I often hear Richard Dawkins criticised for attacking fundamentalists. They say that hardly any Christians hold the extreme views he assaults. I disagree with Dawkins in many ways, but his critics are wrong to claim he is attacking a strawman. Even in Britain, creationism, and fundamentalism in general, are not the fringe movements you might think.
In his book Bad Science, Ben Goldacre does not discuss creationism because, he says, it is only “a marginal issue in British schools.” Perhaps, but I was educated in a Creationist school, and to me it was anything but marginal. If we are going to claim that every child matters, we have to care about the children of fundamentalists, however many or few they are.
Fundamentalists are much more numerous in the UK than people realise, although it’s extremely difficult to get a precise number, because fundamentalism is not a denomination, and they describe themselves in different ways.
Summary for easily-bored people: By a good, conservative estimate, there are between 650,000 and 1.3 million fundamentalist Christians in the UK, and over 2,000 children in fundamentalist education. In England alone, 1.2 million evangelicals attend church every week. At least 18% of evangelicals are hard-line Creationists.
The numbers could be much higher. In a YouGov poll in 2010, 9% of adults said that the Biblical account of creation was the most likely explanation for human origins. That projects to an improbable five million people. Most Pentecostals are fundamentalists, and credible estimates for that denomination’s membership go as high as three million. The New Church movement is also largely fundamentalist in nature. It had 400,000 members as of the year 2000, and, along with Pentecostalism, is the fastest-growing brand of Christianity in the UK. Between them, those two groups opened 935 British churches between 2005 and 2010.
Fundamentalists are big on building mega-churches. Many of the largest churches in the UK are fundamentalist, like Kensington Temple, with an auditorium that holds 5,000 and a home church network of many more. In 2008 Kingsway International Christian Centre had a planning application refused to build an 8,000-capacity auditorium.
How Many Children in Fundamentalist Schools?
The number of children in the fundamentalist system Accelerated Christian Education (either schools or home schooled) is over 2,000. The UK distributor and promoter of ACE is Christian Education Europe (CEE). In a memorandum submitted to the Human Rights Joint Committee, CEE stated that they oversee 59 schools and 800 homeschooled families in the UK. The Christian Schools’ Trust (CST), which is separate from CEE and whose schools mostly do not use ACE, has a further 40 schools. CST schools teach a range of positions from Young Earth Creationism to theistic evolution, via Intelligent Design. CST’s statement on the Creation/Evolution debate says:
“The Christian Schools Trust affirms a high view of God as the Creator and sustainer of the Universe and of all living things. It categorically rejects the notion that living things have come into being by a random and purposeless process in which God has played no part.” See here, appendix 3.
Adult Fundamentalist Numbers in the UK
I define fundamentalists as all those who believe the Bible is literally true in its entirety. Now, almost all evangelicals claim Biblical inerrancy, but they don’t all interpret this to mean that God made the world in six 24-hour periods, Methuselah really lived for 969 years, and Noah took two of every creature on an actual boat.
Compared with America, Creationism is a minor issue for British Christians. That’s not to say there are many who balance belief in evolution with otherwise fundamentalist ideas; it’s just they don’t consider it an important issue. They accept that God made the world, and take a “don’t know” stance on the methods He used.
Nevertheless, I’m using Young Earth Creationism as a benchmark for fundamentalism, because there is the most available data. It is the least common (so one might say most extreme) fundamentalist belief. If you believe the Genesis account is literally true, you are likely also to hold all the other beliefs (anti-abortion, anti-homosexuality, hell exists, the Bible is infallible, all other religions are false, etc.) associated with Christian fundamentalism.
According to research, only 18% of evangelicals believe evolution is definitely incompatible with Christianity. Consider the phrasing of that question, though. The Evangelical Alliance actually asked whether respondents agreed with the statement “Evolution and Christianity are incompatible: you can’t believe both.” Many respondents may, quite reasonably, have interpreted this as, “Is it possible to be a Christian and believe in evolution?” Evangelicals believe the only requirement for salvation is to believe, and confess, that Jesus is the Son of God who rose from the dead. So of course you can be a Christian and believe in evolution. That does not tell us the respondents’ opinion on the origins of life on Earth.
Now, there are other Christians besides evangelicals who believe in Creationism, but evangelical is an umbrella term accepted by most Pentecostals, Baptists, and Charismatics, 34% of Anglicans, and varying numbers in other denominations. The vast majority of Creationists would call themselves evangelical.
Creationists tend to be highly committed; extremity of views is strongly correlated with frequent church attendance. To put this another way, people who call themselves “Church of England” but haven’t been in a church since they were christened are unlikely to be raging extremists. We can assume that almost all fundamentalists are attending church at least once a month.
Tearfund’s 2007 survey indicated that 15% of the UK’s adult population attend church monthly or more. Of these, 27% identified themselves as evangelical. Projected to the general population, that means over two million adults.
The most accurate figures probably come from the English Church Census of 2005, which puts weekly evangelical attendance at 1.2 million (excluding Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland). That corresponds well with the Tearfund figure of two million monthly for the whole of Britain.
So, we have two million active evangelicals, all of whom claim Biblical inerrancy, and anywhere from a third to two-thirds believe in literal six-day Creationism. That indicates that there are between 650,000 and 1.3 million adult Christian fundamentalists living in the UK.
For comparison, let’s take the lowest figure, using only those who identify themselves as “evangelical/ Charismatic” (YouGov-Cambridge 2011) and say that only 1% of the UK population holds fundamentalist Christian beliefs. That again means over 600,000 people.
How Many Creationists Are There in the UK?
Survey numbers vary, but it seems between 9% (YouGov, 2010) and 22% (Ipsos-MORI for the BBC, 2006) of UK adults believe that the Creationist account is the most likely explanation of our origins. 19% agree God made the Earth in six days, and on the seventh he rested (Populus, 2010); 17% disagree or strongly disagree that humans evolved from other animals (Ipsos MORI 2011).
The YouGov survey question specifically mentioned the Bible, where other questions did not. Even using this most pessimistic figure, that would still mean Britain has five million believers in special Creation. Of course, some of these could be Jews or even Muslims, but Creationism among those groups is a very fringe view indeed.
An Ipsos MORI poll commissioned by Richard Dawkins in 2011 had 14% of UK Christians agreeing strongly that the Genesis story that God created the world in six days should be taught in state-funded science lessons.
“Christians” here were defined as those who recorded themselves as such in the 2011 government census. Of those polled, 54% had recorded themselves as Christian in the census, or would have done if they had answered the question.
I find the Creationist numbers astounding, but, clearly, saying that 9% of people believe the Biblical account of creation does not mean the UK has five million ardent Young Earth Creationists.
The issue of Creationism is not as important to British evangelicals as it is to their American friends, but I did hear evolution condemned from the pulpit in both children’s and adults’ services when I attended church. The largest church I ever went to was Bath City Church, which meets in the 1,700-capacity Bath Forum. When I went (mid-90s), weekly congregations were around 500.
As you can see, precise numbers are hard to come by. Clearly, though, these views are representative of a significant number of British Christians. Most importantly, those who do hold these views are absolutely committed to spreading them.
What is the Word of Faith? (Has numbers on Charismatic and Pentecostal evangelicals in particular)