Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Census results - one figure we shouldn't underestimate

The results of the 2011 census were published today, and some of the stats on religion are interesting.

Thanks to a poll commissioned by the Richard Dawkins Foundation (findings outlined here and here) we already knew that the number of people self-identifying as Christians was significantly down on the 2001 figure.  This is encouraging, particularly on a day when supporters of the Church of England are standing up in the Commons to defend its right to define marriage for what it pleases to term our Christian nation.

But a figure that's new to me and by which I think we should be immensely encouraged is the percentage of people now identifying as having "no religion", which has risen to 25% from 15% in 2001.

Superficially, this looks a bit obvious.  The figure for Christianity has gone down significantly while the figures for other religions that have risen have done so only slightly.  So y'know - I mean, duh, where else could all those people have gone?

But there are two things worth noting here, as they have a bearing on the finding.

One; the religion question in the census is heavily loaded to give false positives.  It is not "which, if any, of the following religions do you practice?" or even "which, if any, of the following religions do you identify with?".  Instead, it's "what is your religion?", followed by a list of options.  The options do include "no religion", that's true; but the way the question is phrased is shockingly leading and led the BHA to run this campaign in the run up to the 2011 census.  The fact that the "no religion" figure has risen so steeply is testament to the growing unwillingness among the British population to identify out of habit with the religions with which they were raised - and they've registered that opinion in spite of this heavily loaded question.

Two: the religion question in the census is a voluntary question.  Nobody was obliged to answer it, as with all the other questions. Non-believers were completely free to just ignore the question completely, skip it if they didn't think it mattered or if they have no opinion on religion in policy.

But 25% of the population of England and Wales, as it turns out, are not religious... and felt that position needed to be stated.

I was among them (of course).  I'm not religious myself, but I can't ignore religion as I would like to because it affects too many things in my life and in the lives of others.  I didn't skip the question thinking religion is irrelevant to me; I deliberately identified as non-religious, I stood up to be counted.  So did twenty-five percent of the rest of the country.  I can't say this often enough; twenty-five percent.

A quarter of the population of England and Wales are not only non-religious, but have voluntarily chosen to be identified and represented as such.  That's HUGE. That's EPIC.

That's a start.

Our politicians need to get caught up.  We know that even the majority of people who identify as Christian don't support a lot of what the Church of England and others want to do in their name, using their numbers to back its demands.  And the number of people actively troubling to say they have no religion has risen from 15% to 25% in just ten years.  That's a far bigger chunk of the population than is accounted for by any group except Christianity, but everybody's too busy panicking about offending religious sensibilities to have noticed us.

How big a group of voters must we non-believers show ourselves to be before our politicians start pandering for our approval?  I don't know, but judging by the news coverage it's not enough yet.  People ask me all the time why I'm so vocal against religion.  This is part of the reason; non-religious people are now the second largest group in England and Wales, but nobody seeks our opinions or worries about offending us.  This MUST change.


  1. An excellent point and well made.

  2. I'm an atheist and live in America which has a huge amount of Christians. You are absolutely correct in that we cannot ignore it but must remain vigilant. Christians would get rid of all my civil rights if they could and relegate me to a second class citizen. For the most part, many of them are bullies, and use the idea of being "blessed and superior to others" as a platform to force people to conform to their thinking and their point of view. I can only hope someday that science with its continuous march on the God of the Gaps relegates them to looking more and more extreme and paints them as they truly are: insane.

  3. I honestly believe that mqany of those who identified themselves as Christian are cultural rather than believing christians, people who attended RE classes and go to church solely for weddings, christenings and funerals, they don't believe in a god anymore than out and proud atheists

  4. Hi Luce, I agree this is a significant and encouraging figure but isn't it a bit obscure? I may have mis-read this but wouldn't the "no religion" figure include those who believe in a God but don't follow an established religion not to mention the growing population of would be Jedis (Jedii?) who probably weren't given an option on the census?
    The empty pews continue to speak for themselves but still there are few people willing to rule God out of their lives completely. The unknown still has such a massive hold that many still fear to embrace atheism fully.

  5. Paul; the census has a figure for 'other religion', at 0.4%.
    I would argue the opposite to you; that most of those who claim to be christian have never actually worshipped since they were coerced to do so in school; that this is a test of ethnicity rather than religion. These people are no more religious than I was when I had my first RE lesson.

