FOR the first time, fewer than half the population of England and Wales — 46.2 per cent — describe themselves as Christian according to the 2021 Census, down from 59.3 per cent in 2011 (News, 14 December 2012).
In the 2021 Census, the results of which were published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on Tuesday, 94 per cent of respondents (56 million) answered the voluntary religion question, up from 92.9 per cent (52.1 million) in the last Census in 2011.
“Christian” remains the most common response (46.2 per cent, 27.5 million people), followed by “No religion” at 37.2 per cent (22.2 million), up 12 percentage points since the 2011 Census.
The ONS observes that factors such as differing patterns of ageing, fertility, mortality, and migration might be contributing to the changing religious composition of England and Wales. It suggests that changes might also be caused by differences in the way individuals chose to answer the religion question between the two censuses.
In a response to the figures, the Bible Society suggested on Tuesday that the shift away from Christian belief happened some time before the past decade, and that people were now less willing to wear a label that did not describe them accurately, especially since claiming a faith that they do not hold no longer had a bearing on social approval.
After “No religion”, the number of people describing themselves as Muslim rose in the decade by 4.9 per cent to reach 6.5 per cent of the population (3.9 million). Hindus made up 1.7 per cent (one million), up from 1.5 per cent. The percentage of Jewish people remains broadly the same, 0.5 per cent, though the numbers rose slightly from 265,000 in 2011 to 271,000 in 2021.
In Wales, many fewer people reported their religion as Christian. The results show a sharper drop even than in England: a 14-per-cent fall from 57.6 per cent in 2011 to 43.6 per cent in 2021. Those marking “No religion” increased from 32.1 per cent in 2011 to 46.5 per cent in 2021.
London proved to be the most religiously diverse region of England in 2021: more than one quarter of all usual residents reported a religion other than Christian. Tower Hamlets had the highest percentage (39.9) of the population who described themselves as Muslim; others with high percentages of Muslims were Blackburn with Darwen, and Newham, also in east London.
“We will now sing ‘O Come, all ye who identify as Christian’”
Harrow remained the local authority with the highest percentage of the population responding as Hindu — just over one quarter — but Leicester had a greater increase, up from 15.2 per cent in 2011 to 17.9 per cent in 2021. Wolverhampton and Sandwell, in the West Midlands, had both the highest percentage overall and the largest percentage increase of people describing their religion as Sikh.
For the first time, the Census provides insights into religious-group composition in the 17.3 million households composed of more than one person. Of these, 8.1 million households reported all having the same religion; 5.1 million reported no religion; 3.4 million reported a combination of the same religion and no religion, and 1.1 per cent (285,000) reported at least two religions.
The 0.6 per cent of respondents (348,000) who ticked “Other Religion” (i.e. other than the six world faiths listed (Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh) included 74,000 Pagans. The largest increase was seen in the number describing their religion as Shamanism, which has increased from just 650 in 2011 to 8000 in 2021. Also included here were 32,000 Agnostics, 14,000 Atheists, and 10,000 Humanists.
The results show religion to be still mainstream, the Bible Society response said. Its head of research, Dr Rhiannon McAleer, described the proportion of those identifying with a religion as notably high. “The Census definitely does not show that we’re living in a society that turned its back on religion,” she said. “However, it does appear to show that religious identity is changing.”
She suggested that the results showed that people were shedding labels. “It’s not necessarily that they have lost a genuine and heart-felt faith. There’s also far more permission for people to admit that they don’t identify as Christians.”
She concluded: “Religious practice and identity — both Christian and non-Christian — is mainstream, and policy-makers cannot assume that religious voices should be absent from the public square.”
The Archbishop of York described it as “no great surprise” that the Census showed fewer people in England and Wales identifying as Christian than in the past.
“But it still throws down a challenge to us not only to trust that God will build his Kingdom on the Earth but also to play our part in making Christ known,” he 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.
“This winter — perhaps more so than for a long time — people right across the country, some in desperate need, will be turning to their local church, not only for spiritual hope but practical help. We will be there for them, in many cases, providing food and warmth. And at Christmas, millions of people will still come to our services.
“At the same time, we will be looking beyond our immediate surroundings, remembering we are part of a global faith, the largest movement on earth and its greatest hope for a peaceful, sustainable future.”
Read more on this story in this week’s Leader comment and Press column