, as each has its shadow side: unity can exclude, just as diversity can fragment. What matters is the quality of the relationships and interactions - the social and public life - that make up life of the nation in question. And here, pluralism does present 'us' with a challenge.

In the absence of a US-style civil religion, which enables the nation to foster a sense of common identity across different population groups, Britishness or Englishness (tellingly, there is no equivalent word to cover the United Kingdom) has long been amorphous and ill-defined. It has historically been embedded in institutions (we don't naturally theorise about these things). But these institutions, the monarchy under the present Queen excepted, have lost much credibility in the post-war period. The bodies that once embodied our sense of us - Parliament, Church of England, BBC, the police, even the Post Office - no longer do so as well.

This combination - of growing pluralism and eroding common institutions - will be difficult to sustain in the long run. Every nation worth the name has some centripetal forces, which bring people together, to counterbalance the centrifugal ones that come naturally with prosperity. The natural English/ British tendency to treat religion as a largely personal affair means that our growing religious pluralism is unlikely rend the fabric of the country still further. But the century is young. If there are further censuses (censi?) they are likely to track ever greater diversity, and then the fragility of the ties that bind could start to matter.