Less than half the population call themselves Christian for first time

The proportion of the population of England and Wales describing themselves as Christian has fallen below a half for the first time, the Office for National Statistics said on Tuesday.

Some 46.2% of the population of England and Wales described themselves as Christian on the day of the 2021 census, down from 59.3% a decade earlier, the ONS said.

The percentage of people saying they had no religion jumped from around a quarter in 2011 (25.2%) to over a third in 2021 (37.2%).

There were increases in the proportion of people describing themselves as Muslim (up from 4.9% to 6.5%) and as Hindu (from 1.5% to 1.7%).

London remains the most religiously diverse region of England, with just over a quarter (25.3%) 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% selecting a religion other than Christian.

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

Responding to the data, the Archbishop of York said the country had “left behind the era when many people almost automatically identified as Christian”.

The Most Reverend Stephen Cottrell said: “The Christian church exists to share the good news of Jesus Christ, serve our neighbour and bring hope to a troubled world. That’s what we’ve done for 2,000 years, in times of war and peace; hardship and plenty; revival and decline and it’s what we must do now more than ever.

“It’s not a great surprise that the Census shows fewer people in this country identifying as Christian than in the past, but it still throws down a challenge to us not only to trust that God will build his kingdom on Earth but also to play our part in making Christ known.

“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.”

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”.

He continued: “One of the most striking things about these results is how at odds the population is from the state itself. No state in Europe has such a religious set-up as we do in terms of law and public policy, while at the same time having such a non-religious population.

“Iran is the only other state in the world that has clerics voting in its legislature. And no other country in the world requires compulsory Christian worship in schools as standard.

“The law has failed to keep up with the pace of change, and as a result, the enormous non-religious population in England and Wales face everyday discrimination, from getting local school places to receiving appropriate emotional support in hospitals. These census results should be a wake-up call which prompts fresh reconsiderations of the role of religion in society.”

Meanwhile, the number of people in England and Wales identifying their ethnic group as white has fallen by around 500,000 over a decade.

Some 81.7% of residents in England and Wales described themselves as white on the day of the 2021 census, down from 86.0% a decade earlier, ONS said.

The second most common ethnic group was “Asian, Asian British or Asian Welsh” at 9.3%, up from 7.5% in 2011.

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

And numbers of people identifying their ethnic group as “Other ethnic group: Any other ethnic group” rose to 924,000 (1.6%), up from 333,000 (0.6%) in 2011.

Around one in 10 households (2.5 million) contained members from at least two different ethnic groups in 2021.

This is an increase from 8.7% in 2011, the ONS said.