2000 years ago a census got a bad press, and there has been a buzz these last couple of days over the detailed analysis of the most recent UK Census from 2011 and the various results.
One headline is a dramatic reduction in the number who answered the question about Religion as Christian. Little surprise, maybe, but a big drop none the less. The BBC has the data graphically and also allows a comparison from 2011 and 2001 by region.
We all recognise the reduction in numbers and influence that mainstream Christianity has. The Church of England data about attendance which suggests that Monthly Attendance dropped from 1.7 million in 2001 by about 63,000 in 2010. This is nowhere near the percentage drop in number recorded in the Census data, so kneejerk rhetoric such as this article Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society actually contain almost nothing that looks like evidence to substantiate his arguments. If the number of people no longer claiming to be Christian is due to the nature of some large Evangelical Churches then why is that drop almost totally made up of people who clearly don't go to Church anyway? If the Church of England "has been taken over by evangelicals", thereby "repelling people", then why are those Churches often the largest in an area? Evidence please, Mr Sanderson.
Sanderson also commends the work of the New Atheists such as Dawkins and Hitchins. I welcome difficult questions as they force us to think carefully about what we actually do mean, but my experience is that the arguments raised by these intelligent men are not reflected in the soundbite responses people give in conversation. Science has not disproved God, as many claim, but I do accept that Dawkins et al have created a vocabulary of suspicion which allow people to dismiss a religious dimension to an issue. Evidence please, Mr Sanderson.
But the problems are not all one-way, as research also shows that just because somebody does not tick the Christianity box on the census form their motives cannot be assumed to be united.
So where do we go from here?
The Christendom model whereby the nation could be won top-down has been falling apart for some time. Local Churches need to be loving their local communities - Mission has to start with relationships. Institutional Churches need to be brave enough to put their money where their theology is and make this happen. Local Churches need to step up to the mark too and get their noses out of the service books.
The media doesn't help. Religion is still an issue of great importance to the majority of citizens in the UK, and yet where are the links to articles about religion on major media outlet web sites? Why, when a issue of religious interest is published, does a very small organisation like the National Secular Society have to be invited to respond as a means of achieving balance?
But most of all beware statistics. When, in 2001, 71.7% claimed a Christian faith we should never have used that as evidence for anything because it was inevitably going to be lower. Similarly 59.3% doesn't mean a huge amount either because census questions are such blunt instruments.