For the first time ever, Christians in England and Wales are in the minority, according to the latest census results. Between 2011 and 2021, the percent of people calling themselves Christian fell from 59% to 46%; during that same period, the “No Religion” group jumped from 25% to 37%.
The 2021 data, released yesterday by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), noted that massive drop in self-professed Christians and a smaller rise in Muslims, but the headlines are all about the growth of people with no religious affiliation at all:
The census revealed a 5.5 million (17%) fall in the number of people who describe themselves as Christian and a 1.2 million (43%) rise in the number of people who say they follow Islam, bringing the Muslim population to 3.9 million. In percentage-point terms, the number of Christians has dropped by 13.1, and the number of Muslims has risen by 1.7.
It is the first time in a census of England and Wales that fewer than half of the population have described themselves as Christian.
Meanwhile, 37.2% of people – 22.2 million – declared they had “no religion”, the second most common response after Christian. It means that over the past 20 years the proportion of people reporting no religion has soared from 14.8% – a rise of more than 22 percentage points.
The BBC put together a chart that’s even more telling:
It’s never been easier to predict the future. It’s no longer a question of if Christianity will become a minority religious group, but when.
The “rise of the Nones” occurred despite the power Christianity still has as the UK’s official religion. Religious leaders from the Church of England have automatic seats and votes in the House of Lords. There’s compulsory Christian worship in public schools. There is religious programming on public television. Chaplains in hospitals, prisons, and the military are still overwhelmingly Christian. Humanist marriages are still not legally recognized in England or Wales.
More importantly, the way the census asked people about religion was seriously flawed. Not only was the religion question optional, it asked, “What is your religion?,” treating faith as a default option. Both of those things arguably lead more people to identify as Christian than we would expect to see. (We saw something similar in Ireland.)
Humanists UK offered some straightforward reasons why the demographics are shifting away from organized religion:
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.
Interestingly enough, in Wales specifically, the No Religion crowd (47%) now outnumbers Christians (44%), making it both the least religious part of the UK and among the least religious countries in the world.
It feels like this should go without saying, but the loss of religion doesn’t mean there’s a loss of ethics or decency or kindness or values. As sociologist Phil Zuckerman has said so eloquently, the least religious countries in the world also tend to be healthier, happier, more peaceful, and more prosperous. Just because the census shows Christians are on the decline in England and Wales doesn’t mean those parts of the UK are losing anything of value.