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It is sometimes said that when academics set off in search of ‘the historical Jesus’ – the real, original, authentic, before–the–Church–corrupted–him–by–turning–him–into–something–he–never–claimed–to–be Jesus – they find themselves look down a deep well of historical evidence and seeing the vague reflection of a figure who looks suspiciously like themselves.
As with Jesus, so with social research surveys: go in search of ‘the truth’ in a set of data tables and you will come back with the story that best fits your own narrative. Take, for example, a new ComRes poll commissioned by BBC Religion and Ethics into belief in the resurrection.
In response, a spokesman from the Church of England said that the survey proves that “many British people, despite not being regular churchgoers, hold core Christian beliefs”. I daresay a spokesman for some secular or atheist society has or would say something like the study proves that Britain no longer holds Christian beliefs in any meaningful way or number. A spokesman for Modern Church said that asking adults to believe in the resurrection “the way they did when they were at Sunday school” is to treat them like children (presumably because only children could believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ). By contrast, Charles Moore in The Telegraph pointed out that even “lifelong, churchgoing Christian[s]”, like himself, baulk at facing a tick–box when it comes to something as nuanced as resurrection and life after death. The full data tables are available here so you can assess who is right.
Being thoroughly objective, neutral and impartial, I would never dream of playing this game. But it is nonetheless interesting how the survey proves right everything I have ever written, said or thought on this subject, or indeed any.
First: nominal Christian identity is on the wane: a third of 25–34s consider themselves to be Christian, compared with 75% of over 65s.
Second: a higher proportion of younger ‘Christians’ attend church than do older ones. To be precise, over 40% of 18–24s and 25–34s are “active” attenders (once a month or more) compared with a third (32%) of over 65s, a quarter (26%) of 55–64s, and just over a fifth (22%) of 46–54s. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, in the future those who call themselves Christian are more likely to mean, and do something about it.
Third, pretty much all this goes for the resurrection itself: belief in it declines with age (from 59% among over 65s to 34% of 18–24s), but now nearly all (93%) of ‘active’ Christians believe in the resurrection. (The survey divides belief in the resurrection into two levels – “word–for–word as described in the Bible” and “the Bible [account] contains some content which should not be taken literally” – but this is something of a red herring for reasons hinted at by Charles Moore).
Fourth, these figures are pretty much within the range of surveys in this area for the last twenty years, if towards the bottom end of this range: The ComRes study shows 44% of people reporting some belief in the resurrection. British Religion in Numbers reports figures that range between 43% in 1999 to 57% in 2008 for the same (or similar) question. My sense is that belief data of this nature are sliding but somewhat more slowly than affiliation data.
Fifth, this is not either/or: the edges are messy. Thus, 9% of people who don’t call themselves Christian believe in the resurrection (and 1% say they believe in it “word–for–word”). Conversely, 16% of active Christians say they believe in “reincarnation”, although the way that this is described by the survey – “starting a new life in a different physical body” – is arguably more theologically orthodox than the rather disembodied alternative of “another life where your soul lives on”. Still, I don’t imagine that many respondents will have read enough N.T. Wright to pick up on that point.
So there we go, just what I always said: the picture of a nation losing its nominal Christian identity fast, and its Christian beliefs much more slowly; one that has a smaller but more engaged and activist Christian core; and one that is generally becoming spiritually messier and more plural, rather than straightforwardly more secular. That’s the image I detect when I stare down the well, and there’s no way that image could be of me.
Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos | @theosnick
Image by Kashif Mardani on Flickr available under Creative Commons License 2.0
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