Religion in the UK – Census 2011 28 March 2013

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East London MosqueThe figures from 2011 England and Wales census related to ethnicity and belief were released in December 2012. This is the second time that a question on religious belief was included, and provides a picture of religious belief in the UK that is dramatically changing.

The number of Christians in England and Wales is down, now only representing 59.3% of the population (compared to 72% in 2001). That is a decrease of roughly four million, a substantial loss of followers for any world religion.

Although some may interpret this as bad news for Christianity, it is possible that rather than a decrease from 10 years ago, it simply reflects a more accurate number. Some social scientists believed the positioning and wording of 2001 religious question would have encouraged respondents to provide an answer of Christian to represent a nominal ethnic and cultural background, rather than a religious conviction. These thoughts were echoed by the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales, who otherwise seemed pleased with the census results stating that ‘the fact that six out of 10 people in England and Wales self-identify as Christians is not discouraging. Christianity is no longer a religion of culture but a religion of decision and commitment. People are making a positive choice in self-identifying as Christians.’

The Reverend Arun Arora, speaking on behalf of the Anglican Church, seemed equally positive, commenting that ‘England remains a country where the majority of the nation actively identifies the role that faith plays in their life. When all faiths are taken together, people of faith account for two-thirds of the nation – two in every three people identify themselves as having a faith.’

Decline in Christian religious belief is also mirrored by a growth in the number of people who profess no religious affiliation. In 2001 7.7 million recorded no religion (15% of the population), by contrast, 14.1 million people (25% of the population) recorded no religion in the 2011 census.

Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association was happy at the census results, commenting that ‘in spite of a biased question that positively encourages religious responses, to see such an increase in the non-religious and such a decrease in those reporting themselves as Christian is astounding’. The British Humanist Association ran a campaign in the run up to the census with the slogan ‘If you’re not religious, for God’s sake say so’. Copson believes the census figures prove ‘religious practice, identity, belonging and belief are all in decline in this country and non-religious identities are on the rise’.

Religious minority groups saw growth however. The number of Muslims now stands at 4.8% of the population (2.7million) an increase from 2001 which recorded 2.5% (1.5 million) of the population as Muslim.

The Muslim Council of Britain, one of the first organisations to campaign for the inclusion of a faith based question on the 2001 census, noted that ‘the voluntary religion question was answered by 92.8% of the population, validating the MCB’s campaign when first lobbying for its inclusion that Britain is not shy about faith’.

Muslim’s are now the second largest faith group in England and Wales.

Buddhism and Hinduism also saw an increase in the 2011 census. Buddhists nearly doubled in size (248,000 in 2011, up from 144,543 in 2001) and followers of Hinduism tripled (817,000).

Alternative religions also saw growth, with 56,620 Pagans, 39,061 Spirtualists and 2,418 Scientologists in the United Kingdom.

One of the only religious communities to register little change in population is the Jewish community, registering 263,000 responses (up 3,000 from 2001 but vaguely in line with population growth overall).

Perhaps surprisingly, the Jedi faith has 177,000 adherents in the UK – down from the 390,127 in 2001 but still a significant number.

The smallest religious groups in the UK are Rastafarians (7,906), Jains (20,228) and Baha’is (5,021).

Arguably the most significant fact to emerge from the 2011 census is that ‘White British’ is now a minority ethnicity in London, which has increased in diversity substantially. Sensationalist headlines aside, this does not reflect a significant change in the UK as a whole, with just 7.5 million foreign-born residents of England and Wales.

The results of the census are heavily influenced by geographical location however. Wales had one of the highest percentages of ‘no religion’ – 32% compared to a national average of 25%. The results earned the praise of Richard Dawkins who said: “I congratulate the people of Wales in coming out ahead of the rest of the United Kingdom in this respect’.

Bucking the trend of declining Christianity were Boston, Brent, Haringey, Lambeth and Newham all of which have shown increases in the Christian population.

Overall the census figures show a picture of increasing diversity of religious belief in England and Wales. Further analysis over the next few years, coupled with qualitative studies, will no doubt shed greater light on the nature of religious change in the UK.

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About Karen Willows

Karen Willows is a researcher and freelance journalist. She has a BA in Religion and Geography and an MA in Social Science Research.