Last week saw the publication of the results of the 2021 Census in England and Wales. The main headlines were that the number of people identifying with ‘No religion’ jumped by over 8 million, from 25% to 37% of the population while the share ticking ‘Christian’ fell from 59% to 46%. In Wales, more people ticked ‘No religion’ than ‘Christian’.
Since then, we’ve seen some public and social commentary that has been either misleading or in some cases flat-out wrong. In what follows, we’re looking to set the record straight.
#1: The claim that those ticking ‘No religion’ are often religious or spiritual and the Census results somehow underrepresent this
In fact, the Census exaggerates the religiosity of the country.
It does this because it uses leading wording (‘What is your religion?’ assumes the respondent has a 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. Research after the 2011 Census found that less than half of those who tick ‘Christian’ believe in the Biblical story of Jesus. In general, those who tick ‘Christian’ say they do so because they were christened, because their parents are/were Christian, or because they went to a Christian school.
The annual British Social Attitudes Survey, by contrast, uses wording that is not leading, and found in 2020 that 53% of British adults belong to no religion, with only 37% Christians. At the same time, Church attendance sits at under 5%.
This matters because most public policy decisions would be best made on the basis of what people believe or practise, rather than any loose cultural affiliation. That includes, for example, the provision of pastoral care in hospitals, or what is taught about in schools. People’s beliefs and practices are most likely to dictate what they actually need – as suggested by, for example, polling around provision of chaplaincy and non-religious pastoral care.
Furthermore, polling generally shows strong support from religious people for what might wrongly be assumed to be the exclusively non-religious position. This includes 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), and legally recognising humanist marriages.
Finally, it’s worth noting what the Christian think tank Theos says about this. After the results, it said ‘Some religious groups will try to claim that the non-religious are actually in fact religious, they just don’t know it. That won’t wash. People tick the no-religion box for a reason. Non–religiosity may be complex but it isn’t religiosity.’
#2: The claim that the religious share of the population is becoming more religious
Whatever way you measure it – whether by affiliation, belonging, beliefs, or practise – the UK is becoming less religious over time.
We haven’t seen evidence to this effect, but it might be the case that religious affiliation is shrinking faster than religious beliefs or attendance at places of worship. This would mean that a higher share of the religiously affiliated is religiously committed. But this claim, when made in isolation, is misleading, because the overall picture is one of shrinkage whichever way you look at it.
#3: The claim that the UK risks becoming an immoral wasteland without religion
A decline in religiosity doesn’t mean a decline in moral values.
Many people’s lives have improved dramatically while religion has declined in the UK. In recent years improvements have included LGBT rights, abortion rights, less racism, an end to blasphemy laws in Britain, and a more inclusive education system. Further back we’ve also seen the founding of the welfare state, to which both Christians and humanists contributed much support. The NHS was founded by three non-religious people: Clement Attlee, William Beveridge, and Nye Bevan. And, in general, international evidence shows that less religious countries are on average more peaceful, more democratic, less corrupt, and more equal, and their citizens have a better quality of life.
Many people in the UK today have humanist beliefs and strive to live ethical lives based on reason, experience, and empathy rather than on religious doctrine. Humanists UK has existed for 126 years and humanist thinking stretches back thousands of years. 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.
It’s true that many religious organisations and groups do great work up and down the country. But so, equally, do non-religious people and secular organisations. The evidence shows that religious and non-religious people volunteer and give to charity at similar rates. The non-religious just don’t generally do it in the name of their non-religiosity.
#4: The claim that society’s good moral values today are inescapably or distinctively Judeo-Christian
One only needs consider the ancient (and pre-Christian) roots of modern European humanism, with thinkers such as Epicurus in ancient Greece; or the very similar schools of thought in other parts of the world, such as Charvaka in India, Mencius and Confucianism in China, and Ubuntu in Africa, to see that this claim is wrong. More than that, it is insulting to people in parts of the world whose own history of moral philosophy owes very little or nothing to Christianity or Western colonialism.
#5: The claim that there are only 10,000 humanists because only this many identified as such on the Census
The Census has a write-in option where people can write in any words they wish but this doesn’t mean very much. For example, 2,414 people (0.00% of the population) wrote in ‘Believe in God’, but that doesn’t mean that only 2,414 people believe in God. The ONS recently published a blog post about this in which it wrote, ‘Write-in counts do not represent the number or proportion of the population as a whole who identify with that religion or ethnic group. For instance, the write-in count for the number of Catholics may not represent the overall population estimate of Catholics because some Catholics may have described themselves as “Christian”.’
YouGov polling has found that around 29% of the population hold a non-religious outlook on life that matches the humanist one, and around 7% (almost 5 million people) primarily identify with the label. In Scotland, where humanist marriages are legally recognised, almost a quarter of all marriages are humanist. Humanists UK has over 100,000 members and supporters, and hundreds of thousands more followers across its social media accounts.
The Census question had ‘No religion’ and ‘Other religion’ among its options. Under ‘Other religion’ it was possible for the respondent to write in a specific religion. A very small number of people wrote in ‘Humanist’ (or ‘Agnostic’, ‘Atheist’, ‘Theism’, or ‘Believe in God’).
There are several clear reasons why the numbers that did this do not represent the true numbers of humanists, atheists, and agnostics. First, humanism, atheism, and agnosticism are not religions, so anyone who wrote them in and ticked ‘Other religion’ in order to do so contradicted themselves. A strong majority of people will not have done that.
What humanists, atheists, and agnostics will have overwhelmingly done is ticked ‘No religion’ – an answer that does apply to them. And this is the second problem – respondents are only allowed to tick one box, and so naturally most people will go for the box that unambiguously does apply to them. (It’s also the case that you can be all of an atheist, agnostic, and humanist at the same time – so which to write in would be another dilemma.)
For these reasons, in the run-up to the Census, we encouraged non-religious people to tick ‘No religion’.
The lack of any official measures of how many humanists there are is possibly a problem (and it is complicated by the fact that many people are humanists by belief and values but not by identity). But the Census question, worded as it is, simply wasn’t an appropriate place to try to do that measurement.
For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.
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.