By Lois Lee
The non-religious are people who identify as not having any religion. In Britain, this group has been steadily growing in size and they made up between 25 and 32 per cent of the population in the 2011 Census
Who are the non-religious?
The non-religious is a general term with several meanings and uses. When it is used to describe people or populations, it usually indicates those with non-religious identities, ie those who identify themselves as having “no religion” or as being “non-religious”.
The “religiously unaffiliated” is a related term, used to describe people who do not identify with religion, a slightly broader category than those who positively identify as being not religious — a subtle distinction that is often lost in translation, but can make a notable difference to the figures.
For instance, in the 2011 census for England and Wales, 25 per cent identified as non-religious (non-religious identity), while a total of 32 per cent did not identify with a religion (religiously unaffiliated).
The phrase “religious nones” can refer to non-religious identity or the religiously unaffiliated, but usually the latter.
Atheism and non-religion are sometimes used as synonyms, but those who identify as non-religious are not necessarily atheist or agnostic in their beliefs. The majority are, but some hold theistic or similar beliefs (just as some people with religious identities are atheist or agnostic).
How many non-religious are there?
In Britain, the number of people identifying as non-religious has risen steadily, especially since the 1960s, but building on a longer history of “non-religionisation” of British identities.
In 1993, non-religious identifications overtook Anglican ones to become the most popular “religious” self-description of those offered by the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey. Non-religious identifications became an absolute majority for the first time in 2010, and about 50 per cent have consistently described themselves as having no religion since then.
The BSA survey is corroborated by other data, but recent censuses have found much lower levels of non-religious identification — only a quarter of the population in 2011, compared with half the population in the BSA. This reflects differences in how the question is asked.
Each generation is more non-religious than the last, and people maintain their non-religious identities as they age. Half of children brought up by religious parents will go on to identify as religious, whereas almost all children of non-religious parents will go on to identify as non-religious.
The growth of non-religion in the UK reflects global trends: the number of people identifying as non-religious is large and growing. People are more likely to convert to a non-religious identification in their lifetimes than they are to convert to any other religious identity.
Paradoxically, the non-religious represent a decreasing share of the global population because non-religious populations have lower-than-average birth rates.
Although non-religion is often associated with Europe, three-quarters of the global non-religious population live in the Asia Pacific region, including 64 per cent in China alone.
Around the world (including the UK) there is substantial regional variation in the distribution of non-religious people.
Do non-religious people share a common background?
Historically, the non-religious have had a distinctive demographic profile: they were more likely to be young, male, and well-educated. In the West, they also tended to be white.
However, several of these demographic effects can disappear over time. This happens when non-religious populations become so large that they inevitably come to resemble the characteristics of the general population more and more.
For example, in the UK high levels of education no longer correlate with non-religious identity, especially among younger generations. Men and women are now equally likely, among the under-35s, to describe themselves as non-religious.
Demographic effects should not be overstated. Although men are more likely than women to identify as non-religious, women are well represented within non-religious populations. Over the past decade, the BSA survey shows that 44-49 per cent of those saying they have no religion are women (compared with 51-56 per cent who are male). This means broadly half of non-religious people identify as female and close to a quarter of all British adults are non-religious women.
What do the non-religious believe?
Identifying as not religious is not the same thing as not believing in God. In the UK, only 38 per cent of those who identify as non-religious say they do not believe in God, though a further 27 per cent take the strong agnostic view that it is impossible for humans to know about the existence of God. Alongside this, 65 per cent of “unbelievers” say they tend to believe in God and 16 per cent say they believe in some kind of higher power.
In the United States, most of those identifying as non-religious believe in God. Since changes in identification are often observed before changes in belief, this may change as the minority non-religious population continues to grow.
Since people with religious identities do not consistently believe in God, these apparent inconsistencies between non-religious identity and belief should not be seen as unique to the non-religious.
In the UK, where the majority of non-religious people are atheists or agnostics, a minority have beliefs and practices associated with religion, such as belief in the afterlife or the use of prayer. However, non-religious people are less likely than religious people to have these beliefs and practices.
It is increasingly recognised that people with non-religious identities have existential beliefs about the nature and meaning of life. These existential beliefs are often referred to as non-religious worldviews.
Dr Lois Lee is a senior lecturer in religion and non-religious identities at Kent University
Voas, David and Alistair Crockett. 2005. Religion in Britain: Neither Believing nor Belonging. Sociology. 39 (1): 11
Religion Media Centre factsheet on secularisation
The RE relic needs non-religion to survive — an RMC analysis and briefing
Understanding Unbelief, Kent University’s research project
Humanists UK‘s article on different kinds of non-religious belief
Lois Lee, Kent University
Andrew Copson, chief executive of Humanists UK, [email protected]
Chris Cotter, Edinburgh University