Non-religious surge: 37% tick ‘No religion’ in 2021 Census – UK among least religious countries in the world

29 November, 2022

It’s official: England and Wales are among the least religious countries in the world, according to 2021 Census data.

The data published by the Office of National Statistics shows the number of people identifying with ‘No religion’ jumped by over 8 million, from 25% to 37% between 2011 and 2021. Christians are now a minority in the Census results for the first time, and are outnumbered by the non-religious in Wales. This is in spite of the Census question on religion being widely recognised as a biased and leading one – in reality England and Wales are even less religious, in terms of identity, belief, and practice than the Census results suggest.

The latest results represent an increase in the pace of change, with both the growth of the non-religious and the decline in the religious occurring at a faster rate than between 2001 and 2011. The non-religious grew by almost 60%.

The number of people ticking ‘Christian’ in England and Wales has fallen most steeply, from 59% to 46%. Research shows that even these people are frequently not religious in their beliefs or practice – for example, less than half believe Jesus was a real person who was the son of god, died, and came back to life. In general, those who tick ‘Christian’ do so because they were christened, because their parents are/were Christian, or because they went to a Christian school.

Particular growth in the non-religious has occurred in Wales, where 47% ticked ‘No religion’, compared to 44% ‘Christian’. London was the most religious city, while the least religious places were all in Wales – Caerphilly, Blaenau Gwent, and Rhondda Cynon Taf. In England, the least religious places were Brighton and Hove, Norwich, and Bristol. All six of these places are majority ‘No religion’.

Biased Census

The result is still likely to underestimate the number of non-religious people. This is because the question is not only optional, but also uses leading wording (‘What is your religion?’) which has long been shown to inflate the number of people who do not believe in, practice, or consider themselves to belong to a religion choosing a religious box. The Office of National Statistics acknowledges this itself. The annual British Social Attitudes Survey, by contrast, found in 2020 that 53% of British adults belong to no religion, with only 37% Christians.

Separately a poll commissioned by Humanists UK in 2019 showed that 29% of British adults hold a non-religious outlook on life that matches the humanist one, hinting at the widespread shift in popular values, opinions, and identity the UK has undergone in the 21st century.

Why the trend?

Humanists UK thinks the trends have occurred because scientific explanations of how life came to be are nowadays pretty complete. At the same time, some religious groups have found themselves increasingly at odds with public attitudes on issues such as sexual orientation, the role of women in society, and abortion. Some have experienced sexual abuse scandals. Public debates nowadays typically run along the lines of the harm principle first articulated by the humanist John Stuart Mill in the 19th century – that people should be free to do as they please, so long as they do no harm to others. Putting that together, it is unsurprising that there has been both a growing non-religious population, and growing acceptance that non-religious people are just as moral as the religious.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented:

‘These results confirm that the biggest demographic change in England and Wales of the last ten years has been the dramatic growth of the non-religious. They mean the UK is almost certainly one of the least religious countries on Earth.

‘One of the most striking things about these Census results is how at odds the population is from the state itself. No state in Europe has such a religious set-up as we do in terms of law and public policy, while at the same time having such a non-religious population. Iran is the only other state in the world that has clerics voting in its legislature. And no other country in the world requires compulsory Christian worship in schools as standard.

‘The law has failed to keep up with the pace of change, and as a result, the enormous non-religious population in England and Wales face everyday discrimination – from getting local school places to receiving appropriate emotional support in hospitals. This Census result should be a wake-up call which prompts fresh reconsiderations of the role of religion in society.’

Policy implications

The changing demographics of the UK should have several implications for the law and Government policy. Some of the most pressing of these are in education, where the discrepancy between reality and public policy is already having a discriminatory impact on younger families, who are overwhelmingly non-religious. For example, a third of state schools in England are Christian, and 16% of places across state schools have religiously selective admissions policies. These policies typically require that parents attend worship to secure a place – even though the levels of worship attendance are much lower, at under 5%. And all schools in England and Wales with no religious character must have a daily act of Christian worship.

But there are further implications too. Uniquely among democratic states, Church of England bishops sit and vote in our legislature, in the House of Lords. A large share of public broadcasting is devoted to religious, particularly Christian, programmes, but there are no equivalent programmes about or for the non-religious. Pastoral care provision in hospitals, prisons, and the armed forces remains overwhelmingly Christian. And humanist marriages are not yet legally recognised in England and Wales.

Opinion polling shows strong support for removing bishops from the Lords, replacing collective worship in schools with inclusive assemblies, ending state funding for faith schools (and even moreso ending religiously discriminatory admissions policies), legally recognising humanist marriages, increasing provision of non-religious pastoral care.

Humanists UK President Dr Adam Rutherford commented on what the result said for humanists in the UK:

‘The Census result shows that the non-religious have grown enormously in the last ten years. Yet far from creating an absence in values, we might be living in a more values-driven society than ever before! Surveys show, for example, that around three in ten British adults have humanist beliefs and values, and it’s a trend we’ve seen growing in recent years.

‘We’ve seen increased demand for humanist ceremonies, non-religious pastoral care, and resources about humanism in schools. Millions of non-religious people in the UK today are leading humanist lives – fulfilling, meaningful, ethical lives – on the basis of reason and humanity.’

Wales Humanists Coordinator Kathy Riddick commented:

‘Wales is officially the least religious part of the UK, and while that’s not a new development, it is something that politicians need to properly address in law and public policy. Thankfully in navigating these changes, Wales has a strong tradition of supporting freedom of religion or belief to draw on, from disestablishment over 100 years ago to the creation of the most inclusive curriculum in the UK just last year.

‘There are still many areas where being non-religious in Wales comes with disadvantages. From hospital chaplaincy which fails to include any non-religious support across Wales, to school assemblies where daily acts of Chistian worship remain mandatory, and in many national events where religious groups are represented but non-religious beliefs are not.’

Notes:

For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at press@humanists.uk or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.

Read the latest Census results on the ONS website.

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.