Census: People Declaring 'No Religion' Surges In England And Wales

The latest Census data shows – for the first time – that less than half of the population identifies as Christian.
Some 46.2% of the population described themselves as Christian – down from 59.3% in 2011.
Some 46.2% of the population described themselves as Christian – down from 59.3% in 2011.
PA News

The proportion of people in England and Wales declaring they had “no religion” has jumped by more than one-fifth over the last 20 years, census figures have revealed.

The 10-yearly survey by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) grabbed headlines as it reveled less than half of the population identify as Christian for the first time, leading to questions about the role religion plays in 21st century Britain.

But as some right-wing commentators seized on the findings, there was little to explain what – if anything – was taking Christianity’s place.

What is the census?

The census takes place across the UK every 10 years and provides the most accurate estimate of all the people and households in the country.

The 2021 survey, carried out last March 21, was filled out by more than 24 million households across England and Wales.

The data released on Tuesday covers ethnicity, religion, national identity and language.

More data will be published in stages over the next two years.

What did it find about religion?

Some 46.2% of the population – or 27.5 million – described themselves as Christian on the day of the 2021 census, down from 59.3% in 2011, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.

It is the first time the proportion has dropped below half, and continues the trend since 2001, when 71.7% (37.3 million) described themselves as Christian.

Over the same period, the percentage of people saying they had no religion jumped from 25.2% to over a third in 2021 (37.2% or 22.2 million). This was the second most common response.

Again, this continues the trend between 2001 and 2011, when the number of people reporting “no religion” had risen from 14.8% (7.7 million people) – meaning the number ticking this box has almost trebled in the last two decades.

The religion question was voluntary on the 2021 census but answered by 94% of the population of England and Wales, up from 92.9% in 2011, the ONS added.

What about other religions?

There were increases in the proportion of people describing themselves as following a religion other than Christianity, but the movement percentage-wise was much smaller. Some 6.5% (3.9 million) described themselves as Muslim, up from 4.9%, and 1.7% (1 million) said they were Hindu, a rise from 1.5%.

Religious belief among population of England & Wales.
Religious belief among population of England & Wales.
via PA Graphics/Press Association Images

In a third of households (32.7% – 8.1 million) all members reported the same religion, while 13.7% (3.4 million) have a mix of religious and non-religious people and in 1.1% (285,000) at least two different religions were reported.

In a fifth of households (20.4% – 5.1 million) all members said they had no religion.

What has been the reaction from non religious groups?

Humanists UK, which ran a campaign ahead of the two most recent censuses encouraging non-religious people to tick the form’s “no religion” box, said the result should be a “wake-up call which prompts fresh reconsiderations of the role of religion in society”.

Chief executive Andrew Copson said: “These results confirm that the biggest demographic change in England and Wales of the last 10 years has been the dramatic growth of the non-religious.

“They mean the UK is almost certainly one of the least religious countries on Earth.”

The National Secular Society said the figures show aspects of society, such as the Anglican establishment and daily prayers and worship in parliament and schools, are “all inappropriate, hopelessly outdated and fail to reflect the country we actually live in” and called for reform.

Chief executive Stephen Evans said: “It’s official – we are no longer a Christian country.”

He added: “The current status quo, in which the Church of England is deeply embedded in the UK constitution, is unfair and undemocratic – and looking increasingly absurd and unsustainable.”

Are there other explanations?

Age and generational shifts appeared to be at play.

Abby Day, a professor of race, faith and culture at Goldsmiths, University of London, told the Guardian: “Baby boomers lost their religion in the 1960s and raised their millennial children to be non-religious.

“That’s why the number ticking ‘Christian’ on the census has dropped as older people die out and younger people select the category of ‘non religion’.”

The Archbishop of York said the decline in people identifying as Christian is “not a great surprise” but acknowledged it “throws down a challenge”.

The Most Rev Stephen Cottrell said: “We have left behind the era when many people almost automatically identified as Christian but other surveys consistently show how the same people still seek spiritual truth and wisdom and a set of values to live by.”

Deborah Weston, from the RE Policy Unit, said ticking ‘no religion’ “does not mean that person does not reflect on the big questions in life”.

She said: “In light of this, we need religious education in schools to reflect the pluralistic, diverse and often complicated belief in modern Britain – where a worldview may be made up of both religious and non-religious ideas.”

Other census findings?

It also found that:

– Some 81.7% (48.7 million) of usual residents identified their ethnic group as white, a decrease from 86% (48.2 million) in 2011;

– In 2021, 91.1% (52.6 million) of usual residents aged three years and over had English (English or Welsh in Wales) as a main language; and

– 90.3% (53.8 million) of usual residents identified with at least one UK national identity (English, Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish, British and Cornish).


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