Who counts as a Christian? You might think this is a pointless question, and you think so for several reasons. You might think the answer is obvious. You might think it does not matter.
The answer is not obvious and it does matter. Why does it matter? Well for one thing the number of Christians and other religious groups in the population is an important consideration in all sorts of public policy. In Britain, the state subsidises and promotes Christianity because this is a “Christian Country”. It supports an Established Church, allowing bishops to sit in parliament. It exempts churches from a range of taxes and from laws that apply to secular organisations. It massively subsidises religious schools – what we now euphemistically call Faith Schools. Even ordinary schools are required by law to carry out daily acts of “broadly Christian worship”. We all pay for thousands of chaplains in the armed forces, hospitals, prisons, police forces, and so on. And it is not only the state. The BBC acts as an unpaid propaganda machine for religion in general and Christianity in particular. The BBC’s religious programming departments pumps out a diet of programmes uniformly sympathetic to a particular strand of ecumenical moderate belief. Even national newspapers run columns angled at Christian believers. All this social engineering is done on the grounds that a large portion of the population is Christian.
So it really does matter who counts as a Christian. If the proportion of believers in the population is to determine matters like parliamentary representation, tax exemptions, planning and other legal privileges, financial subsidies, special educational rights and so on, then we need to know how many Christians there are, and if they are in an overwhelming majority as they certainly were in the 1950s.
There are several ways of determining who is a Christian. All of them are questionable, but let’s just look at a few of them. The method Churches themselves traditionally use are statistics based on baptisms. This method gives quite a high proportion (70% but falling). It is high for the very obvious reason that it includes apostates and indeed most of the country’s atheists, agnostics, rationalists. Most were baptized, as infants, without their consent. Even if baptisms drop off dramatically, as they are doing, it will take two or three generations for the statistics to catch up – by which time even more generations of infants will have been counted as members of the fold.
Incensed by this, a number of non-believers have tried to get themselves removed from the numbers cited by individual churches. Their stories make interesting reading – you can find lots of them on the internet. A few years ago most Churches were stating that there is no mechanism to reverse a baptism. A number of atheist websites offered debaptisim certificates as a joke, but realised that there was a serious demand after tens of thousands expressed an interest. In countries that impose an opt-out church tax, like Germany, hundreds of thousands started opting out it. From 1983 to 2009 the Catholic Church allowed people to “defect” through a formal act called an actus formalis defectionis ab Ecclesia catholica, but provision for this was removed from the Code of Cannon Law in 2009. Since then baptised Roman Catholics have started going out of their way to get themselves excommunicated in order to be formally removed from membership. In France 71 year-old Rene Lebouvier won a legal case in 2012 to get his name removed from the baptismal registry. Anglican Churches now have formal application forms for people to be “unbaptized”. Other churches still have no mechanism at all for officially leaving them.
In any case it is clear that 70% is a massive overestimate based on the faulty assumption that anyone baptised into a Church will remain a believer, and that it is so unreliable that it is worthless. Suppose we counted only those Christians who had been baptized or confirmed as adults. What would that number of Christians be? 1%, 2% perhaps 3% of the population. Now of course this is not an accurate figure, no one would claim that it was. But it is no more misleading than the one the Churches use. It is just biased in the opposite direction.
Another way to assess the number of Christians is the one used on Census forms. Here people self-identify as Christians. In the 2001 Census 72% of the population identified themselves as Christian. In 2011 this had dropped to 54%. This figure is the one favoured by the Government. You might have thought that it would represent an accurate figure – why would anyone identify themselves as Christians if they are not? Well there are a number of reasons, most significantly among them cultural and social. In 2012 the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (UK) sponsored independent professional market researchers, Ipsos MORI, to find out a little bit more about the people who identified themselves as Christians in the 2012 census. The results were astonishing. Only about a third of 'Census-Christians' cited religious beliefs as the reason they had ticked the Christian box on the 2011 Census form – so arguably the a real number of self identified Christian believers is really a third of 54%, something like 18%. And this is all Christians – Anglicans represent less than half of this. So we have an Established Church to favour less than 10% of the population and heavily distorted laws to favour them along with a further 10%.
The results of the survey are available for anyone to view on line. They make fascinating reading. 6% of 'Census-Christians' are out-and-out atheists. An astonishing 32% are not really Christians at all but pantheists or Deists. 50% do not regard themselves as religious people. More than half either regard Jesus as just a man rather than “the Son of God, the Saviour of mankind” or do not believe that he existed at all. Few 'Census-Christians' go to church very often, and most go for non-religious reasons such as “tradition” or social reasons. One can only speculate about how many 'Census-Christians' would agree with the central Christian dogmas of the Incarnation and the Trinity. The question was not included in the survey, but based on the rest of the survey the number could easily be less than 20%.
We could also define a Christian as someone who looks primarily to their religious teachings and beliefs on questions of right or wrong. Well we know the answer to that one too. It is exactly 10% of 'Census-Christians', so 5.4% of the population at large.
Of course there are other ways of finding out how many Christians there are. Another survey could test them on the basic knowledge of the teachings of the sect they say they belong to, or on the central doctrines of their church – the ones that Church leaders affirm are necessary for salvation. Intuition suggests that we might be hard pushed to get above 10% of the population on this basis. Intuition also suggests that Church and State will find reasons not to carry out such surveys, or even to agree on working definitions of the word “Christian”.
So there we are. We have no clear definition of what a Christian is. Those with an incentive to do are left to massively inflate the number of Christians without challenge. And the rest of us pay heavily for it in under-representation in parliament, millions perhaps billions of pounds in extra taxes, and second rate state schools. It’s time perhaps to clean up some definitions, do some proper statistics, re-evaluate government policy, stop discrimination and join the twenty-first century.