LONDON – A new survey by the public theology think thank Theos has found that only 12 percent of adults in Britain have detailed knowledge of the Christmas story.
The poll asked 1,000 adults questions about the Christmas story as narrated in the Bible and found that the vast majority – 73 percent – were familiar enough with the "classic elements" of the Christmas story such as the appearance of an angel to Mary or the birth of Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
Substantial gaps in knowledge of the Bible story appeared, however, when the questions probed more deeply. While 48 percent of those polled were able to identify John the Baptist as Jesus' cousin, only 22 percent knew that Jesus, Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt to escape Herod's massacre of the innocents.
Commenting on the results of the survey, Theos Director Paul Woolley said: "These findings provide us with a good snapshot of our national relationship with Christianity. They show that the Christmas story, in its classic formulation is still very much in our cultural blood stream, as indeed is the Christian story as a whole.
"However, when you probe in any depth, you discover that our knowledge and understanding is rather more shaky."
The poll also found that knowledge of the Christmas story varied with age. The youngest people questioned (aged 18-24) knew the least about the story of the birth of Jesus, with only 7 percent knowing the correct answers to all the questions asked. Middle aged people (aged 55-64) were found to know the most, with 18 percent answering all questions correctly.
"The fact that younger people are the least knowledgeable about the Christmas story may reflect a decline in the telling of Bible stories in schools and the popularity of Nativity plays," said Woolley.
Biblical literacy also varied from region to region, with those living in the Midlands emerging as the most knowledgeable in the Bible, followed by Wales and the South West, the South East and Northern England respectively. Scotland knew the least about the Christmas story with the lowest average number of correct answers given.
Unsurprisingly, the poll found that Christian churchgoers knew the story best with 36 percent answering all questions correctly, compared with only 5 percent of atheists.
"No-one seriously thinks that being a Christian or a member of the established Church is the same thing as being British today. But, at the same time, if we are serious about social cohesion we can't afford to ignore the stories that have bound us together as a culture for a thousand years," said Woolley.
"Any attempts to down-play the Christmas story in order to help social cohesion are likely to be counterproductive."
Earlier in the week, The Times reported the findings of a Saga Populus survey, which found widespread concern among people in Britain over the age of 50 who feel that traditional Christian practices have been downgraded "out of a sensitivity to multi-culturalism."
Among those polled, 85 percent protested the replacing of "Christmas" lights with "winter" lights by local authorities and the fact that nativity plays were being replaced by non-religious performances, the London-based newspaper reported.
The poll results were announced as Conservative MP Mark Pritchard led a debate in Parliament in which he complained of "Christianophobia" in the United Kingdom, directing his attack at the "politically correct brigade" in particular.
He said that attempts to marginalize Christian traditions in British life had "gone far enough" and spoke of his desire to "recognize and protect the Christian tradition of this nation".