UK Census for 2011: Christianity in decline; Atheism on the increase.

My first ever GWOG BLOG (!) and it is a privilege to write for this special collection of the sceptical and the scandalous! I’ll be posting on themes of being gay and godless with regular updates of news, reviews, shout-outs, and counter-apologetics and promoting science and reason and discussion thereof. There might be a distinctly Anglophile sensibility too and frequent references to cups of tea.

I spent time over Christmas pondering what I could write about ( and just so you know how hard it was) writing and rejecting several first drafts before alighting on my current muse.

Indeed, I was wondering if I’d ever get anything written.  Then this morning I happened across this story from December 11th. Yes, I know ‘ever with my finger on the beating pulse of current events‘  – but bear with me, this is interesting:

The Results of the 2011 UK Census.

Okay so it’s a story about statistics. And I know I said “interesting” but stick with it.

So first some background, The UK Census is a national survey of all households in all local council districts.  Its aim is to get a statistical picture of Britain’s population and The Office for National Statistics (ONS) analyses this data and Government and The Civil Service utilise it when deciding policy and makes decisions about funding; it also gives a record of demographic changes.

Demographic changes  as many will know, are largely considered to have sealed President Obama’s second term, so movements in the opinions of populations are important.

The last Census before this one took place in 2001, and this census relates to the survey in 2011, the results and analyses of which were published in 2012. You can also get a very useful breakdown from the ONS from this YouTube video of the survey results and analyses as they specifically relate to religion, which is available here.

Christianity on the decline?
So what should the gay and the godless have to celebrate? Well how about Christianity being still the largest religion but shrinking significantly down from 72% of the population when asked in 2001 to only 59% in 2011?

“That’s it?”,  you scoff!  “We want better than that!”, I hear you demand!  Alright then!

How about the next largest proportion of the UK population rising from 15% in 2001 to one-quarter (25%) is for those reporting “No Religion”?  That is a rise of 10% of the total populous. Expressed as a proportion rather than a percentage of the total, that’s a change of some 7.7million reporting “no religion” when asked in 2001 to some 14.1million in 2011, if you assume a linear change that’s an irreligious increase of 54% in ten years!

How to account for that seeming discrepancy?  Well, these census figures potentially mask the true extent of the decline in religious belief of the UK, for what the Census actually measures is religious affiliation. It does not in fact measure belief, and how could you?  To be fair, the ONS makes that clear in the YouTube video in the previous section, but it’s possible someone could read these Census results as “59% believe in The God of Christianity” and that wouldn’t be true at all but to understand what the answer is, it is best to begin with the question that was asked.

From Bad to Worse?

The Census, you see is compulsory: if you don’t take part you are fined a pecuniary amount.   The question of religion was the first “voluntary question” to be introduced the census, originally in 2001 and then again in 2011 and both times this attracted quite a bit of controversy.

The British Humanist Association led by vocal CEO Andrew Copson initiated the Census Campaign which sought to challenge the nature of the question that was asked, which was:

“What is your religion?”

While not a problem of a leading question, the complaint was that it did not capture the heart of religious practice, only the religious identity people who call themselves “Christian”, and from The Government’s point of view they don’t care if you think sola scriptura or sola fide is your guiding principle, nor does it matter to them if you haven’t attended a church service or cracked open a bible in years or who hold to any of the dogmatic positions of a particular faith.

‘So what?’, you might well ask.  Well, data from the census is used to make funding and policy decisions, so such as the issue of faith schools and whether you think segregating education down sectarian lines with very little in the way of curricular oversight for controversial areas is a bad thing or not: how many there are, what proportion there are, how they are funded;  it all comes back to the census and so the overwhelmingly “christian” majority of England, the Christian nature of religious practice in schools and the policy of encouraging faith schools themselves  looks less secure when you consider is about identity not belief and when contrasted with data from other surveys that tend to increase the margin of the non religious by an even greater extent when asking follow-up questions.

The 29th British Social Attitudes Survey taken in 2010 and  published in September 2012, tested whether people felt they “belonged” to a religion.  When asked 45.7% of respondents said they did not.  Outside of births, marriages and funerals, the survey also assessed attendance for regular religious observance.  Then a massive 57.7% of respondents said they never attend a church with a mere 14.3% in the most frequent category of “once a week or more”

Finally the BSA questionnaire asked what was their family’s religion?  18.3% said their family were non-religious, meaning that the remainder of the 45.7 %, who declared that they did not feel they “belonged” to a religion, had come from some religious family background.

The conclusions one can draw from data such as this is that people are leaving the faiths they grew up in and not joining another, which may account for the substantial rises seen in the “Non Religious” in both surveys but which also identifies the problems of simply asking “what is your religion” if one still identifies culturally as such but does not actually believe. Cultural Christian but de facto Atheist.  From surveys such as these it would seems that Christianity in England is in a greater crisis than even the decline in The Official Census suggests.


