More than a third of Britons believe that the virgin birth really happened, according to new research published today by Theos, the public theology think tank.
In the poll of more than a thousand adults, undertaken for Theos by ComRes, 34% of people agreed that the statement "Jesus was born to a virgin called Mary" was historically accurate. Only 32% considered it fictional. Women are more likely to believe in the virgin birth (39%) than men (29%).
Fifty-six per cent of Britons believe that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Surprisingly, the research reveals that people are more likely to believe in the virgin birth than angels. Only 28% believe the Bible's account of angels visiting shepherds to announce the birth of Christ actually happened, compared with 32% who think it is fictional. Thirty-seven per cent of people believe that Herod ordered the death of infant boys in an attempt to kill Jesus.
In terms of the significance of Christ's birth, 52% agree or strongly agree that the birth of Jesus is significant to them personally whereas 72% of people think that the birth of Jesus remains significant culturally.
The research may support recent reports that carol services are growing in popularity. Some 44% of Britons plan to attend a Christmas church service this year. St Paul's Cathedral is holding identical carol services on the two days before Christmas in order to accommodate the number of people wishing to attend.
Fift-seven per cent of people will be celebrating Christmas as a religious festival. Significantly more men (48%, compared with 36% of women) do not celebrate Christmas as a religious festival. Scotland ranks as the most religious nation.
Commenting on the research, the Director of Theos, Paul Woolley said: "The extent of religious belief will no doubt surprise people, but these findings are consistent with other research we have undertaken.
"The number of people who believe the birth of Christ is significant to them personally is especially striking. In periods of financial uncertainty, when there is concern about losing jobs or homes, perhaps people are more open to thinking about life’s ultimate questions.
"Despite all of the hype around the recent success of recent books promoting atheism, it is clear that, for most people, religious belief cannot be explained away so easily."