Census will show a drop of “millions” of Christians, experts say

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By Tim Wyatt

Next week’s census is likely to show numbers of those claiming to be Christians falling to about 50 per cent, experts have said.

Speaking during a Religion Media Centre briefing on Thursday, sociologists and demographers of religion agreed that the results of the 2021 Census, due to take place on 21 March, will show another significant decline from 2011, in which 59 per cent of people said they were Christians.

If this headline figure slips below half, it could raise questions for a range of public policy decisions, from the establishment of the Church of England, to NHS hospital chaplains, faith schools and even what is taught in religious education classes.

Professor David Voas, head of social science at University College London, said there would definitely be several million fewer Christians simply through population replacement, as most of the five million or so Britons who have died since the last census in 2011 would have ticked the Christian box.

“But that would only be sufficient to reduce the percentage from something like 59 to 56,” he said. “So, the key question is whether there will be some people who last time might have called themselves Christian on the question and who now tick the No Religion box.

He suggested the fall would not as dramatic as seen a decade ago, when the percentage of Christians plummeted from 72 per cent in 2001 — the first time the census asked about religion — to 59 per cent in 2011. “If I had to guess, I think I’d say low 50s percent for Christians.”

Peter Brierley, an independent researcher into the British church, argued that the number would probably slide past half into the high 40s.

“There’s a heck of a lot of people in their 20s and 30s who are basically saying they have no religion or don’t want to be associated with Christianity, and will not answer the question at all.”

Despite some using the census results to make claims about how religious or not the UK is, all the experts agreed the question was actually revealing affiliation or identification with religion and did not say much useful about actual belief or practice.

Leslie Francis, a professor of religions and psychology at Warwick University, who helped to persuade the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to add the religion question 20 years ago, said in the census religion acted as a “social marker” along with ethnicity, sex or age.

“The census is not a predictor of whether people believe certain things or practise certain things, but it is a way in which they conceive of themselves,” he said.

This explains why other high-quality research, most notably the annual British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, reports only about 34 per cent of people are Christians, much lower than census results suggested.

Professor Voas said the BSA research asked about whether respondents “belong” to any religious group before listing several denominations. When faced with declaring actual membership of a religious organisation, many of those who would be happy to describe themselves as Christian on the census decline, leading to vastly lower numbers.

Andrew Copson, the chief executive of Humanists UK, pointed to YouGov polling that mimicked the phrasing of the census question, but then dug into why some people ticked “Christian” despite not believing or practising in the faith.

“You get answers like ‘I was christened’ or ‘I went to a church school’. They are largely measures of either upbringing or cultural affiliation,” he said. However, the data from this question was then used by thousands of public bodies in healthcare, education, the justice system and beyond “as if it is saying something about belief and practice and serious religious belonging”, he said.

Humanists UK, as in 2011, ran a campaign in the build-up to this year’s census imploring those who do not believe in a religion to select the “No Religion” option, in an effort to cut down on atheists, agnostics, humanists and others selecting a religion option out of cultural affiliation.

Professor Abby Day, a sociologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, who has studied the census and religious belief, said the probable further decline in the headline Christian figure mattered not just for public policy but also in politics.

“There’s a dark side to this, a racist side to this,” she warned. Right-wing populist groups had seized on data suggesting declining Christian religiosity before to fuel extremist rhetoric about Britain, Europe or America “losing” its identity, she argued.

However, others were sceptical about how much difference this year’s figures would really have. Professor Voas said other landmarks, such as less than half of the country being baptised into the Anglican church, had passed by without any dent on the public debate over establishment of the Church of England. Mr Copson suggested he was pessimistic about public policy shifting in response to changing census data.

Other minority faith groups also have a stake in the results of the census, including Sikhs, said Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal, a lecturer in Sikh studies at Birmingham University.

One activist group, the Sikh Federation, has repeatedly attempted to force the ONS to include “Sikh” as a tick-box option in the ethnicity question as well as the religion question, arguing that the census was undercounting because the religion answer was voluntary.

Both in 2011 and this year, the legal action against the ONS failed, she said, largely because the federation had not been able to “prove their case” that any significant undercounting was taking place.

“Some people say it has something to do with some Sikhs who do not want to define themselves as Indian, which is a whole other minefield, but it will be interesting to see with this census whether more Sikhs do tick ‘Other’ for ethnicity and then write in Sikh,” she said.

Mr Copson said Humanists UK, along with some other Jewish groups, had joined the Sikh Federation in 2011 arguing for more options in the ethnicity question.

“I’ve got members who are Sikhs who want to be able to tick the ‘No Religion’ box in the religion question and the Sikh box in the ethnicity question, and I’ve got Jewish members who want [similar].”

As the British non-Christian religious population matures and increases, the census will increasingly hit against the same affiliation problem it already has with Christians, he also predicted.

Today, census data on how many Muslims, Jews, Hindus or Sikhs there are is a good indicator for religious adherence, but over time more and more of these minority groups will choose to discard belief or practice while retaining the religious label as a cultural or ethnic marker.

Regardless of what happens with minority religious affiliation, the panel also agreed the percentage selecting the “No Religion” option would go up again — after rising from 15 per cent in 2001 to 25 per cent a decade ago.

Dr Brierley speculated it could rise to about 30 per cent, which Professor Voas agreed with while noting the BSA continued to place the figure about 50 per cent. 

Watch the briefing on our YouTube channel here

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