Scotland’s 2011 Census Data May Have Underrepresented the Percent of Non-Religious Citizens

The results from Scotland’s 2011 census have just been released (take your sweet time, Scotland) and they show a growing divergence when it comes to religious beliefs:

Over half (54 per cent) of the population of Scotland stated their religion as Christian — a decrease of 11 percentage points since 2001 — whilst 37 per cent of people stated that they had no religion — an increase of nine percentage points since 2001.

Good news, right?

Well, the Humanist Society Scotland says the results don’t reflect the truth about the religious identities of the Scottish people. The disparity is much greater than the census claims, they say:

HSS Chair Anders Östberg says, “The Census result suggests that many more people say they belong to a religion than is the case. The government will use census data to justify maintaining faith schools, and the funding of religious patient support services in the NHS, while religious groups will use it to lobby for their own institutions, and promote greater separation in our already dangerously divided society.”

The 2011 Census figures suggest that 37% of the population of Scotland is not religious. This is particularly questionable since the 2013 Social Attitudes Survey suggests the true figure is 48%

“If the 2011 census gives an inaccurate picture of our beliefs as a society”, says Östberg, “it may lead to further discrimination against non-religious people. Our survey shows that Scotland is already effectively a secular country.

“Even though the Census results don’t show the true picture on belief in Scotland, we urge the government to to recognise that most of us are in fact non-religious, and share the same desire for fairness on issues like Equal Marriage and End of Life, which enjoy widespread support from people of all faiths and none.

Part of the problem may have been the question that was asked in the census: “What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?” That suggests that people have some denomination that they belong to.

That 2013 Social Attitudes Survey referred to above asked a different question: “Are you religious?” Turns out a lot more people say no when you ask it like that:

Indeed, the past few years have seen a dramatic rise in Humanist weddings in the country. It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that people with no religious affiliation actually made up a higher proportion of the population — no doubt many of those who claim they’re Christian are only saying it out of tradition, not because they actively practice the faith or really believe the mythology.

(Thanks to Emma 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.

  • ShoeUnited

    It’s going to happen. Some people are just culturally Christian.

  • keddaw

    Hang on, that’s poor use of data – it is exceedingly unlikely that a fifth of Scots are Church of England… You’re comparing a Scottish census with a British one – Scots only make up about 9% of the British.

    The census data also show that the single biggest religious bloc in Scotland is the non-religious, which is quite something for a country with quite a lot of religious identity, but not actual belief, in certain areas. (Football, you gotta love it!)

  • islandbrewer

    I know of no other country where you can tell religious denomination by asking what football team they support.

  • Rationalist1

    What I’d really like to see in these surveys is the number of people at houses of worship. It one thing to say you’re religious, but do you ever do anything about it. People may keep calling themselves Catholic, Anglican, etc. but the churches may wither and die because no one goes and supports them monetarily.

    For example using data off the Archdiocese of Los Angeles website if you divide the number of claimed Catholics by the number of parishes you get an average of 16,000 people per parish. In my experience a parish would be ecstatic of they could get 1/10 of that number out on a Sunday.

    Religion’s downfall will be not just people leaving their faith, but religious people not supporting their faith.

  • islandbrewer

    Erk, yeah. I know Hemant referenced that survey because it was the one quoted, and he was making an excellent point about the way the questions were phrased, but you’re still right. By highlighting the numbers, one is comparing British (presumably pan-UK) responses to Scottish responses.

  • invivoMark

    From my time in Scotland, I’ll bet many responders to the survey probably put that they belong to the Church of Whatever Those Bastards to the South Aren’t.

  • Rich Wilson

    Meh, bad data. Everyone knows there’s no such thing as a True Scotsman…

    (oh C’mon, someone had to say it)

  • islandbrewer

    I’m wondering how closely you could track the same data with (1) Celtic, (2) Rangers, (3) Not a football fan.

  • baal

    We’d like that to change.

