Lies, Damned Lies and Christian Statistics

18Jan16

I’m a science teacher. When talking about the characteristics of sound in my lessons, I encourage students to give detail. It’s not enough to say that a change causes ‘more vibrations’. If the sound is a higher pitch, the vibrations of the ear drum will be faster, or more frequent. If the sound is louder, the displacement of the ear drum is bigger; we say the vibrations have greater amplitude or more energy. So it’s not that the ‘more vibrations’ answer is wrong – just incomplete. If we don’t give a full answer it can be misunderstood.

So I was catching up with news and read an article on the BBC about the continued arguments about institutionalized discrimination and hate speech in the Anglican church. Now, this isn’t about Welby being sorry for the discrimination – just not sorry enough to stand against it – or the hypocrisy of them sending out advice to schools on homophobic bullying. Instead, it’s simply about a number in the report.

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I teach my students to do a ‘common sense check’ as part of any calculation and I was bemused that the BBC didn’t appear to have thought this through. Since when was a third of the UK Anglican? Now, I understand that calculating exactly how many (Anglican) Christians in the UK might be tricky, but 26 million seemed too far off to be reasonable. So I did some digging myself, and asked the organisation behind the ‘World Christian Database’ for the source of this number. It’s important to note that on Twitter they were very definite it was an aggregate figure and they used many sources of data.

 

So how should we find out how many (Anglican) Christians there are in the UK?

Simple, isn’t it? Pop into your local church on Sunday morning and count heads. But which Sunday? What about parishioners who are too ill to make it in, or are shift-workers? Would a Christmas or Easter service be more meaningful? And surely some believers prefer to worship in other ways. So church attendance figures, although useful, can probably be considered a lower limit. The Statistics for Mission 2014 (pdf) figures are just under a million for average Sunday attendance during October, with significantly higher numbers for Easter and Christmas services.

Church Attendance: 0.98m (980000)
Christmas Services: 2.4m

There’s been lots of arguments about the census question, starting with the fact that it assumes the respondent will have a religion in the first place. The cultural identity part of this is recognized within the Census analysis, as the quote below demonstrates:
The question (‘What is your religion?’) asks about religious affiliation, that is how we connect or identify with a religion, irrespective of actual practice or belief.

According to the last Census figures, England and Wales has 33m Christians, but this isn’t broken down into denominations. Most data I’ve found suggests around half of UK Christians consider themselves Anglican, so we can get a reasonable estimate.

Census Anglicans: 17m (approx)

Many surveys call this number into question, for example this report discussing data that only 30% of Britons consider themselves religious at all. As a contrast, the British Social Attitudes Survey asks a range of questions of a randomly selected sample (around 3000 people), including their religion and religious upbringing. The last dataset suggests 17% of the population describes themselves as Anglican, a significant drop.
Self-described: 8.5m (from BSAS)
Of course, if we wanted to simply collect data on the number of people who had been baptized, this would be easier. The agreed estimate – which send to have been used for not just years but decades – is 26m. I’d be very interested to know how this value hasn’t changed; surely infant baptisms and deaths of those baptized can’t have coincidentally been in balance for all this time?
Baptized Anglicans: 26m
Most of these are, naturally, infant baptisms – which brings me to an important and obvious point. I was baptized. But like many others, the fact of my baptism is completely irrelevant to my (lack of) belief. This number includes me – and if you were baptized, it includes you too. (Some non-believers, starting with John Hunt in 2009, are trying to do something about this.) So using this figure, while ignoring all the other values, seems disingenuous to say the least and knowingly dishonest at the most. It’s like the TK maxx adverts, ‘always up to 60% off’. It could mean 59% off. It could mean 1% off. That there are apparently 26 million people baptized as Anglican in the UK is a meaningless figure without the context – which significantly undermines any argument based upon it.

Might it be reasonable, I wonder, to suggest that claiming 26m Anglicans in the UK is bearing false witness?

 

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