The England & Wales census has shown that Christianity is fighting an uphill battle to stave off the growing trend of non-religion.

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The 2021 national census in England and Wales seems like a long time ago now, but the data is only just being released after aggregation and analysis. As reported recently, non-religion in the UK is in the ascendancy and Christianity is in decline. The latest statistics reaffirm this.

Though the religion question in the census was optional, 94% of respondents answered the question. The new release from the Office for National Statistics shows that people in England and Wales who identified as “Christian” had the oldest average age of the tick-box response options. “Muslim” as an answer brought back the youngest average age at 27 years, with “No religion” being answered by people whose ages averaged at 32 years.

The sex differences were worthy of note, too.

In 2021, 56.1% of people who responded with “Other religion” were female (195,515). In comparison, females accounted for 51.0% of the overall population of England and Wales. Similarly, there were more females in the population who identified as “Buddhist” (55.7%) and “Christian” (54.6%).

Of the 22.2 million people who reported “No religion” in 2021, 52.9% (11.7 million) were male. Sikhism returned the most equal split.

 A higher proportion of people who identified as “Christian” were older. The line of selected comparison represents 2011 figures.

There has been a sizeable decrease in the number of people who identified as “Christian” between 2011 (the previous census) and 2021, moving from 59.3% to 46.2% of the population. This was particularly notable in the younger age groups. As the ONS details:

For example, 1.7 million (5.1%) people who identified as “Christian” were aged 21 to 25 years in 2011; this decreased to 1.1 million (3.9%) people in this age group in 2021. In addition, the people aged 21 to 25 years in 2021 would have been aged 11 to 15 years in 2011, at which time this cohort accounted for 5.5% (1,819,119) of those who identified as “Christian”, compared with 3.9% (1,086,345) in 2021. Therefore, there has been a decrease in both the number of this cohort and the proportion of those within the age group who identified as “Christian” since 2011….

Only 8.8% of 22.2 million people who reported “No religion” in 2021 were aged 65 years and over (compared with 18.6% of the overall population). Most people who responded this way (91.2%) were aged under 65 years; this is compared with 81.4% of the overall population across England and Wales in this age group.

 People who reported “No religion” had a younger age profile compared with the overall population. . The line of selected comparison represents 2011 figures.

Christianity has in previous censuses come out on top as a proportion of every single age group. However, times are a-changing. There are now 9.8 million Christians aged under 40, but 13.6 million people with no religion. The non-religious outnumber Christians in this age group.

The least religious age group is 27-year-olds, where 53% ticked “No religion.” Younger demographics tend to be slightly more religious because they tend to mirror the boxes ticked by their parents. In Wales, the results were even less religious where most aged 73 and under ticked “No religion,” and among those aged 27, this was as high as 66%.

Humanists UK have observed that the reality probably favors the non-religious even more:

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, asks a less leading question. While overall the Census saw 37% ticking ‘No religion’ and 46% ticking ‘Christian’, the Social Attitudes Survey 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 all the fundamental beliefs and values of humanists, hinting at the widespread shift in popular values, opinions, and identity the UK has undergone in the 21st century.

Research shows that those ticking ‘Christian’ 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.

“Today’s results only serve to underline the archaic place that collective worship and faith-based discrimination have in our schools. That urgently needs to be looked at,” Humanists UK Chief Executive has stated. “But, more generally, they make plain that the UK faces a non-religious future.”

The questions that now face society are, “What does this mean? How does society need to adapt to reflect this trend?”

Copson sees that this should have ramifications on the democratic mechanisms and civic institutions in the UK: “This is in stark contrast to how our state institutions operate today. No other European country 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. Politicians should look at today’s results and recognize they must renegotiate the place of religion or belief in today’s society.”

With any luck, these shifting demographic sands will bring about a new set of foundations upon which the UK of the future can be built.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...