The heathen parts of Britain, and how Andrew Brown claims them for faith

July 3, 2014 • 12:12 pm

There are some intriguing new interactive maps of the UK by DataShine that show you which cities of the country, and which parts of those cities, are most and least religious, and where in each place the various faiths are more common.

The site is a bit slow today, but you can see places divided up not only by degree of belief in, say, Christianity, but in Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and so on. You can do this for a number of cities (Leeds, Cardiff, Manchester, Liverpool, etc.) and also see the cities divided by language, ethnic group, country of birth, and so on.

Here, for example, are where the Jews of London live, with red being almost none, and the darkest blue being over 3%. I have no idea what this means, for I thought they all lived in Golders Green. (Click to enlarge):

Screen shot 2014-07-03 at 7.19.01 AM

And here are the Muslims, with read again being almost none, and blue being over 29%:

Screen shot 2014-07-03 at 7.22.28 AM

I don’t know how to interpret these, though UK readers will have a better understanding, but it’s clear that cities do have enclaves divided by faith.

The Guardian has a separate piece highlighting Britain’s most atheistic cities, which include Brighton, Norwich, Bristol, and Nottingham. And, of course, Andrew Brown has something to say about that at the Guardian in a piece called “Religion is a toxic brand in some UK cities—but it’s not about atheism.

As usual, it’s barely coherent. He rabbits on, for instance, about how Muslims live in the East End, and British politicians have to take that into account rather than assuming that London is like Islington, with no Muslims and hardly any believers at all.  The point is lost on me.

Brown does, however, take the opportunity to make his usual feints at atheism, to wit (my emphasis):

Oliver O’Brien and James Cheshire’s extraordinary and illuminating heatmaps of Britain’s religious fervour look as if they have a lesson for people interested in religion, and this is that it is fading over large sections of the country. The overall tone is pale pink at best and often completely cyanotic blue.

Looked at more closely, though, and one lesson to emerge is the absolute centrality of religion in today’s politics. The cities where ‘religion’ is the most completely toxic brand – Brighton and Norwich to name two – are also those where green politics are likely to be strongest, and where a strong sense of ethical obligation to the world and to humanity is easiest to appeal to. This may not be theistic, and it certainly isn’t arranged around the worship of one Father God – but it’s not atheist either. A distrust of ‘religion’ often goes alongside a strong belief in ‘spirituality’ and an interest in alternatives.

I barely understood the second paragraph, until I realized that the “most toxic brand of religion” is actually nonbelief.  I’m not sure where he gets his data about cities like Brighton and Norwich being places where ethical obligation is most easily invoked. But what I’m pretty sure of is that he’s simply making stuff up about those least religious places being highly spiritual rather than atheist. Unless I’m mistaken, Brown’s trying to make a virtue out of necessity—the UK’s increasing secularism—and claiming that the secularism is actually spirituality rather than atheism. And he sees “the absolute centrality of religion” because he construes nonbelief as “religion.”

Maybe I’m misinterpreting Brown, and I don’t want to spend a lot of time on his piece (not his blog, but a regular column); for the man is low-hanging fruit. And, if I don’t miss my guess, the low-hanging fruit is rotting.



h/t: Coel

49 thoughts on “The heathen parts of Britain, and how Andrew Brown claims them for faith

  1. …A distrust of ‘religion’ often goes alongside a strong belief in ‘spirituality’ and an interest in alternatives.

    Keep clutching at those straws…

    “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

    -Richard Feynman

    1. “and you are the easiest person to fool”
      That’s especially true when you happen
      to be Andrew Brown.

  2. Just as a matter of interest, Brighton is often called the San Francisco of Britain. Partly because it has a large gay population, and partly because it is a focal point for new-age practitioners and businesses. So I suppose you could say that it is a centre of “spirituality” – whether this can be said to be associated with religion or simply a vague kind of anti-materialism, I don’t know. In any case, like San Francisco, it’s mostly a nice place to live.

    1. It’s been a very long time since I was last in Brighton. But it’s only a few years since I was last in Glastonbury. After seeing the “New-Age fruitloopery” on that particular high street (and, IIRC, some spectacularly nice lamb), I shudder to think what Brighton is going to be like if it’s even more fruitloopy.

      1. Just because some people believe in things other than religion, or don’t believe in religion at all, does not mean they are “fruitloopy.” However that word is a good one to describe some devout, holier-than-thou christians.

