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Census signals a decline in Christian population

14 December 2012

by a staff reporter

Christian population, 2011, England and Wales local and unitary authorities

Christian population, 2011, England and Wales local and unitary authorities

THE number of people identifying themselves as Christian has fallen by more than four million in the past decade, figures from the 2011 Census of England and Wales, released this week, show.

The figures show a fall of nearly 13 per cent in the number of Christians since the 2001 Census, despite a growth in population. Christianity was found to be the only religious group to experience a decline. In total, 59 per cent (33.2 million) identified themselves as Christian, down from 71.1 per cent (37.3 million) in 2001.

The figures showed that the number of Muslims had risen by two per cent, to five per cent. The largest growth area, however, was in the number of people declaring themselves as having no religion - a rise of ten per cent in the past decade, to 25 per cent.

The question "What is your religion?" was the only voluntary question on the 2011 Census, and 7.2 per cent of respondents did not answer it. The British Humanist Association, which ran a campaign last year to encourage people to tick the "no religion" box on the Census, said that the results showed that Christianity was in terminal decline.

But Christian groups, such as the think tank Theos, said that the census measured identity rather than belief. The research director of Theos, Nick Spencer, said: "The Census measures religious identification, not beliefs or practice. It's about what people call themselves, and which 'group' they wish to identify with.

"These figures show that we have a plural religious landscape, but that doesn't mean we're atheists. Digging deeper, we see that even those who say they have no religion often have a variety of spiritual beliefs, but they don't want to associate these with religious institutions."

The main Christian denominations all agreed that the statistics represented a "challenge", but insisted that they were not discouraged by them.

The Church of England's director of communications, the Revd Arun Arora, said that the figures showed that England remained a "faithful nation".

"England remains a country where the majority of the nation actively identifies the role that faith plays in their life. Clearly we welcome the fact that Christianity remains the most populous faith in England - with six in ten people identifying themselves as Christian. When all faiths are taken together, people of faith account for two-thirds of the nation - two in every three people identify themselves as having a faith.

"Obviously, the fall in those choosing to identify themselves as Christians is a challenge. We need to look closely at the fuller figures published next year, and to reflect on what these tell us. One of the reasons may well be fewer people identifying as 'cultural Christians', i.e. those who have no active involvement with churches and who may previously have identified as Christian for cultural or historical reasons."

A spokesman for the Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference said: "The overall decrease in the number of self-identifying Christians is consistent with recent social-attitude and social-value surveys. Christianity is no longer a religion of culture, but a religion of decision and commitment. People are making a positive choice in self-identifying as Christians."

The highest proportion of people in England identifying themselves as Christian in the census was in Knowsley, Liverpool: 80.9 per cent of the population. Tower Hamlets, in London, was found to be the one area where there were more Muslims than Christians.

Norwich had the highest proportion of people identifying themselves as having no religion: 42.5 per cent; closely followed by Brighton and Hove, at 42.4 per cent; and Caerphilly, at 41 per cent.

The chief executive of the British Humanist Association, Andrew Copson, said that the Census showed that faith was in terminal decline: "It is time that public policy caught up with this mass turning away from religious identities, and stopped privileging religious bodies."

Linda Woodhead, professor of religion at Lancaster University, said that many of those who ticked "no religion" did so because "religion is such an unattractive word, it suggests people are dogmatic.

"Picking the 'no religion' box doesn't mean they are necessarily secular, but this doesn't account for why people don't tick the Christian box. We know from other surveys that the number of Catholics has held fairly steady, and that the decline is in the Church of England."

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