But one must, however, be cautious.  Have people converted to other faiths? Well the census seems to belie that possibility as the number of other religions have all risen but on the order of fractional increases at most a few percentage points and this is largely account for by postulated migration patterns.  Islam for example has risen by 2% in the last ten years, but rises to only 5% of the population putting pay to the idea that England is being over run with Muslims they make up barely 1/5th of the non-religious if you take even the Census’s conservative estimation of godlessness in the UK today at face value. It’s likely also that the religious figure is somewhat inflated by immigrants to the UK with a far greater degree of religious conservatism being imported.

Other things worth pulling out, for consideration.
We are currently in the middle of a full-throated opposition to gay marriage in England, with His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI being uncharacteristically given over to hyperbole and overt sexism decrying: “The future of mankind is at stake!”   Much more to say about this in future blogs, however, it is interesting to note that as of 2011 a mere 0.2% of the population has taken up the opportunity for a civil partnership seven years after it’s introduction into law in 2004.  There has been an overall decline in the number of marriages also, these are down 4.3% from 2001 to 46.6% of the overall population being married. However the result do show an increase for Civil Partnerships, albeit slender, for in 2001 no such provision was available. So watch these numbers in the decades to come, especially if gay marriage becomes a reality.

There was also outrage recently when the State Church voted to restrict the rights of women to ascend to the Bishopric within the Church and prevent their ordination. Now why is this important?  Well it’s caused all kinds of mess of a constitutional nature because this isn’t The Catholics, this is the State Church of England, with a female Monarch as it’s head (long story).  Saying that women are not considered equal to their male counterparts at the same time as women’s rights are moving forward in society was deeply incongruous and rather embarrassing. Indeed, even within the Church the motion was approved in two of the three houses of the Church Synod but lost – very narrowly – in the popular vote.  It was a massive backward step for a Church that flirts with progressive ideals and which  tries to be all things for all people but which usually ends up disappointing everybody equally, and teeters constantly on the brink of a schizophrenic schism leading to exactly the kind of paralysis of the sort seen in the vote over the ordination of women Bishops.  Nothing will happen internally now about this  for years.   As well, the vote had largely been expected to go for women’s rights and it caused dismay and anger when conservative forces in the laity voted the measure down. It saw some calling for laws  to compel the church to comply with existing equalities legislation outlawing discriminatory practices. Such revolutionary secularism will be something to watch in the New Year when the amendment is due before Parliament.


Will that vote be affecting attitudes of people ten years from now?

In the summary of the 2011 Census published in The Guardian it was also pointed out that a century ago in 1911, the suffragette movement was using the Census to campaign for rights for women, defacing poll forms and picnicking on the common as a means of avoiding the pollsters turning up to their houses and so flagrantly disobeying the compulsory rules for fulfilment.

Indeed one famous suffragette, Emily Wilding Davison, who two years later would be trampled to death by the King’s Horse at The Epsom Derby, spent the night hiding in a broom cupboard in The Houses of Parliament.

So from a Cupboard stuffed with Suffragette to Closet bursting forth with Gays –  as LGBT people become more visible in our society and grow in acceptance, and gain rights much as women did in the last century, and continue to fight for today; I find myself wondering what changes will see if we looked back 100 years hence:  Christianity marginalised? Secularism on the Rise?  A resurgence in marriages as gay people finally marry their long-term partners?

For those not living in these seemingly enlightened isles, will such changes ever be seen in the more heavily religious places in the world than Britain in the 21st Century? Americans please weigh in.

From this data it seems the identity of irreligiosity is on the rise in England, and that’s an encouraging thought for starting 2013 with.  Whatever else happens, the next year, the next century will be one to watch!

 Happy New Year Everybody!

6 thoughts on “UK Census for 2011: Christianity in decline; Atheism on the increase.”

  1. Unlike the Census, the BSA survey did take account of Christenings/Weddings/Funerals phenomenon – and asked for religious observance in addition to those functions of living. That’s where you found that massive 57.7% of respondents saying they NEVER went to church apart from this and only 14.3% saying they went “once a week or more”

    Add to this the distorting effect of faith schools (where religious observance of the parents is a selection criteria for the kids) and again we start to see some of the mechanisms over how the “what religion are you” result can be inflated in favour of religious affiliation over actual belief, that appears to be in decline as people leave the faiths they grew up in.

    The UK is weird, we behave more secularly than we actually are. Let us not forget we have a state religion and Queen Liz is in charge of it, thanks to the impatience of Kings. America by contrast is a secular nation at it’s foundation but you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s one of the most religious in the the modern world, hence why I thought these census results might prove an interesting topic to spark some debate.

  2. I think there are a lot of people who aren’t particularly religious and might just go to church for weddings, christenings and funerals because that it is what is expected of them (or they want their kids to go to the local faith school!).

    The drop in figures probably more to do with some people being honest (and brave) enough to tick the “None” box.

    Britain is quite a secular country, despite what some vocal religious people might want us to think.

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