Notebook > Religion
HISTORIC ARCHITECTURE: St. Paul’s Church, near York, north-eastern England.
Associated Press/Photo by Anna Gowthorpe
HISTORIC ARCHITECTURE: St. Paul’s Church, near York, north-eastern England.

In decline

Religion | Christianity drops among the English and Welsh

Issue: "Another dark day in America," Jan. 12, 2013

Recently released census results in England and Wales reveal that the number of self-identifying Christians there has dropped significantly in the past decade, from 37.1 million to 33 million. Still, Christianity remains by far the largest religious group in Britain, with Islam second at 2.7 million. More than 14 million (about a quarter of respondents) said they had “no religion”—a response that is notoriously difficult to interpret—while 7 percent chose not to answer the religion question at all. “Atheist” was an option on the survey, but less than 30,000 selected it.

Outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams downplayed the statistics, saying that while the state-backed Church of England may appear “dysfunctional,” he did not think that British Christianity was “fading away.” Secularists took a different view. Richard Dawkins, the controversial author of The God Delusion, said that the numbers definitively proved that Christianity no longer enjoyed the “widespread popular support” it could count on in Britain’s past. Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, contended that the results made the nation’s preferential treatment for the Church of England highly problematic. The church’s “claims to speak for the whole nation are now very hard to take seriously,” Sanderson said.

The most common “alternative” faith named on the survey was “Jedi Knight,” which 176,000 respondents selected. (The “Jedi Church,” following themes from the Star Wars series, says on its website that “there is one all powerful force that binds all things in the universe together.”) Compared to the 2001 survey, however, Jedi Knights suffered more decline than Christians, dropping by more than half from 10 years ago, when Jedis first appeared as a census option. 

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Tweeting the faith

Pope Benedict XVI
Associated Press/Photo by Gregorio Borgia
Pope Benedict XVI

Many leaders in business, entertainment, and religion use Twitter to send messages to followers in ‘tweets’ of 140 characters or less. Now Pope Benedict XVI, the 85-year-old leader of the Roman Catholic Church, has joined Twitter, too. The pope has Twitter accounts in eight languages, with his English one under the name @Pontifex.

The pope took several days to send his first tweet after joining the social media site, generating speculation (on Twitter, of course) about what his inaugural statement might be. Finally, on Dec. 12, he tweeted “Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart.” That tweet prompted more than 60,000 “re-tweets” by the English account’s followers alone, which already number more than 1.1 million.

According to The New York Times, religious leaders often command proportionately greater influence on Twitter than their numbers might indicate. Entertainers such as Lady Gaga (32 million) and Justin Bieber (31 million) may have many more followers, but pastors and Christian media figures such as Joyce Meyer (1.5 million), Rick Warren (812,000), and John Piper (395,000) often receive far more Twitter traffic—as much as 30 times more—through re-tweets and other ways of sharing content. Twitter is well aware of this fact, and they have tasked a senior executive, Claire Díaz-Ortiz, with reaching out to major religious leaders, including the pope. —T.K.

Thomas Kidd
Thomas Kidd

Thomas is a professor of history at Baylor University and a senior fellow at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion. His most recent book is Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots. Follow Thomas on Twitter @ThomasSKidd.

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