By Peter Espeut
Both as a church-man and as a sociologist, I have taken great interest over the years in Jamaican census data on religion. Statistics on religious affiliation in Jamaica are snapshots of the contemporary status in the battle for hearts and minds, but not just in terms of religious beliefs.
For me, one of the most important findings in the 2011 Population Census is the increase in the number of people with no religious affiliation by about 28,000 (21 per cent). If 'no religious affiliation' were a denomination, it would be the second largest church in Jamaica!
Allied to this is the decrease in membership of all the traditional churches (members of the Jamaica Council of Churches, JCC) by about 54,000 (11 per cent). As a group, the JCC churches remain the second largest religious bloc in Jamaica (after the combined Churches of God), and so they still are an important political force to be reckoned with; but their numbers are smaller than the unchurched; this happened for the first time in 2001, for in 1991 and before, the number of JCC adherents were larger than the numbers both in the combined Churches of God and the unchurched.
Both these phenomena indicate rejection - rejection of traditional Christianity in one case, and rejection of all religion in the other. Not enough is known about the reasons for this rejection, and academia - and the JCC denominations themselves - need to do some research to find out.
At the same time the number of Rastafari has increased by 5,000 (21 per cent) - rejection again! Rastafarians reject the white God portrayed by traditional Christianity, and posit that God is a black man, and have identified who that black man is.
And the combined Churches of God increased over the intercensal period by 73,000 (11.8 per cent). Protest again! I am a big fan of the dialectical analysis by Diane Austin-Broos of Jamaica's religious landscape in her 1997 book Jamaica Genesis: Religion and the Politics of Moral Order. In her excellent (if hard to read) book, she describes the rapid rise of the Baptist Church in the nineteenth century as the result of the rejection by the former slaves of both the anti-abolitionist churches (representing Eurocentrism) and traditional African religion. The Baptists became the largest Christian denomination in Jamaica after Emancipation, and remain the largest of the JCC churches in terms of members.
In 'Jamaica Genesis', Austin-Broos goes on to explain the phenomenal increase in the membership of the various Churches of God (which only arrived in Jamaica in 1907) as due to the fact that the new synthesis which they represent is closer to the African end of the European-African continuum.
The data in the 2011 Population Census of Jamaica is consistent with the findings of Professor Emeritus Austin-Broos. I highly recommend it to the JCC churches for their study and analysis. The way forward for them in black Jamaica is not to be found in a deeper Eurocentrism. But the alternative may not be palatable.
I have begun to analyse the decline in my own denomination between the last two censuses; we declined by about 9,300 (13.8 per cent); but we did not decline right across Jamaica. In fact, our numbers grew in three parishes (Hanover, St James and St Elizabeth), and remained unchanged in Trelawny.
Administratively, the Roman Catholic Church divides Jamaica into three dioceses, and three of those positive parishes (Hanover, St James and Trelawny) fall into the Diocese of Montego Bay, which declined over the decade only by 1.8 per cent (dragged down by Westmoreland and St Ann).
The numbers in the Diocese of Mandeville (into which St Elizabeth falls) declined only by 4.6 per cent, while the numbers in the Archdiocese Kingston declined by 16.4 per cent. It is the poor performance of the church in Kingston that has dragged down the islandwide figures the most.
The overseer who led the Church in Montego Bay during the last decade, Bishop Charles H. Dufour, is now the Archbishop of Kingston, and so we look forward to an upturn in Kingston. Hopefully, some of the lessons learned from the recent visit of the Archbishop of Accra, Ghana will be implemented.
Peter Espeut is a sociologist and a Roman Catholic deacon. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.