Not all ‘nones’ are atheists

In England and Wales, there were 37.3 million Christians in 2001, representing 72 percent of the population. In the most recent census (2011), that had dropped to 33.2 million or 59 percent of the population.

Religion News Service had a brief story about this that included these graphs:

Figures from the 2011 Census show the number of people declaring themselves to be atheists rose by more than 6 million, to 14.1 million.

“It should serve as a warning to the churches that their increasingly conservative attitudes are not playing well with the public at large,” said Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society. “It also calls into question the continued establishment of the Church of England, whose claims to speak for the whole nation are now very hard to take seriously.”

However, those statistics are not right.

As reported in The Telegraph:

The number of people specifically identifying as Atheists was 29,267, while over 13.8 million refused to identify with a faith at all, ticking the “No religion” box on the census form.

While reporting no religion might sound similar to atheism, there is no way for journalists to know if respondents are atheists, agnostics, unaffiliated or otherwise.

But there is a big difference between 29,267 reporting atheism and 14.1 million. For more on the rise of the nones, check out The Friendly Atheist’s blog post here.
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  • http://kevinbasil.com Kevin (Basil) Fritts

    Wow. That represents a massive shift in a single year and almost certainly begs for deeper digging. What prompted such a huge jump? Did the design of the questionnaire shift at all?

    • mollie

      Whoops! Typo, since fixed. First number from 2001. Last number from 2011 census. Thank you!

  • Rachel K

    To me, “none” sounds an awful lot like “spiritual, but not religious.” That’s very different from “atheist.”

  • Marie

    I am not sure why you recommended The Friendly Atheist blog as its article also incorrectly associated No Religion with Atheist. This is the same position you criticize the RNS for presenting.

  • Jerry

    That Friendly Atheist blog post did emphasize that the question was poorly worded. And, as far as I can see, the entire survey was badly constructed. A good comparison would I think be the Pew study of US religious attitudes which was released on October http://www.pewforum.org/unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx the US study had many many interesting details which the UK report appears to lack.

  • Jay

    I agree with Marie, you shouldn’t uncritically link the “Friendly Atheist” post (other than an effort to cross-promote other Patheos content). It’s even worse than the two articles you cite, so at least it should be listed as another article that exaggerates the meaning of the survey.

    Rachel is right — the No Religion sounds exactly like “Spiritual Not Religious” with a little “higher power” and agnostic thrown in.

  • Dave

    I think the “no religion” choice is poorly named. It ought to be “no church” or “no denomination” or some such thing. We should be getting out of the mind-set (which, alas, GR sometimes falls into) that the religious intensity or profile of a population is measured solely by counting occupants of pews.

    There’s a new book out proposing a new index of religiosity, the reading habits of the people. That struck me, because I recall as a small child seeing, on the short bookshelf of the cabin owned by my very Methodist aunt and grandmother, a work by Paramhansa Yogananda. Perhaps a future survey could ask, “What books of a religious, spiritual or mystical nature have you read?” with maybe a limit of five.

  • Will

    Definitely needs better wording. I am informed that in the last Korean census, half the population reported a category which was translated as “no religion”, which is, to say the least, counter-intuitive.


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