2011 Census Shows That a Quarter of England and Wales Residents Are ‘Nones’ Despite Poorly-Worded Question

The United Kingdom’s Office for National Statistics just released the results of the 2011 census and the results show that nearly 25% of the people in England and Wales profess no religion (PDF) — nearly 14,100,000 people.

Even more striking is the fact that, while the percentage of non-religious people has gone up from 15% in 2001, the percentage of Christians in England and Wales has dropped from 71.8% (2001) to 59.3% (2011):

The New Humanist blog reports that these numbers come despite a poorly-worded question that assumed people were religious to begin with:

The rise in the number of atheists comes in spite of a question widely believed to lead respondents towards selecting a religion instead of the “No religion” option. The Census asks, “What is your religion?”, and secular campaigners argue that this involves an assumption that those responding have a religion. In the run up to the 2011 census the British Humanist Association ran a high profile campaign to raise awareness of the fact that “No religion” can be selected by those with no religious affiliation.

Paul Sims adds that if the question didn’t have bias in its phrasing, the number of people calling themselves non-religious could be as high as 50% based on results from another survey.

For what it’s worth, the city of Norwich can boast the “highest proportion of the population reporting no religion” at 42.5%.

Also, this video explains a little more about the numbers:

(Thanks to Matthew for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Sindigo

    Woot!! I was hoping for 30% but I’m still happy.

    • DaveDodo007

       I’m surprised it was so low even given the wording of the census question. I hardly ever meet any christians so where are this 59% hiding?

      • Sindigo

        Retirement homes, mostly.

  • http://www.samradford.com/ Sam Radford

    “The rise in the number of atheists”? Since when did non-religious equal atheist? As other recent research has shown (http://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/files/files/Post%20Religious%20Britain%20pdf.pdf), a significant number of people who describe themselves as non-religious hold beliefs in God or a higher power. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Irvine/506893850 Andrew Irvine

      I can’t see any mention of that quote in the article. Where is it from?

      An increase in “non-religious” is still likely to be an increase in atheists as they will be a percentage of the non-religious. Unless you think every single person in that 15% increase still believes in god?

      People turning away from religion is still great news; even if they do continue to keep their imaginary friends, at least they aren’t supporting hate groups and intolerance. It’s a step in the right direction.

      • http://www.samradford.com/ Sam Radford

        My point is that those census results give zero indication of a rise in atheists. An assumption can be made that some of those additional non-religious people are atheists, but it is just that – an assumption. Any conclusive statements about a rise in atheism based only on these figures is a leap of faith. The data doesn’t make that conclusion. Other research may point to more people becoming atheists, and it may be reasonable to assume, but again, it’s I’d assuming. The data simply says more people are saying they are non-religious. And, other research makes it clear that non-religious people aren’t automatically atheists. Far from it often.

        • ortcutt

          I have no idea who you are quoting when you wrote “The rise in the number of atheists”.  When you were questioned about it, you changed the subject so I must conclude that you fabricated it.

          I am religiously unaffiliated.  I am also an atheist.  I am pleased to see that the numbers of unaffiliated people are growing regardless of whether those people are atheists or not.  Why is that hard for you to understand?

          • http://www.samradford.com/ Sam Radford

            It’s in the article! It’s the first sentence of the quotation.

            I think you misunderstand me. I’m not questioning the rise in the religiously unaffiliated; I’m question the assumption that that equates to a dramatic rise in atheism. The census data doesn’t support that. It’s a leap of faith.

            • ortcutt

               There is actually polling data on atheism in the UK.  Look at the following YouGov poll from 2004.

              http://web.archive.org/web/20060304192707/http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/graphics/2004/12/27/nfaith27big.gif

              Do you believe in God?

              Yes, I do: 44%
              No, I don’t: 35%
              Don’t know: 21%

              For comparison’s sake the results of a 1968 Gallup poll were

              Do you believe in God?

              Yes, I do: 77%
              No, I don’t: 11%
              Don’t know: 12%

              There is direct evidence.  The Census data aren’t the only data out there.  Not surprisingly, the decline in religious affiliation has been accompanied by a decline in religious belief. 

              • http://www.samradford.com/ Sam Radford

                I’m not denying a probable rise in the number of atheists, I’m saying that a) the census does give us that info, and b) it is wrong to make a direct correlation between ‘No Religion’ and atheists.

          • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

            Too be clear, it’s in the blog post which Hemant links to and quotes http://blog.newhumanist.org.uk/2012/12/percentage-in-uk-identifying-as.html

            Just search this page for the phrase. 

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      True.  It bugs me when atheist organizations try to inflate their numbers by including the ‘nones’.  What I do think is important though is how the ‘nones’ see the intersection of faith and public policy.  I think they’re a lot less likely to think some holy book dictates what kind of sex other people can have, or on what days of the week you can buy drugs, or how old the earth is.

      I’m a lot less concerned with whatever shite Deepak Chopra and Rhonda Byrne are peddling than with what policies Jim Inhofe and Michelle Bachman are pushing.

      • Ibis3

         I suspect that not otherwise affiliated New Agers would mostly describe themselves as “Religious>Other”,  rather than “None”. Sure, you might get some “Spiritual but Not Religious” in the mix, but I would think that most “Nones” are “I’m not religious, I believe there might be something, but I don’t give it much consideration from day to day.” 

        • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

          I think culture would also come into it.  I suspect the same question asked in the US would attract different people.  Anecdotal, but I know a number of ‘spirituals’ who actively reject the word ‘religious’.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sandy-Kokch/100000074576649 Sandy Kokch

      Since you seem to like reading polls why dont you check out the results of the RDF’s IPSOS MORI poll of census respondees who answered “Christian”…. seems that large percentages of them are not in any way Christians, and as they didn’t actually believe in god, Jesus and all the rest of the doctrinal claptrap sort of do fall into that category we call atheists.

      It was only because I pointed out the ramifications of answering the religion question correctly my Mum and Dad actually answered it honestly this time and marked it NONE. Previously they had fallen into the cultural christian crap trap.

      Also consider that in the UK we dont tend to love playing with words as much as you Americans who wiffle about with words like agnostic and atheist.

      And as for THEOS…. they are about as reliable a source as Glenda Bekkles.

  • cxmiller10

    It’s nice to see the non-religious represented statistically, but it does not seem all that consequential for the U.K., where, as far as I can tell, Christianity has nowhere near the stranglehold on politics that it does in the U.S.

    • girl

       Our head of state, the Queen, is also the head of the church of England. There are  26 bishops of the Church of England in the House of Lords.  They got that position because of their religion.

      It’s true that politicians don’t tend to talk about their religion as much and two of the heads of the main parties are atheists but AnglicanChristianity still has a privileged role at the centre of government.

      Cameron, our prime minister, has said several times that we are a Christian nation. He’s also in favour of cutting welfare and handing that kind of goverment work on to charities, most of which would be religious charities.

      UK atheists have different challenges from our equivelents in the US, but we’re not free of the religious yoke yet.

  • Salford3lad

    Apparently, I live  in the religious northwest, maybe I should move to Norwich!!! Nice to see the percentage who call themselves Christian has gone down,  hopefully we will see the complete eradication of ALL religion soon enough. Sam, so  you can believe in a god without being religious? It’s like being an atheist and not believing in god or gods. 

    • Sam Radford

      Many people believe in God or a higher power but don’t consider themselves as religious. Many people, for example, embrace the teach of Christ, but choose not to have anything to do with the religious institution of Christianity. Many sections of Christianity are very anti-religion, refusing to consider themselves as religious. The idea that all religious people believe in God and that all non-religious people don’t believe in God is both naive and not evidence based.

      • http://twitter.com/WrichPrintz Wrich Printz

         You make an interesting point. I rather like the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth- Feed the poor, care for the sick, help the elderly- but in no way do I think he is the son of the magic sky fairy that grants wishes if you pray hard enough.

        Different wordings and expressions can mean a great deal to different people- if the questions were set up correctly you could deduce if someone was faith-prone, faith-absurdest, or faith-avoiding and then ask the question with more surety.

        • Stonyground

          I once thought that it might be possible to be a kind of secular Christian, rejecting the idea of an afterlife and the existence of God, but taking the moral teachings of Jesus seriously. The problem was that once I had studied the New Testament, I found that most of his teachings are impractical to the point of absurdity. They only make sense in the context of an imminent apocalypse where making your life as wretched as possible will get you the best bits of Heaven. 

      • Salford3lad

        Yes, it must be convenient to believe in Jesus without being religious, I take it these people don’t go to a religious church? Isn’t it all about ritual, taking a wafer and drinking communial wine?  It is possible to be a good person without believing in a sky fairy.

    • Sindigo

      Norwich? Who knew maybe it’s the pedestrianisation of the city centre.

  • Stonyground

    It is a valid point that having no religion does not necessarily mean that you are an atheist. Interestingly, there is quite a bit of evidence that many people who mark themselves down as Christians are not actually Christians. I have family members who call themselves Christians but think that the concept of the atonement is absurd. How many census Christians have read the New Testament, or taken part in the Eucharist, or recited the Nicene Creed?

    • ReadsInTrees

      Good point. I hear that a lot as well. “I’m a Christian, but I don’t necessarily think that Jesus was actually God.” or “I’m Catholic, but just for the tradition. I don’t actually believe most of the stuff in church.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sandy-Kokch/100000074576649 Sandy Kokch

    The UK Census, thanks to its poorly worded questions, is the least reliable indicator of public religiosity in the UK. More well thought out polls both before and after established that UK Christianity is at best a wooly vague thing and mainly a “cultural” response. If you don’t believe me come over here and pop in any church on any Sunday…there will be plenty of empty pews for you to sit in next to the small numbers of aged attendees.

    And as for our politics…well as Mad Maggie once painfully explained to Rocket Ronnie Raygun when he asked why we are so faith free in Parliament…. “We don’t do God”. Again, if you think I’m wrong see the press and public reactions to Baroness Warsi’s wibbling and Camerons claims we are a “Christian Nation”.

    As to the reasons why…well trying to explain them to my American chums is like banging your head against a wall. Start with WW1, then move on to WW2, then move on to the IRA and the Irish Troubles, and end with the modern problem of Islamists and 7/7.

    Religion does have a place in UK culture….on the dusty and disregarded shelf of history, one small step from the trashcan. The Lords Spiritual and mandated school worship merely “march on paper”, as does the vaunted “state religion” you hear Americans harp on about. Historical hangovers that are fast becoming as popular as a turd in a swimming pool. The death rattle of public religiosity.

    Being religious in the UK is seen as being odd and potentially suspect….and the more religious you are the less we pay you any attention.We are a proudly secular nation….and that aint ever gonna change back to the bad old days of God and Empire.

    And as for that census question…. lets see what it looks like next time, given the public criticism for it this time round.


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