Census: Less than half of Britons are Christian now
With the new census showing that for the first time, less than half of Britons, covering England and Wales, are Christian, questions are being raised as to why.
On 29 November 2022, the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that for the first time, less than half of people (46.2%) in England and Wales consider themselves Christian. Based on the ONS’s 2021 census, this data further revealed that more than one in three (37%) people say that they have no religion. This represents a sharp decline in religious commitment in England and Wales over the last decade. According to the ONS’s 2011 census, 59.3% of Britons considered themselves Christian, while only 25% said they had no religion.
Christianity and secularism in the UK
While Scotland and Northern Ireland are yet to report their census results, the data so far has led to calls for a rethink on how the UK identifies with Christianity. The UK’s official religion is Christianity, and the British monarch is the supreme governor of the Church of England. Secularism campaigners, such as Andrew Copson of the charity Humanists U.K., said the census showed “the dramatic growth of the non-religious” in the UK, making it “almost certainly one of the least religious countries on Earth.”
Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell said that despite this decrease in British Christians, Christianity still remains important to Britons. Many people, he emphasised, “still seek spiritual truth and wisdom and a set of values to live by.” He instead argued for greater efforts by Christians to promote their faith in the UK. Andrew Davies, Professor of Public Religion at the University of Birmingham, explains the fall in commitment to Christianity is in part the result of an “ideological rejection” of Christianity, the decline in Church attendance during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the more relaxed attitude of Britons to secularity. The decline can also be explained as part of a longer-term trend, in which levels of religious commitment to Christianity have declined over the past few decades as a result of generational replacement: “older, more religious, generations dying out and being replaced by less religious generations.”
Increase in religions other than Christianity
Another key development the ONS census revealed was the increase in commitment to other religions in the UK. This increase, however, is not as significant, with the Muslims growing from 4.9% to 6.5% over the past decade and Hindus growing from 1.5% to 1.7%. Professor Davies clarifies that this increase in commitment to religions other than Christianity shows that “it certainly isn’t the case that religion as such is in decline” and that we “may well see rises in religious commitment among some communities and in certain cities.”
Despite this, the census data on the increase in Muslims and Hindus has led to hostile responses. Instead of recognising the rise of secularity in the UK, right-wing figures see the decrease in the number of British Christians as the direct result of immigration. Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), protested that “only 46 per cent [of Britons] now identify as Christian … a massive change in the identity of this country that is taking place through immigration.” Conservative commentator Douglas Murray also blamed the decline in British Christians on immigration. Both Farage and Murrary base their claims on Britain becoming less white. This is despite the fact that over the last decade, people in England and Wales who identified as white have decreased from only 86% to 82%. Moreover, in 2021, only 9% of Britons said they were Asian and 4% were Black.
The future of Christianity and religion in the UK
If current trends continue, there is no doubt that the proportion of Christians in the UK will further fall. This will continue to raise questions about the official status of Christianity in the country. What is less questionable is why religious commitment to Christianity is falling. It is arguably because of the rise of new generations of Britons who are far more comfortable with not associating their Britishness with Christianity. Immigration, despite claims that it is undermining British Christianity, seems to only contribute to religious commitment in the UK. The ongoing religious commitment among Muslims and Hindus, as well as other religious minorities such as Jews and Sikhs, only fosters the wider spiritual culture that the UK has so closely been identified with in the past.