How Good is Our Perception of Religion?


How Good is Our Perception of Religion?

18 Dec 2014

Perceptions of socio-economic and religious issues can very often fall wide of the mark, finds a study by the research company Ipsos Mori. 

The study, Perceptions are not reality: Things the world gets wrong, published by Ipsos Mori on 29 October 2014, follows on from work carried out by the Royal Statistical Society and King's College London in 2013 highlighting how perceptions can vary from country to country around the world on issues such as immigration, religious affiliation, life expectancy and unemployment.

It is based on over 11,000 interviews carried out in August 2014 in 14 countries: Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Poland, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Great Britain and the United States of America.

Numbers of Muslims are overestimated, numbers of Christians are underestimated.

The findings on estimating the proportions of Muslims and Christians by country make interesting reading. Each of the 14 countries surveyed overestimated the proportion of the population who count themselves as Muslim. Meanwhile, the majority of the countries surveyed underestimated the number who count themselves as Christian.

In other results, all the countries surveyed overestimated their level of immigration, with Italy having the highest overestimate and Australia having the lowest overestimate.

The results from all eight questions asked were collated to produce an 'Index of Ignorance' by country, from the least accurate to the most accurate in terms of perceptions. The least accurate country was Italy and the most accurate country was Sweden.

Studying perceptions of religion and socio-economic issues and making these results widely available is vital to understanding of how society views these important issues. They also help to guide those who are making policy decisions and thus ensure that resources can be targeted at those areas which need guidance; in this case, to gain a better understanding of the role of religion in society today.

Key Findings

Index of Ignorance:

  • The results were collated to produce an 'Index of Ignorance', from the least accurate to the most accurate in terms of perceptions.
  • Italy was in first place (least accurate), followed in order by the United States of America, the Republic of Korea, Poland, Hungary, France, Canada, Belgium, Australia, Great Britain, Spain, Japan, Germany and Sweden in 14th place (most accurate).


  • People across all countries surveyed hugely overestimated the proportion of their population that are Muslim: the average guess across the countries is 16 per cent when the actual proportion is three per cent.
  • For example, on average people in France think 31 per cent of the population are Muslim, when the actual figure is only eight per cent. In Australia the average guess is nine times the actual proportion: people estimate it at 18 per cent, when the actual proportion is only two per cent.


  • In contrast, majority-Christian countries tend to underestimate how many people count themselves as Christian.
  • In the 12 majority-Christian countries in the survey, the average guess is 51 per cent, when the actual proportion counting themselves as Christians is 61 per cent. This includes countries like the US where people think 56 per cent are Christian when official data shows it is 78 per cent.

In Great Britain:


  • People over-estimate the proportion of Muslims in Britain – people think one in five British people are Muslims (21 per cent) when the actual figure is five per cent (one in twenty).


  • In contrast, people underestimate the proportion of Christians - we think 39 per cent of the country identify themselves as Christian compared with the actual figure of 59 per cent.

The questions asked were:

  • Out of every 100 people in [country], about how many do you think are: Christian, Muslim, over 65 years old?
  • Out of every 100 eligible voters in [country], about how many do you think voted in the last [parliamentary/general/presidential] election?
  • Of every 100 people of working age in [country], about how many do you think are unemployed and looking for work?
  • What do you think the average life expectancy will be of a child born in 2014 in [country]?
  • In your opinion, what percentage of girls aged between 15 and 19 years in [country] give birth each year?
  • What percentage of the [country] population do you think are immigrants to this country (i.e. not born in [Country])?
  • According to official statistics the percentage of the [country] population that was born in another country is actually [country specific]. Why do you think the percentage is much higher?
  • Please tell me whether you think the following statement is true or false: The murder rate is rising in [country]?

The survey results can be read in full  here.

This article summarises an external report, and is not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. 

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Ipsos Mori