Christmas-Church-Tree-Holiday-Night-433x650It’s funny what things we seem to take on board without question as indeed those things also that we seem to think are ‘made up’. Take for instance today and the buzz about the potential end of the world as predicted by the Mayans however many years ago. Really, was it ever going to happen today? Probably not, but still – for some at least – there seems to be a sense of disappointment that ‘something’ didn’t happen. Remember Y2K anyone?

Whilst we seem to have a penchant for believing in our impending doom, whether a meteor colliding with the earth, a ‘Contagion-like’ plague killing us off or a zombie apocalypse being imminent, we don’t seem to apply the same rules to these as we do ‘religion’.

Having said that, there are some things that we seem to accept without question. Take for instance Christmas Day itself. According to Boney M, ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ was born on Christmas Day. And as we know, that’s 25th December isn’t it?

In all honesty, probably not.

Research undertaken by scientists from a few years ago suggested that ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ was more likely to have been born on June 17th. As the Daily Mail reported it at the time:

“It may not be too late to send the presents back…”

Despite that, we don’t seem to have a campaign to have Christmas Day changed, especially not from the more zealous atheists and humanists who normally try and get everything changed that’s even tenuously religious. In fact, why don’t the atheists and humanists start a campaign to get Christmas re-branded as ‘Winterval’? Maybe they remember the Birmingham City Council farce from 1997. To be fair, no-one needs that all over again !

Maybe it’s because as a society, we’re apparently becoming less religious and so maybe don’t care anymore. Following on from the publication of the recent Census 2011 data about religion in England and Wales – some of the information I presented here yesterday – much has been made about the drop in numbers of those identifying themselves as being Christian, down from 71.7% of the population in 2001 to 59.3% in 2011. Since being first published little more than a week ago, I have read a whole host of different articles offering everything from balanced and thoughtful analysis to mere speculation and nonsense in an attempt to explain this decrease.

As I stated in the previous post, care should be taken not only when looking at the data but even more so when reading articles about the drop in numbers. Personally, I do not think that it means that Christianity is in decline. The numbers of people attending church has remained pretty stable. And in fact, reports suggest that more churches are opening in the UK than Starbucks. And that was before the news broke about Starbucks not paying Corporation Tax !!!

The Census data therefore – at best – offers an insight to people’s most nominal levels of identification. In essence, it doesn’t mean much at all.

And that’s fine because despite the view that we’re a ‘Christian nation’ or ‘society’, in fact we’re neither. Not more than nominally anyway.

Take for instance a report that was published a few years ago by the think-tank Theos. It’s pretty clear that the British know very little about Christianity, especially if the Christmas story is used to gauge knowledge. So for example, the report states that only 12% of Britons have a detailed knowledge of the Christmas story. Having said that, certain parts are better known than others: 73% seem to know about the appearance of an angel to Mary, roughly the same being able to name Jesus’ birthplace.

Knowledge drops significantly when asked about those elements of the Christmas story that have yet to have been made into a Christmas Number 1 by Cliff Richard.To be fair, both ‘Saviour’s Day’ and ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ were very poor in theological content I hasten to add. And so we find that only 48% know that John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin. A mere 22% were aware that  Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt to escape Herod.

Knowing the story however doesn’t necessarily mean that people believe it. On this point, the report suggests that only around a third of people believe the statement “Jesus was born to a virgin called Mary” as being historically accurate. In fact, 32% consider it entirely fictional. And here’s the point about it being funny what we are prepared to believe, more people believe in the virgin birth as historical fact than they do the appearance of angels…!!!

In terms of Jesus’ birth as celebrated on Christmas Day, 52% agree or strongly agree that it is significant to them on a personal level. Of that 52% of people, 57% – with an emphasis on women – see the day as a religious festival. Conversely, even of those who agree that Christmas Day is significant to them on a personal level, 48% of men and 36% of women do not see it as a religious festival.

As a society however, 72% still seem to believe that Jesus’ birth is significant to us culturally. Evidence put forward to support this – or so the report suggests – can be seen in the growing popularity of carol services where around 44% of people reportedly attending a Christmas church service.

Given that the 2011 Census suggested that 59.3% of the population were ‘Christian’, there is still a disparity between these figures and the numbers of people planning to actively attend a church service. But if the figures are correct, then the number of people for whom Christmas remains important on a personal level is almost the same. Is this then what people mean when they identify themselves as being Christian: that Christianity or at least some parts of it – even those that are merely cultural – remains important to them on a personal level?

Despite all the nonsense being written about the decline in Christianity and the number of Christians decreasing therefore, maybe the best explanation anyone can give is that quite irrespective of numbers of ‘bums on seats’ – or should I say pews – Christianity continues to touch a lot of people in a very personal way. Much the same I guess as the way in which the Mayan apocalypse, Y2K and indeed everything else, touches us at a very personal and almost inexplicable way.

Creative Commons License Everything on this site by Chris Allen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. www.chris-allen.co.uk

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