Census Results: Religion Is Still Mainstream

The Census results show that religious identity in England and Wales is ‘mainstream’, according to Bible Society’s Head of Research Dr Rhiannon McAleer.

More than half of the population of England and Wales claim a religious identity, according to Census data released today. Forty-six per cent of the population identify as Christian.

The figures represent a fall in the number of people saying in answer to the question, ‘What is your religion?’ that they are Christian, from 33.2 million in 2011 to 27.5 million today.

However, the proportion of those identifying with a religion is ‘notably high’, said Dr McAleer.

‘The Census definitely does not show that we are living in a society that has turned its back on religion. However, it does appear to show that religious identity is changing. This reflects other data and is not a surprise,’ she said.

‘It may be that people are less willing to wear a label that doesn’t accurately describe them. It’s not necessarily that they have lost a genuine and heart-felt faith.
‘There’s also far more permission for people to admit that they don’t identify as Christians; they don’t have to claim a faith they don’t actively hold in order to win social approval.’

An indication of the widespread acceptance of a national Christian identity, she said, was the support expressed for Christian elements in royal events; a Bible Society survey following the Queen’s funeral found that only 15 per cent of the population think state royal events such as weddings and funerals should be wholly secular in future, and that 72 per cent felt Christian language and imagery was appropriate at the funeral.

She added that a decline in the number declaring a Christian faith identity did not translate into an increase in the number of declared atheists. A massive Bible Society research project undertaken with YouGov found that between 2018 and May 2022 there was a statistically significant decline in those saying they do not believe in God, while those saying they do believe has stayed the same. More recent polling in October suggests belief in God may even have risen. Among those who say they have no religion or faith, 11 per cent say there is definitely or probably a God, while a further 17 per cent say they do not know – indicating that the ‘no religion’ choice does not necessarily indicate an atheist position.

Bible Society’s research found in 2018 that around 10 per cent of the population of England and Wales said they attend church at least monthly, with seven per cent attending weekly. When the survey was repeated in 2022 it found similar results, indicating that churchgoing has been broadly stable over the last four years despite the significant disruption of the pandemic.

Dr McAleer said: ‘Our data challenges the idea that religion in general and Christianity in particular is in inexorable decline in England and Wales.
‘The picture is much more nuanced than that. In some areas of our society, and in some sections of the Church, decline is very marked. However, this is offset by growth in other areas.

‘The fact that churchgoing appears to be stable runs against the accepted narrative of decline. The Census results should be seen in the light of this.’
While the Census results may provoke questions about the role of Christianity in the public square, she said, it was still true that nearly half of the population identified as Christian.

‘After many years during which the forthcoming extinction of Christianity has been confidently predicted, this is a notably high proportion which ought to provoke us to think more deeply about what is actually happening to faith in England and Wales,’ she said.

‘Religious practice and identity – both Christian and non-Christian – is mainstream, and policy-makers cannot assume that religious voices should be absent from the public square.’

Written by: Mark Woods

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