Online Census enables apostates to privately state their beliefs for the first time

11 March, 2021

For the first time, apostates can tick the ‘no religion’ option on the Census secretly without the risk of their beliefs being exposed to other members of their household. For apostates – people who leave the religions they were raised in, often against their family’s wishes – something as simple as filling in the Census religion box has, in the past, felt fraught with danger. But Faith to Faithless, the UK’s support network for apostates, has welcomed the change, which goes a long way towards protecting vulnerable individuals who would otherwise be at risk of shunning or honour-based abuse.

Previously, as the Census is a household survey, one member was expected to oversee the whole form and may well look at the answers others give. This means that each member may reveal their personal details to that person. The 2021 Census not only includes sensitive questions about religion but also for the first time about sexuality and gender identity.

As this Census is predominantly taking place online, individuals who wish to respond secretly as non-religious or LGBT can now do so by requesting an individual access code from the Office of National Statistics in England or Wales residents or the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency and then fill in their own section of the form accordingly. Family or household members will not be aware that this has happened, and answers can still be edited after the household Census has been completed. The information provided through an individual access code will take priority over any information submitted through the household Census as a whole.

Faith to Faithless Vice Chair and ex-Jehovah’s Witness Ste Richardson told Humanists UK that he personally would have found this option useful on previous the 2001 Census. He stated,

‘Through our work, we have encountered many cases of apostates being subjected to abhorrent abuse, and many face being cut off by their communities if their decision to leave their religion is known. Because of the fear of shunning or honour-based abuse, many apostates have not come out as non-religious to their families and if they still lived with their family, would not previously have been able to take part in the Census in the way they would have liked. This change is an important step towards protecting and representing a traditionally overlooked minority group. This welcome change would have personally helped me had it been available in the past.’

Faith to Faithless is part of Humanists UK, which is encouraging people who are not in any meaningful sense religious to tick the ‘no religion’ option on the 2021 Census. It is running the campaign because the biased and leading nature of the Census question has in the past caused many people who don’t believe in or practise a religion to nonetheless tick a religion box by default. In 2011 the consequence was that, compared with more accurate surveys, the number of non-religious people was cut in half.

This matters because Census results are used by government and local authorities to make important policy decisions. These include how to allocate funding to state services such as education, health, social care, and pastoral care. The continuing requirement for compulsory Christian worship in state schools is justified based on the Census results, as is the ever-increasing number of state faith schools, and aspects of our constitutional settlement like, for example, the ongoing presence of 26 bishops voting in Parliament.

Humanists UK’s Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented,

‘We are delighted that the Office for National Statistics and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency have developed this essential safeguarding option. This will greatly advance the accuracy of the Census itself. However, we remain concerned that the Census religion question, in asking “What is your religion?”, is designed to lead as many people as possible to tick a religious box. We hope that this change will at least enable a few more people to tick “No religion”.’


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.

Read more about Faith to Faithless.

Read more about our Census 2021 Campaign.

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.