  • DavidMHart

    I was on a holiday in the Outer Hebrides (to the extent that Scotland has a ‘Bible Belt’, it’s the west coast and western Highlands and Islands) and someone at a bus stop asked me what football team I supported. When I told him I had no interest in football, his immediate next question was whether I was a Protestant or a Catholic. He seemed a little bit bemused that someone could genuinely be ‘neither’.

    He did give us a lift to the next island down over the causeway; it’s not like he was being hostile or anything; it was just a little odd to be asked.

  • badgerchild

    I’m a Yank and my husband is Northern Irish, but we were part of that Humanist wedding tradition in Scotland last year, woot! We had the opportunity to select from TONS of Humanist officiants. The Aberdeen registrar seemed a bit surprised that we insisted strongly on a completely secular ceremony, but it wasn’t because she objected in the least.

  • badgerchild

    Indeed. My husband is from Northern Ireland, and it is NOT A JOKE that when you are an atheist, you are still regarded as Protestant or Catholic. We’re nominally “Protestant atheists”, having been raised Presbyterian (sheer coincidence). But his family decided to give up that nonsense completely and it now has both
    Protestant and Catholic members through intermarriage (both religious and irreligious). This did not stop people in the village from wishing aloud that the offspring of the unnatural marriages in question were born dead, which only made the family angry and rebellious. Nice Christian people eh.

  • Bitter Lizard

    Did you know that Disqus won’t let you upvote and downvote the same post? I do now.


    Someone did a survey a few years ago that concluded there weren’t enough churches or church services to accommodate all the people in the U.S. that claimed to attend church every week.

  • Rich Wilson
  • Mick

    According to the last census 62% of Australians say they are Christians.

    Other surveys show that only 14% of Christians attend church services – that’s a mere 8% of the total population.

  • Erp

    Not according to the results I looked at. 66,717 put down Church of England making that the 4th largest denomination (after Church of Scotland, Roman Catholic and Islam [no breakdown on Islam's subparts). What makes that particularly strange is there is no Church of England in Scotland; the equivalent north of the border is the Scottish Episcopal Church (which got about 30,000 [between people who put down Episcopalian or Scottish Episcopal Church]). My gues is the vast majority who put down Church of England (or Church of Ireland or Church in Wales [all Anglican churches not in Scotland]) were born in England (or Ireland or Wales) but now live in Scotland who are effectively non-religious (i.e., have never looked for a church to attend in Scotland). The Piskies (the common nickname for the Scottish Episcopalians) are quite upset about all the self-proclaimed Anglicans in Scotland who don’t even know that the Anglican church in Scotland is them.

    Unfortunately people explicitly putting down humanist (2,992), atheist (2,848), or agnostic (1,818) aren’t numerous. Jedi Knights came in at 11,746 though I gather that is down from the 2001 census. Humanist wedding ceremonies as an indicator is a bit dodgy since many Humanist weddings are for couples not domiciled in Scotland.

    For Hemant, I’ll note that 106 claim to be Jains.

  • Robster

    You are only considered a practising Christian by the Australian Census Bureau (ABS) if you attend church at least every 30 days or more. To call a person that attends a worship service once a month a religious person is really a bit generous.

  • GeraardSpergen

    To call someone who goes to church once a month “non-religious” would be quite a bit of a stretch in the other direction.

  • Rationalist1

    A person may be religious and not attend church that often. That’s there choice. But the good thing is the church isn’t getting any money or very little money from them As churches close because of money issues, their influence on society will diminish and faith will slowing dwindle.

  • MineApostasy

    Speaking as someone who lives in Edinburgh, it’s even more stark when you take into account the ages of respondents. I think I can reliably count the number of my associates who attend church on one hand — most of them are over forty. Religion has very little place in the public forum, despite the UK having a state religion, and most would indicate their religious affiliation more as the church they were raised in, or the school they attended.

    I learned ages ago that when one says they’re an atheist over here (at least in Edinburgh) they’re generally met with a chorus of “yeah, so?” Glasgow is much the same, even when you take the sectarian nature of their football teams into account.