Census 2021: England no longer a majority Christian country

Changing face of Britain revealed in census data showing fall in traditional religion and rise in mixed ethnicity households

Salisbury Cathedral's advent procession. New census data has shown less than half of citizens in England and Wales describe themselves as Christian. Getty
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The proportion of people describing themselves as Christian in England and Wales has fallen below 50 per cent for the first time, statistics released from the 2021 census show.

The Office for National Statistics said 46.2 per cent of the population described themselves as Christian, down from 59.3 per cent a decade earlier, a decline of 5.5 million people.

Those saying they had no religion jumped from about a quarter in 2011 (25.2 per cent) to more than a third in 2021 (37.2 per cent), a rise of 22.2 million people. This was the second most common response after Christian.

There was a 44 per cent rise in the proportion of people describing themselves as Muslim (up from 4.9 per cent to 6.5 per cent), while the proportion of Hindus rose to 1.7 per cent from 1.5 per cent.

The census data also revealed:

  • The number of people identifying their ethnic group as white has fallen by about 500,000 over a decade.
  • Cities such as Leicester (59.1 per cent), Luton (54.8 per cent) and Birmingham (51.4 per cent) are now majority ethnic but the highest non-white proportion outside London is Slough in Berkshire at 64 per cent. Fourteen local authorities recorded more than half of their usual residents as identifying with an ethnic group other than white, with the highest proportion in the London boroughs of Newham (69.2 per cent), Brent (65.4 per cent) and Redbridge (65.2 per cent).
  • 81.7 per cent of respondents described themselves as white on the day of the 2021 census, down from 86.0 per cent a decade earlier.
  • The second most common ethnic group was “Asian, Asian British or Asian Welsh” at 9.3 per cent, up from 7.5 per cent in 2011. Polish remained the most specified non-UK national identity.
  • 91.1 per cent (52.6 million) of usual residents, aged three years and over, had English (English or Welsh in Wales) as a main language (down from 92.3 per cent)
  • The most common main languages, other than English or Welsh, were: Polish (1.1 per cent, 612,000), Romanian (0.8 per cent, 472,000), Punjabi (0.5 per cent, 291,000), and Urdu (0.5 per cent, 270,000).
  • Arabic was spoken by 159,000, rising from seventh to sixth most common other language, and more common than French, Chinese, Portuguese or Spanish.

The ONS said large ethnicity changes were seen in people identifying as “White: Other White”, which stood at 3.7 million (6.2 per cent) in 2021, up from 2.5 million (4.4 per cent) in 2011.

The largest groups in this category were “White: Polish”, with 614,000 (1.0 per cent) of the overall population identifying this way, and “White: Romanian”, with 343,000 (0.6 per cent) identifying this way.

About one in 10 households (2.5 million) contained members from at least two different ethnic groups in 2021, an increase from 8.7 per cent.

The 2021 survey, carried out on March 21 last year, was filled out by more than 24 million households across England and Wales.

The data released on Tuesday covers ethnicity, religion, national identity and language.

The Archbishop of York said “now more than ever” the church needed to carry on its work.

Reverend Stephen Cottrell said: “We have left behind the era when many people almost automatically identified as Christian but other surveys consistently show how the same people still seek spiritual truth and wisdom and a set of values to live by.

“This winter — perhaps more so than for a long time — people right across the country, some in desperate need, will be turning to their local church, not only for spiritual hope but practical help. We will be there for them, in many cases, providing food and warmth. And at Christmas millions of people will still come to our services.

“At the same time, we will be looking beyond our immediate surroundings, remembering we are part of a global faith, the largest movement on Earth and its greatest hope for a peaceful, sustainable future.”

Remi Adekoya, who is mixed Nigerian/Polish and author of Biracial Britain: What it Means to be Mixed Race, said white Britain was now “a post religious society”.

“Several recent surveys have shown white British society is a post religious society and has been for some time,” the Associate Politics Lecturer at the University of York told The National.

“But for the other minority groups, like Indian Hindus, or Pakistani Muslims, or Nigerian Christians, religion still plays a major part in many people’s lives in those groups.”

Sunder Katwala, director of think tank and charity British Future, which focuses on issues of identity in Britain, said the decline of the British Christian is symbolic because it means “all faiths in Britain are minority faiths now”.

“That's a long-term trend,” he told The National.

“[Secularism] has become more normalised. People would have said Christian if they were nominally Christian or been brought up Christian.

“The story of faith in Britain is of rapid secularisation … especially of the white British group, and of the infusion of faith through migration.

“The Christian faith is being kept up in those numbers by the Irish, the Poles, people from Hong Kong and others coming in, like Nigerians.”

London remains the most religiously diverse region of England, with just over a quarter (25.3 per cent) of people on the day of the 2021 census reporting a religion other than Christian.

South-west England is the least religiously diverse region, with 3.2 per cent selecting a religion other than Christian.

The religion question was voluntary on the 2021 census but was answered by 94.0 per cent of the overall population of England and Wales, up from 92.9 per cent in 2011, the ONS added.

Census deputy director Jon Wroth-Smith said: “Today’s data highlights the increasingly multicultural society we live in. The percentage of people identifying their ethnic group as 'White: English, Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish or British’, continues to decrease.

“While this remains the most common response to the ethnic group question, the number of people identifying with another ethnic group continues to increase.

“However, the picture varies depending on where you live. London remains the most ethnically diverse region of England, where just under two thirds identify with an ethnic minority group, whereas under one in 10 identify this way in the north-east.

“But despite the ethnically diverse nature of society, nine in 10 people across England and Wales still identify with a UK national identity, with nearly eight in 10 doing so in London.”

Humanists UK ran a campaign in the run-up to the 2011 and 2021 censuses encouraging non-religious people to tick the “no religion” box on the form.

Andrew Copson, chief executive of the charity group Humanists UK, said the 2021 census results “confirm that the biggest demographic change in England and Wales of the last 10 years has been the dramatic growth of the non-religious”, meaning “the UK is almost certainly one of the least religious countries on Earth”.

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Updated: November 30, 2022, 5:21 AM