2021 Census to continue to use leading religion question

20 July, 2020

The legal regulations required to hold the next Census in England and Wales on 21 March 2021 have been passed into law, confirming that the leading question ‘What is your religion?’, which appeared in the 2011 and 2001 surveys, will again feature. Humanists UK, which has campaigned for the wording of the question to be amended to remove the presumption of religious belief, is disappointed by the lack of any changes made by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), which manages the Census.

The question presumes that respondents have a religion. Its placement after questions about ethnicity and national identity and the lack of context about in what sense respondents should ‘have’ a religion leads, as the ONS acknowledges, to the results capturing the broadest possible swathe of the population as giving a religious answer, whether individuals are practising, believing, belonging, or simply very loosely culturally affiliating (due for instance to the religion in which they were brought up or were baptised into).

The approach hugely underestimates the number of non-religious people in the UK, leading to a lack of adequate non-religious provision, such as pastoral support in hospitals, or inclusion in religious education curricula by local authorities. Subsequently, the needs of this group are not being adequately met. Compared to the British Social Attitudes Survey, which asks about belonging to a particular religion and has consistently shown since 2013 that between 48 and 53 percent of respondents are non-religious, the 2001 and 2011 censuses put this figure considerably lower at 15 and 25 percent respectively.

The British Social Attitudes Survey uses a two-part question which asks ‘Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?’ and ‘If yes, which?’ This approach gives a reliable indication of the actual identities of Britons, unlike the Census.

In the run up to the 2011 Census, Humanists UK exposed the flaws in the ONS’s question design by commissioning a poll using two different wordings of the same question and showing that they produced very different results. 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%) said they 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 said they had attended a place of worship within the last week.

Since 2016, Humanists UK has actively engaged with the ONS to seek a change to the question wording. This included as a member of the Census Diversity and Inclusion Group; by responding to relevant consultations; and through bilateral meetings. At one such meeting in 2017, Humanists UK staff were told by officials that the question shouldn’t change, firstly for the understandable but regrettable reason that consistency over time allows trends to be discerned; and secondly because of a misguided notion that capturing the loosest possible affiliation of religion is what is required under the Equality Act 2010. In fact this is incorrect, as people’s beliefs and practices are generally more important in planning service provision and preventing discrimination than their loose cultural affiliations.

The census in Scotland, which normally runs in parallel to the questionnaire in England and Wales, may be delayed until 2022 due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Humanists UK’s Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson commented, ‘We are hugely disappointed that the ONS, despite its own admission that the Census religion question is leading, has chosen to continue with it for the 2021 Census. This is not merely a case of numbers going up or down, as Census data is used across the country to determine religion or belief provision in public services; from school places, to hospital services, to the provision of public services.’

‘Therefore we believe that it is essential, and not too much to ask, that the manner of asking the question on which so much is determined is fair, contains no pre-existing biases, and does not place the non-religious, who by other measures represent a majority, at a distinct disadvantage.

‘We will now campaign through to the time of the Census to ensure that non-religious people understand that they should tick the “no religion” box when responding to it.’


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK’s Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson commented at richy@humanists.uk or phone 020 3675 0959.

Read more about our work on religion and belief: surveys and statistics: https://humanists.uk/campaigns/religion-and-belief-some-surveys-and-statistics/ 

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 85,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.