New survey reveals how Census question leads people to tick a religious answer

4 March, 2021

Humanists UK is encouraging people who are not religiously believing or practising to tick the ‘no religion’ option.

A new survey suggests that most people who will tick ‘Christian’ on this month’s Census will do so in spite of not believing in the teachings of Christianity, not believing in the story of Jesus, and never attending church other than as a guest at a ceremony. Humanists UK says the results show the Census should not be relied upon as evidence of religiosity by decision-makers in resource allocation, and is encouraging those who do not believe or practise a religion to tick the ‘No religion’ box to avoid this happening.

Who are the ‘Census Christians’?

The survey, conducted by YouGov on behalf of Humanists UK, asked respondents the same question as appears on the Census – ‘What is your religion?’ It then asked those who ticked ‘Christian’ as to why. Just 34% of English and Welsh adults who ticked ‘Christian’ said they did so because they ‘believe in the teachings of Christianity’, 27% did so because they ‘believe that Jesus Christ was a real person who died and came back to life, and was the son of God’, and just 14% did so because they ‘go to religious services at a church other than weddings, christenings/ baptisms or funerals’. 55% did not select any of these three options.

Instead, people in England and Wales were more likely to tick ‘Christian’ because they were christened (59%) or brought up to think of themselves as a Christian (49%), because one of their parents is/was a Christian (44%), or they went to a Christian or Sunday school as a child (42%). 26% also said they had ticked ‘Christian’ because ‘this is a Christian country’, while 12% said ‘it reflects my ethnicity’. None of these reasons reflect these people’s religious beliefs or practices today.

Most British adults who ticked ‘Christian’ said they either never attend a place of worship (27%), outside of pandemic times, or do so less than once a year (24%). Similarly, 29% of those who ticked another religious answer said they never attend a place of worship, while 14% said they do so less than once a year.

When asked how religious they are, 26% of those ticking ‘Christian’ said that they are very or somewhat non-religious, as did 20% of those ticking another religious option. 30% of those ticking ‘Christian’ and 14% of those ticking another religious answer said they are neither religious nor non-religious.

Policy implications

Humanists UK said that the poll results show that the Census religion question cannot be relied upon by decision-makers when choosing how to provide services such as state schools or state-funded pastoral care. This is because the leading nature of the question prompts some people to tick a religious answer even though this doesn’t reflect their beliefs or practices.

Because of this, Humanists UK is encouraging non-religious people to tick ‘No religion’, with the simple slogan ‘If you’re not religious, say so!’

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented:

‘Most people in the UK say they are non-religious, a distinct minority have religious beliefs, and very few attend places of worship. But the last Census saw 67% of people tick a religious box.

‘This poll explains that they did so because of the leading question, but also because of their religious background or upbringing. This is the problem in a nutshell: the Census results are a reflection of Britain’s past, but they are used by government to allocate resources and make plans for the future.

‘We have a simple message for the public: if you don’t believe in or practise any religion and don’t want to be counted as if you do, then you should tick the “No religion” box.’

David Voas is Professor of Social Science at University College London, and an expert on the Census, whose work has been heavily cited by the Office of National Statistics when researching how people treat the religion question. Speaking on the misleading question, Professor Voas commented,

‘Sample surveys provide us with good data about the religious and non-religious beliefs, practices, and sense of belonging in the UK, but the Census receives far more attention. In the past people tended to treat its question on religion as being about ethnic heritage. But their answers were interpreted very differently by religious groups, some journalists, and government decision-makers. Which box you tick on the Census form may seem trivial, but the results do make a difference in public life.’

Headline figures

YouGov asked 1,000 British adults the same question as appears on the Census, ‘What is your religion? (This question is voluntary)’ Among English and Welsh people, 47% ticked ‘No religion’, 41% ‘Christian’, 8% another religion, and 4% refused to answer.

These headline figures seem unlikely to Humanists UK to match people’s behaviour when they actually fill in the Census. This is because the official nature of the form and the placement of the religion question after the ethnicity question all encourages people to tick a religious answer. Indeed, a similar poll conducted in 2011 recorded 53% ticking ‘Christian’ and 39% ticking ‘No religion’, when in the actual Census results 59% ticked ‘Christian’ and 25% ticked ‘No religion’. In Humanists UK’s view, this probably means that an even higher share of those ticking ‘Christian’ on the actual Census will do so for reasons unrelated to Christian belief or practice, than the share stated above.

Nonetheless, the new poll does suggest that the 2021 Census is likely to see a significant increase in the number of people ticking ‘No religion’ and decline in the number of people ticking ‘Christian’. This may well be the largest demographic shift between the 2011 and 2021 censuses – much as it was between the 2001 and 2011 censuses.

YouGov also asked a separate sample of 1,000 British adults the same question as appears on the British Social Attitudes survey, ‘Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion? If yes, which?’ 54% ticked ‘No religion’, 36% ticked a Christian option, while 7% ticked another religion. This is similar to recent British Social Attitudes survey results.


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at or phone 020 7324 3072 or 020 3675 0959.

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2,038 adults, split into two samples of 1,027 and 1,011. Fieldwork was undertaken between 26th – 28th February 2021. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

Read the poll results.

Read more about our work on the Census.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 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.