        1. There are some seriously devout, non-Christian FruitLoops.
          I got the call too late to be involved in pulling “loops” out of their burning house. But I had to use rope and tackle to bring down dangerous parts of the structure, otherwise the Child Protection department would (correctly) have taken the children off site and away from their parents.
          Being a free-living hippy is one thing – millions of years of evolution have hardened children to insanitary conditions – but I am not aware of an effective evolved defence to several tonnes of masonry landing on one’s head.

    2. I’d cede the point regarding ‘spirituality’. Organised religion may be a supreme example of ignorance and its use as a form of totalitarianism but those opposed to its authoritarianism yet unwilling to dispense with the real problem, a vapid epistemology, and neutralised intellect, make no difference. Many swop one delusion for another.

  3. Go Norwich!! Having made a post-doc and a sabbatical in Norwich it makes me immensely proud to know it is high on the list of least religious cities in the UK. Maybe it is due to the large proportion of scientists that live there.

    1. …and Go Bristol where I currently reside and work. I’m glad to know I’m contributing to its godlessness in my own small way!

  4. I barely understood the second paragraph, until I realized that the “most toxic brand of religion” is actually nonbelief.

    I think you’ve misread him. What he’s trying to say is that, politically, religion is a toxic brand in those cities — i.e., that it’d be political suicide for a politician to bang the religious drum.

    The rest of his paragraph is, er, somewhat “problematic”, though. It’s interesting that somehow he can’t face the fact that rationalists might be the ones most concerned about trying to prevent environmental destruction.

    1. Yes, his argument seems to be something like this: the most atheist regions are filled with ethical people who care about the environment. Ethical people who care about the environment can’t be atheists, so these “atheists” must actually be very spiritual. Spiritual is really just religious without a specific religion. So this map just proves that religion is going strong even in the “atheist” regions, you just can’t call it religion there.

      And really, his main point is: good people can’t be atheists and atheists can’t be good people.

    2. On first reading I agreed with realthog’s interpretation. But the quotes around “religion” don’t seem to fit with that. So on further reflection, I decided that it is just as likely that Brown meant to write “The cities where ‘religion’ is [of] the most completely toxic brand”, which fits JAC’s interpretation. In any case, it is clear Brown needs a good editor.

  5. I don’t think you are mistaken abut Andrew Brown. He is a waste of space,presumably retained for his “click-bait” abilities.

  6. Thank you for this. I had a look at Torquay, it’s almost all blue (no religion). There are a few light red places around the coasts, in the expensive areas away from town where people go to retire. I live in a very heathen town!

  7. Completely idiotic. Greens can’t be atheists? Atheists can’t value the environment?

    The only way I can make sense of Brown’s position is to think that Brown is confusing or conflating atheism with objectivism (Ayn Rand’s philosophy). He thinks all people calling themselves “atheists” must be objectivist railroad barons out to stop John Galt and welfare.

    1. Or nihilists. Apparently, if you’re an atheist, you can’t possibly have “a strong sense of ethical obligation to the world and to humanity”. You have to be “spiritual”.

      It has not yet ceased to amuse me how such people as Brown find it so hard to grasp that ethics and supernaturalism are not the same thing. Then again, he is trying to prove that empty, narcotic, and ego-boosting anachronisms – sorry, “religious beliefs” – are still relevant in a more scientific age and against the evidence right in front of him (good old “faith” working its magic again, I guess), so intellectual rigour is a bit much to expect from his article here.

    2. He may also be trying to imply that environmentalism = pantheism.

      This formulation is popular in the US among Christians who feel the need to justify their unflagging support for corporate criminals while giving lip service to “the love of money is the root of all evil”.

  8. Andrew Brown is the most famous professional troll since the one that sat under the bridge that the goats used to clip-clop over.

      1. Maybe I’m just more focused on America, but I think Ann Coulter has to be the trolliest of the professional trolls. Her articles contain the writing quality and intellectual merit of a fourth grader, yet somehow become the top story. There is no way she can believe what she’s saying, right?

  9. Golders Green is one of the main places but not the only one. Its on the map you have since is a subarea of Barnet.

    As for Andrew Browns writing the less said the better really. As always its some bizarre attempt to show that atheists are really, really bad. Despite apparently being one himself. I can only assume he wants to believe but cant quite take that leap of faith.

      1. I was a policeman in London during the 50’s. The more prosperous Jews lived in Golders Green and the less prosperous lived in Bethnal Green in the East End. During the 30’s, Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists always held their Jew-baiting marches in Bethnal Green.