    Teacher; "religion?"
    1st child; "Church of England"
    Teacher; "religion?"
    2nd child; "Church of England"
    Teacher; "religion?"
    Me; "ummmm.... none?"
    Teacher; "Church of England"

    That really happened.

    My local pub is next to a church, and I know which will have more people in it come sunday.

  6. Matthew - your experience is far from isolated. I went into hospital twice, in the 70s and 80s. On each occasion I had that identical conversations - "Religion?", "None", "I'll put you down as CofE then".

    How many people brought up in that way of thinking (which lasted well into the 80s) think of themselves as "CofE" despite never setting foot in a church, or activly believing in any of its beliefs?

    On the plus side if these trends continue by about 2031 "No religion" should be the largest group!

  7. Matthew and John, my point still stands I think. Telegraph figures http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/9737886/Jedi-religion-most-popular-alternative-faith.html show less than 30k confirmed atheists against over 175k who follow Yoda and Obi. 13.8M ticked no religion and suggests to me they either have a personal belief system or see themselves as following a spiritual path but do not see it as a definable religion.
    The alternative religions included the Jedi Knights along with Paganists and Spiritualists etc. I still think most of the no religions would prefer to believe something/anything rather than put aside faith altogether.
    I agree that most don't have a religious thought in their heads but I'd be surprised if that many of them were actually willing to stand up and renounce God.

  8. i put jedi as my religion in the 2001 census just so it would be a recognised religion, but i am a atheist and have been since my early teens.
    after recent decisions from the COE i can only see the figure increasing at the next census

  9. Excellent piece. Well done. As a single man living in a rural village in the far west of Northern Ireland, religion is difficult to avoid. My village has one shop, two pubs (regarded by the community as a 'catholic pub' and a 'protestant' pub), and FIVE churches.
    Being disabled following a stroke, I have to rely a lot on neighbours who have been brilliant, but being an atheist, I have been written off as 'taking the easy way out' as 'it is much harder to be a christian' ???????? I have given up trying to engage in logical discussion. I am excluded from most community events as they tend to revolve round one church or another, so sadly, I have to rely on twitter for a lot of my social contact. I long for the day when more of us can be (1.)Honest, (2)Open minded and (3)Logical. In that order.

  10. Great piece. I think the number self-identifying as non-religious is important, particularly when (as others have already stated) the question is leading. I have friends who have recently christened their newborn "So they have the choice of whether to believe or not - at least they'll have a religion if they want one".

    Whilst I support their open mindedness to the fact that their offspring may not believe what they do, they still feel that being "made" Christian should be the default position. This child could quite easily think of themselves as Christian even if they aren't practising or if they don't believe a word of it (especially if they've never thought about it or don't care either way).

    The question needs rephrasing, perhaps with a "Are you devout / practising?" or one question for family religion and one for personal beliefs (which would be an interesting stat in itself - how many are leaving religion?). Perhaps even an additional question regarding being SECULAR. That would get rid of some justification the church uses for their privileged position.

  11. Lucy, I am interested in your comments on many levels. As a former teacher of mathematics, I agree with those that are dubious about the form of the question. My pupils were fed up with being asked if the questions they were posing in their surveys were biased or not. This question is clearly biased but, short of having a series of questions that cover all aspects of possible religion/spirituality, it is a concise way of dealing with this aspect of a person's non secular life.
    As a former, evangelical, Christian I too would now identify my self as a person who has no religious beliefs. I am not keen on the label "Atheist" because it has "theist" in it and I'm not keen on labels at all, especially as I am registered on censuses as and Alien. I have learnt that religion was necessary to control the masses and was used as a way for ignorant people to understand how the world came into being and continues to exist. We now know better and thus the need for religions has gone and those that persist in them have chosen to remain ignorant. They are to be pitied as they do not realise how limiting their religious beliefs are and I especially dislike the way women are treated by the men who rule these religions.
    On the basis of my lack belief I am going to the hell of every religion going, although I do wonder how my soul, if such a thing exists, can be in so many places at once.

  12. There is still such a stigma to being atheist in the US, I doubt many would self-identify as such even though they don't believe.