New survey evidence: census religion question ‘fatally flawed’

20 March, 2011

A new poll commissioned by the British Humanist Association (BHA) has provided fresh evidence that the census question is fatally flawed for its intended purpose of planning public services.

When asked the census question ‘What is your religion?’, 61% of people in England and Wales ticked a religious box (53.48% Christian and 7.22% other) while 39% ticked ‘No religion’.

But when asked ‘Are you religious?’ only 29% of the same people said ‘Yes’ while 65% said ‘No’, meaning over half of those whom the census would count as having a religion said they were not religious.

Even more revealingly, less than half (48%) of those who ticked ‘Christian’ said they believed that Jesus Christ was a real person who died and came back to life and was the son of God.

Asked when they had last attended a place of worship for religious reasons, most people in England and Wales (63%) had not attended in the past year, 43% of people last attended over a year ago and 20% of people had never attended. Only 9% of people had attended a place of worship within the last week.

In a separate poll in Scotland, commissioned by the Humanist Society of Scotland (HSS), when asked the Scottish census question, ‘What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?’ 42% of the adult population in Scotland said ‘None’.

But when asked ‘Are you religious?’ 56% of the same Scots said they were not and only 35% said they were.

Andrew Copson, BHA Chief Executive, commented, ‘Most people in the UK now say they’re not religious. In England and Wales, half the people who say they are Christian when asked the census question do not believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God, rose from the dead, and was a real person. Over half of those who tick a religious box on the census question have not been to a place of worship in over a year and asked “Are you religious?”, say they are not.

‘This poll is further evidence for a key message of The Census Campaign – that the data produced by the census, used by local and national government as if it indicates religious belief and belonging, is in fact highly misleading. We urge people who do not want to give continuing or even greater importance to unshared religions in our public life to tick “No Religion” in the census.’

Juliet Wilson, convener of the HSS, commented, ‘These polls suggest that in the Census, many more people will say they belong to a religion than is the case. The government will use census data to justify maintaining “faith” schools while religious groups will use it to lobby for their own institutions, and promote greater separateness in our already dangerously divided society. Our survey shows that Scotland is already effectively a secular country. But the only way the Scottish Parliament will recognise this is if people remember to put a big tick in the “None” box.’


The British Humanist Association is the national charity representing and supporting the interests of ethically concerned, non-religious people in the UK. It is the largest organisation in the UK campaigning for an end to religious privilege and to discrimination based on religion or belief, and for a secular state.

The Census Campaign website, with links to social media and fundraising sites, is at

The British Humanist Association website, with links to supporting surveys on religion and belief, is at

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.

In the poll in England and Wales, total sample size was 1896 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 9-11 March 2011. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all English and Welsh adults (aged 18+).  The England and Wales poll asked four questions: ‘What is your religion? (This question is optional)’; ‘Are you religious?’; those that answered ‘Christian’ in the first question were asked ‘Do you believe that Jesus Christ was a real person who died and came back to life, and was the son of God?’; and ‘Other than ceremonies involving family and friends, to which you were invited (e.g. weddings, baptisms, etc.), approximately when did you last attend a place of worship for religious reasons?’.

Read the BHA poll results for England and Wales.

In the poll in Scotland, the total sample size was 2007 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 10-15 January 2011.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all Scottish adults (aged 18+).  The Scottish poll asked two questions: ‘Are you religious?’; and for those who answered ‘Yes’ or ‘Don’t Know’, ‘Which religion do you belong to?’.

Read the HSS poll results for Scotland.

For further comment or information contact BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson on 020 3675 0959, or BHA Head of Public Affairs, Naomi Phillips 07540 257101.

For further information about the Scotland poll, contact HSS Media Officer Tim Maguire on 0131 556 0128 or 07770 555 224; or  HSS Convenor Juliet Wilson on 07786 136 102.