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Last updated 17 Jul 2018
Measuring religiosity is by no means a straightforward endeavour. As such, demonstrating patterns and trends within and between different social groups is problematic.
Data can be collected through:
- The census (since 2001)
- Church census
- Data held by religious organisations themselves
There are potential problems with all of these. While the census now asks people to note their religion, it is likely the “head of the household” might note the religion of all members (and this may, of course, be inaccurate). At the same time people might not take the census remotely seriously. For example, in 2001 390,000 Britons declared themselves to be Jedi Knights, making it the fourth largest “religion” in the UK after Christianity, Islam and Hinduism (therefore beating Sikhism, Judaism and Buddhism).
A church census looks particularly at who is attending church (or other religious institutions) on a given date. This does not necessarily give a complete picture as the census date might artificially inflate attendance; not all religious organisations are likely to be included; people may have religious faith but not attend (for a range of reasons) or indeed attend for reasons other than religious faith. Indeed, if our definition of religion is to be broad enough to include some of the New Age movements and cults referred to in the previous section, it is not even quite clear what “attendance” would mean in some cases.
This raises an important point. Religiosity and religious belief are not the same and therefore involve different measures.
Religious belief is whether people believe in a religion; hold a religious faith.
Religiosity is the extent to which they participate in religious activities.
You can hold religious belief while displaying little or no religiosity. Conversely, someone might attend church religiously, but privately have no religious belief.
If you ask people about their religious belief they are much more likely to report that they have one than for there to be any evidence that they practice it. In many Western democracies, including the UK, the percentage of people claiming to belong to a particular religion is much higher than the numbers who regularly practice their faith.
Religious organisations themselves are (arguably) likely to inflate their memberships in order to retain the impression that they are significant social institutions.
However the data is generated, it must not be taken as straightforward social fact. Therefore the patterns and trends described must be treated with a degree of scepticism.