Lies, damn lies and religion

There’s an article in today’s Times about the rapid decline in church attendance in the UK. The particular angle they’ve chosen to take is that within a mere 30 years, the number of people going to mosque every weekend will outnumber those going to church. This is illustrated by a dramatic graph with the Christian line sweeping down at a vertiginous angle and crossing the lines for Muslims and Hindus, which are creeping up a bit slower at the bottom.*

Leaving aside the huge uncertainties involved in extrapolating the trends forward, I can’t help feeling that the graph is missing something important: a line for the vast majority of us who don’t go to any kind of religious service. If they had included us, and changed the scale of the y-axis to accommodate us, all the religious people would be squashed down into a very flat and unimpressive bit at the bottom of the chart.

Of course it’s an interesting and significant demographic shift if the number of churchgoers changes from about 8% to 1% in 45 years, as the graph suggests. But if you say instead that the number of people who don’t go to church/mosque/temple regularly is rising from 90% to 94%, it doesn’t seem quite so dramatic.

As regular readers will know, I’m not about to lose sleep over shrinking congregations; and I certainly don’t believe there’s some kind of essential connection between Britishness and Christianity. But I was mainly annoyed by the use of statistics.

*The graph isn’t available online or I’d link to it. The Times’s consistent habit of having less in the way of pictures and graphics online than in the dead tree edition always seems to be completely missing the point, to me, but hey-ho.

4 Comments

  1. anne
    9 May 2008 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    Good post, Harry.

    Well at least we in the invisible majority can rest assured that Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor is exhorting the righteous to treat us with “deep esteem” (whatever that may mean – sounds ironic to me).

    Am baffled that The Times has such an impoverished website.

  2. Harry
    9 May 2008 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    Cardinal CMoC pissed me off this morning on the Today programme when he said, explaining why a lack of God is ‘dangerous’:

    if you go just by reason, I think, without faith, without belief in God, you can imagine, uh, for instance, in the last century, some of the faithless or supposedly faithless societies, people like uh Hitler or Stalin, having a country which is, if you like, a God-free zone, uh a dictatorship ruled by reason – and where does it lead? to terror and oppression.

    Equating godlessness with Stalin/Hitler is offensive anyway: but anyone who describes either of those regimes as ‘ruled by reason’ is either disingenuous or completely historically illiterate.

  3. anne
    9 May 2008 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    Pissed me off too, for the same reason. (I was being deeply sarcastic about “deep esteem” of course.) He is patronising beyond belief. That “Hitler or Stalin” trope gets trotted out so often it must be on the script from Vatican City.

    Godwin’s law…

  4. Harry
    10 May 2008 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Not just the Vatican, of course: it seems to be the currently fashionable argument from the creationist/intelligent design crowd—I don’t know if you’ve been following the current fuss over Expelled, but that movie apparently implies that Darwinism leads to Hitler. Hooray for intellectual rigour.

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