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England census: Why have the ranks of the religious declined?

Sure, fewer Britons registered their faith as 'Jedi Knight' in the 2011 census of England. But it's the 12 percent drop in those identifying as Christians has prompted fresh debate about modern British identity.

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Results from the first census of England and Wales for 10 years this week revealed a crisis engulfing what until recently had seemed to be Britain's newest and most vibrant religion: The ranks of Jedi Knights have more than halved to 176,632.

Yet while analysis of the survey came with tongue-in-cheek consideration of the seeming demise of a fictional "faith" from the Star Wars movies that first mischievously made an appearance in 2001, it is a 12 percent drop in the number of those identifying as Christians that has prompted fresh reflections on the make up and identity of modern Britain.

While they remain the largest religious group in the two countries that make up the lion's share of the UK's population, the number of respondents who designated themselves as Christian was down 4 million, to 33.2 million. As a group they are now 59 percent of the population, compared to 72 percent previously. 

Aside from the complexities of surveying religious identity, which experts caution against trying to pin down through vague and often contested questions, a range of factors has been put forward to try to explain the decline in the number of Christians, ranging from the impact of the sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic church to more longer-term historical trends such as a growing distrust and disinterest of institutions.

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