  10. “until I realized that the “most toxic brand of religion” is actually nonbelief. ”

    I don’t read him that way. I read him to say that the brand that is toxic is religion itself.

  11. I read Andrew Brown’s full article. IMO it’s analysis is weak and it’s conclusions are unsupported. My conclusion is he’s been asked for a certain number of words to fill a space and so knocked this out in five minutes.

    This survey is quite amazing and deserves some serious analysis. Andrew Brown does not appear to be the best person to do that.

  12. Awww, the analysis doesn’t extend to this side of the border. Does do Wales though. Doesn’t touch Northern Ireland – itself a testament to the good sense of the authors, not wanting to get two letter bombs, one from each side. Three letter bombs.
    Looking around an area I know well … there are some oddities. Data appears to be collated by electoral ward (not sure how that translates into EN_US – up to around 10,000 people, typically a handful of polling places per ward), so there is significant granularity to the data. Yes, I see the expected fall of irreligiosity in wards in Englandshire that I’d associate with local mosques and Hindu temples (and by implication, relatively high local religiosity). But I also see large swathes of that town which are mostly industrial estates with a few residences, but drawn as if they’re entirely residential.
    Minor quibbles though – an interesting project.

  13. My wife is from Birmingham (second most populous city in England) – have a look at how Muslim the central city there now is; I believe the largest Mosque in Western Europe is located there.

    1. So are there many muslims there because of the mosque or is the mosque there because there are many muslims?

      A bit of both maybe….

      1. Muslims first, then mosque (which they will have paid for). Then more Muslims, poss because of the mosque, poss because they joined fellow immigrants from the same regions of Pakistan/Bangladesh.

  14. There is something wrong with the data. The sampling areas are quite small, where we live it is about 40 houses (1 church and 1 community centre). At least two people should show up in the data as being atheist, I know I filled the census out and yet it shows 0.0%

  15. Brown is trying to claim Greenies for religion. He is conflating concern for our environment with religiosity, which is absolutely ridiculous. Many Greenies may be very fervent and they often abandon the rules of logic and evidence, but they don’t waste their time praying to a “higher power” for the world to get better. This is a desperate attempt to give religion a prominence it no longer has in England.

  16. Urgh, Brown is a moron.

    UK cities do tend to have enclaves, and the London maps look pretty correct to me.

    However the groupings tend to be in national, as opposed to religious, terms. Tower Hamlets for example, a very Muslim area, has a huge Bangladeshi population – the religion is a side-affect of this.

    The Jewish Demographic looks about right too.

    1. To clarify – there are areas of high Polish population (Ealing), Korean (New Malden), etc. The road that I live on is, weirdly, mainly Vietnamese at one end and West African with a touch of Caribbean at the other so none of the rules are hard & fast.

  17. God knows how he decided concern for the environment is a spiritual/religious feeling, but it is fair to identify Brighton and Norwich with Green views: Brighton has a Green MP and Council, and the Greens are the 2nd largest party in Norwich’s Council (15/39 seats).

  18. I’m from Norwich and can probably safely conclude that the reason why we score so low on religion is because we have a very low number of immigrants (or recent descendants of immigrants) from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, in comparison to other UK cities. Norwich is a very Anglo Saxon city. When you look at the areas of other cities that score high on religion, they are the areas with large immigrant populations.

    1. True – & the African immigrants tend to be very religious, ecstatic sects & fundmentalist/spiritualists…

  19. I think you have misunderstood one line. He does not state that non-belief is the most toxic brand of religion, but that in those cities “religion” is the most toxic of brands.

  20. Brown overstates his case but there is a case to be made for greater clarity. There is a problem with the census data. In the category ‘non religious’ there is no differentiation between between who describe themselves as non religious because they are atheist, and those who describe themselves as non religious because they do not belong to or subscribe to the beliefs of any particular religion. I know of people who described themselves as non religious in the census but are very definitely not atheists.

  21. The maps only reflect the answers given in the census in an optional question. Those like me who wrote something very rude in runes would not get picked up!

  22. What may interest you is that the East End was at one time broadly Jewish in character & population, with lots of Russian Jews, but they moved out & to North London – Stamford Hill for the guys with the big furry hats, or other parts of North/West London for the less religious or more ‘cultural’ Jews. The same pattern happens in many cities with incomers in poor areas replacing earlier migrants.

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