Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Tearfund Learn To Spin

I have nothing against Tearfund, I really don't. But it is disheartening and distasteful to see them behaving like Comical Ali in drawing insanely positive conclusions from what is to them a rather dire situation.

Here is its report on its survey of church attendance in the UK, its press release and the (slightly more informative) BBC News article about it.

Some analysis:

Firstly, and most strikingly, despite the way the 53% Christian figure is put forward positively in the press release, the BBC point out that this is massively down from the "almost three-quarters" suggested by the 2001 census. My experience may be far from representative, but it suggests the Tearfund figure is probably more accurate. It could of course be that with the rise of religious extremism and the religious right in America, more people are disassociating themselves from religion, although I would be surprised if this accounted for the whole of the drop.

The figure makes it extremely disingeuous for Tearfund representatives to say things like "What is clear from this survey is that the UK is holding firmly to the Christian faith" and "This statistic alone has major implications not only for the churches but for public debate and public policy." No doubt the latter quote is suggesting that Christianity should have more influence over public policy, which is an astounding conclusion to draw from a drop of around 25%! Completely ignoring the official census turns this press release from laughable to borderline dishonest, especially given that the report itself acknowledges it and gives (possibly quite intelligent) reasons for it (page 4 of the main report).

Secondly, the much vaunted 3 million who "would attend church if only they were asked" translates to only 6 percent of the population, as admitted much later in the report. Despite this being heralded as a great thing for the church showing some kind of revival of interest, let us consider this. The 'unchurched' and 'dechurched' together come to 66%, of which 6% are still open to 'churching'. That's 1 in 11. Perhaps more strikingly, of the 53% Christian, only 25 % are 'churched', which means that the 6% will (mostly) be out of the remaining 28%. This means that just over only 1 out of 5 (21.5%) of non-churchgoing Christians (who themselves are over half of Christians) are open to the possibility of churchgoing! This still sets the absolute churchgoing limit at about 31%, which is still less than a third of the population.

Thirdly, 6% of the population are of other religions, leaving just over 40% non-religious. I am personally stunned (if pleased) that it is this high. Unfortunately there is no breakdown of Christian into denominations, but I would be willing to hazard a bet that the largest single denominations will be C of E and Roman Catholic, both of which will be significantly lower than 40%. Of course, it is ridiculous to think of the 40% as in any way a denomination, but this is something to think about.

Some random observations:

"London is not the heartless capital is it sometimes portrayed as being. It has the highest proportion of regular churchgoers (22%) of any English province." Thanks for labelling me heartless, Tearfund, along with the vast majority of other non-churchgoers. Really classy.

It will surprise no-one to learn that the young (especially under 34) are much less churched, while the old (especially over 55) are much more. Perhaps less obviously, the English tend to go to church less often and remain stubbornly unchurched, while the Welsh and Scottish are increasingly becoming dechurched, ie. stopping going. Scotland has just above average attendance, while Northern Ireland has above the average attendance (surprise surprise).

The National Secular Society of course have something to say, and I'm left wondering whether they're also being disingenuous. They claim this shows that we live in an overwhelmingly secular society. Now given that for me, secular is about the separation of religion from politics, I don't think the survey gives us that kind of information. But given that the NSS is thinking in terms of personal non-religion, I struggle to see how 40% can be overwhelming. I would usually require much more than 50% for a society to be 'overwhelmingly' one way or another. Perhaps the spokesman means that the statistic is overwhelming given previous surveys. I agree with this, but I don't think it's the natural meaning of the words. Still, at least he mentioned the actual statistic in the context to let other people make up their minds.

So Tearfund have displayed some wonderful spinning. Not only is 53% (down from 73%) a 'positive' thing with clear implications for public policy (in favour of religious influence), but the church should celebrate 25% attendance (15% at least once a month) with the possibility of an extra 6% if they threw all their effort into it. The unchurched are of course 'heartless', bowing down to the 'modern-day gods' of 'individual choice and secular consumerism'. It's unfortunate, because a little bit of humbleness and soul-searching might actually have improved people's view of such organisations. Instead, anyone subjecting the statement to the least bit of critical thinking will probably dismiss Tearfund (despite all its good work) as a propaganda body.