Less than half of Britons expected to tick ‘Christian’ in UK census

Snapshot of Britain will see many reject church as immoral or irrelevant, academics predict

The “post-Christian era” in the UK will be cemented by data emerging from Sunday’s census which is expected to show further generational disengagement from organised religion, according to a leading academic.

The once-a-decade snapshot of the country has included a voluntary question about religion since 2001. In 2011, returns across England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland showed 59.3% ticking Christianity, a fall from 71.6% a decade earlier.

Abby Day, professor of race, faith and culture at Goldsmiths, University of London, expects this year’s census to show a further erosion in Christian identity, mainly because postwar generations regard the church as irrelevant and immoral.

Day predicted the proportion of people ticking Christianity “could drop below 50%”. Peter Brierley, an expert on religion statistics, said he predicted 48% or 49% identifying as Christian, but David Voas, head of the social sciences department at University College London, said he would be surprised if the figure fell below 50%.

According to Day, further decline was largely due to baby boomers – people born between 1946 and 1964 – raising their children outside the institutions of religion.

Professor Abby Day
Professor Abby Day: ‘Today’s younger generations have a different sense of soul, meaning and morality.’ Photograph: Sent by her

“Religion tends to be transmitted within families. But many baby boomers, who were largely brought up by people who went to church, dramatically broke with that,” she told the Observer.

“Baby boomers have since raised a generation of millennials who don’t go to church. And people who weren’t brought up as practising Christians generally don’t become religious later in life. You don’t get many teenagers walking into churches when they haven’t been before.”

Based on recent interviews with about 50 baby boomers who were brought up in Christian families, Day said many had rejected church in favour of values considered to be more relevant, inclusive and humane.

“Post-Christians are motivated by ethics concerning gender and sexual equality, social justice, climate change and compassion. The churches failed to deliver on those moral issues and so lost moral authority.

“Today’s younger generations have a different sense of soul, meaning and morality, and it’s one that rejects the church’s record of abuse, racism, homophobia and sexism,” she said.

Church of England data shows that average Sunday attendance in 2019 was 600,000 adults, or fewer than 1% of the population. A third of those attending church were aged 70 or over.

Figures from the 2018 British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey showed that 52% of the UK public said they did not belong to any religion, 38% identified as Christian, and 9% identified with other faiths.


But in the last census, only 25% of the population said they had no religion. According to Voas, the difference in wording between the census question in England and Wales and the BSA question is “critical”.

“The BSA question is, ‘Do you regard yourself as belonging to a religious group?’ That notion of belonging pushes people to think, ‘Do I really belong, am I a member of a church?’… as opposed to identification with a heritage,” he told a Religion Media Centre event last week.

“The census question, ‘What is your religion?’, implies everyone should have one… You end up with very different results.”

A survey from YouGov on behalf of Humanists UK, published this month, asked people the same question as the census, but then asked those who identified as Christian the reasons for their answer.

Almost six in 10 (59%) said it was because they had been christened, and 49% because they were brought up to think of themselves as Christian. More than a quarter (26%) said it was “because this is a Christian country”. Over half (51%) said they never attended a place of worship or did so less than once a year.

Only a third (34%) said they ticked Christian because they “believe in the teachings of Christianity”.

Andrew Copson, chief executive of Humanists UK, said: “Most people in the UK say they are non-religious, a distinct minority have religious beliefs, and very few attend places of worship.” Nevertheless, a majority of people ticked a religion box in the last census because of their background or upbringing.

A woman sitting alone in church
‘A distinct minority have religious beliefs,’ says Andrew Copson of Humanists UK. Photograph: coldsnowstorm/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Humanists UK is urging people to tick the “no religion” box if they don’t believe in or practice a religion.

Day said there was a “dark side” to “cultural Christianity”. “The populist right has pushed the idea that we are a Christian country to reinforce its anti-immigration stance by fuelling rhetoric about Britain losing its identity.”

The proportion of the population identifying with non-Christian faiths was likely to increase “quite substantially” in the 2021 census as a result of immigration and higher birth rates in some minority communities, said Brierley.

The Office of National Statistics estimates it will take a year to process data from the census.

Northern Ireland was also holding a census on Sunday, but Scotland has postponed its census until 2022 because of the Covid pandemic.


Harriet Sherwood

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Schools call for end to ‘archaic’ daily worship following UK census results
With fewer than half the population in England and Wales describing themselves as Christian, there are calls to end religious assemblies

Anna Fazackerley

03, Dec, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
Census to ask about sexual orientation for the first time
Government hopes to uncover disadvantages LGBT community faces

Harriet Sherwood

18, Oct, 2020 @6:45 AM

Civil rights fears over DNA 'census'
More than 100,000 people, including children as young as 10, will be asked to provide saliva tests and DNA samples in a new annual survey of the lives, behaviour and beliefs of people in the United Kingdom

Amelia Hill, social affairs correspondent

30, Dec, 2007 @11:53 PM

Article image
Councils fear census flaws will cost them millions in lost funds
False population counts in census lead to shortfall in government funding, claim councils. Report by Jamie Doward

Jamie Doward

06, Mar, 2011 @12:16 AM

Article image
UK Census: religion by age, ethnicity and country of birth

What does the 2011 census tell us about religion? Which groups are the most ethnically diverse? which is the youngest? And what is happening to Christianity?

Ami Sedghi

16, May, 2013 @3:29 PM

Article image
Census 2011: Northern Ireland

The second release of the 2011 census is out today. Here's what the Northern Ireland data shows

Ami Sedghi

11, Dec, 2012 @6:00 PM

Article image
Parents hope secular education victory leads to repeal of law
Calls for an end to compulsory collective, broadly Christian worship in non-religious state schools

Donna Ferguson

24, Nov, 2019 @9:07 AM

Article image
Fresh scrutiny for evangelical Christian GP Richard Scott
General Medical Council to review decision not to investigate doctor accused of breaking rules on talking about beliefs

Jamie Doward

05, Jan, 2020 @7:45 AM

Article image
Census reveals decline of Christianity and rise in foreign born to one in eight

2011 census shows one in four people said they had no religion at all, while number of Muslims rose by nearly 75% over decade

Robert Booth

11, Dec, 2012 @8:27 PM

Article image
Humanists launch 'no religion' census campaign
The British Humanist Association wants non-believers and the seriously lapsed to stop ticking the Christian box

Riazat Butt

27, Oct, 2010 @6:03 PM