What the 2021 Census data does not say about religion and belief in England and Wales

by Professor James Holt

Professor James Holt

On 29th November the Office for National Statistics (ONS) release the data from the 2021 Census about religion and belief in England and Wales. The ONS released the accompanying headlines:

For the first time in a census of England and Wales, less than half of the population (46.2%, 27.5 million people) described themselves as “Christian”, a 13.1 percentage point decrease from 59.3% (33.3 million) in 2011; despite this decrease, “Christian” remained the most common response to the religion question.

“No religion” was the second most common response, increasing by 12.0 percentage points to 37.2% (22.2 million) from 25.2% (14.1 million) in 2011.

There were increases in the number of people who described themselves as “Muslim” (3.9 million, 6.5% in 2021, up from 2.7 million, 4.9% in 2011) and “Hindu” (1.0 million, 1.7% in 2021, up from 818,000, 1.5% in 2011).

It was the first two of these points that were picked up by the wider media, with a focus on the decreasing influence of Christianity, and the rise of no religion. The reporting suggested that the UK is becoming a more secular country, and led some commentators to suggest that Christianity is under threat. This has led to concerns in many areas of the country.

The important thing to note with regards to the released data is that there are many things that it does not say, and things that have been left unreported. For example, there are 57 different categories that answers fell into. The religions or non-religious worldviews that had over one thousand people identifying as such are;

Census data

The headlines issued by the ONS are accurate but when it is analysed there are many questions that remain and things that should be noted.

The diversity of the bigger six religions is not being reflected in the data. The different groups are not broken down and it is impossible to draw conclusions about the numbers of each. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may wonder where they sit within the data. There was a very conscious decision by the ONS that those who filled in Latter-day Saint or Mormon or something similar were placed into the Christian category. This was the same for denominations such as Anglican, Catholic, Baptist, Jehovah’s Witness and so on, were placed into the Christian category. This can be seen to be both positive and negative; members of the Church point out their place within the Christian family of Churches, and as such they cannot be expected to be treated as a separate group. Though this type of approach does raise an anomaly in the statistics. For example, Paganism is often used as an umbrella term could include Druid, Shamanism, Wicca, Witchcraft and more which would take the number of Pagans to close to 100,000. There is a difference in approach adopted.

The question can be asked about why there are less people identifying as Christian. The data is not clear on this. It may be that people have tended to culturally identify with a religion, perhaps unsupported by belief- for example, cultural Christians in celebrating festivals, etc. There may be a greater confidence and less of a stigma in identifying as non-religious.

One other point to raise is that non-religious does not mean anti-religious or atheistic. While non-religious have increased significantly- those identifying with certain groups such as Humanism have significantly reduced. This may be as a result of the Humanist suggestion that all non-religious people tick the ‘No religion’ box. Not all non-religious people are humanist, neither are they automatically atheistic. As with all of the religious groups diversity needs to be recognised. Religions are not monoliths, neither is non-religious. A recent Theos Think Tank report The Nones: Who are they and what do they believe? outlines different types of non-religious people (Spiritual Nones, Campaigning Nones and Tolerant Nones.)- these are broad and contested but they indicate that non-religious. Some of the reporting suggests that religion is the only basis for a moral life, and that as such the fabric of society will break down. For many non-religious people morality may well be based on inherited religious norms, but it is important to note that morality is an important aspect of human identity that can have religious and non-religious underpinnings.

The change in the religious demography indicated by the census is tied up with the importance of Freedom of Religion and Belief. This is an important freedom within society that enables people to have the freedom to believe and practise as they will. Latter-day Saints recognise the rights of all people to be free to express their religion and belief. The census data highlights that this freedom is realised to a large extent within the United Kingdom. The census data provides an opportunity to begin an investigation of the religious demography of the UK, it will help members of the Church to reflect upon their place in society and the various opportunities that living in diverse communities brings to a living of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.