England and Wales No Longer Christian ‘By Default,’ Census Shows
One key driver of change may be that older generations are more likely to identify as Christian have died, and young adults more likely to identify with no religion have taken their place.
LONDON — Christianity is no longer the “default religion” in England and Wales. The latest census shows Christians there are now a minority, while the number of people who have no religious affiliation continues to grow.
Only 46.2% of residents, or 27.5 million people, described themselves as “Christian,” according to a Nov. 29 bulletin from the Office for National Statistics. This is down from 2011, when 59.3%, or 33.3 million, said they were Christian. In 2001, 71.7% described themselves as Christian.
The figures come from the 2021 census, which seeks to give the most accurate estimates of individuals and households. The census did not seek further details about respondents’ particular religious denomination.
About 37.2% of people in England and Wales, numbering 22.2 million, told the census they had “no religion.” This is an increase from 25.2% of the population in 2011 and from 14.8% in 2001.
“These figures don’t come as any real surprise,” Stephen Bullivant, a professor of theology and sociology of religion at St. Mary's University, Twickenham, told CNA Dec. 1. “In fact, the census figures put the number of Christians significantly higher than do many other, high-quality social surveys done in Britain.”
Bullivant has studied religious affiliation and disaffiliation in the U.K. and the U.S. He is the author of the 2022 book Non-Verts: The Making of Ex-Christian America, from Oxford University Press.
One key driver of change, he said, is that older generations more likely to identify as Christian have died, and young adults more likely to identify with no religion have taken their place.
“As ever, a lot of complex factors contribute to these big, headline figures,” Bullivant continued. “But probably the biggest factor is the gradual, generational evaporation of Christianity over a period of decades. It used to be the case that Anglicanism was the default setting for English and Welsh people, unless you had a particular reason to be something else. But we've long ago now — certainly for anyone born in the last few decades — shifted to a position where having ‘no religion’ is now the default, unless you have a particular reason to be something else.”
This change from a broad culture of “default Christianity” also changes the culture within Christian communities.
“Of course, in the long run, it means that the only Christians left are those who have to ‘own’ it,” Bullivant said. “And that’s certainly something we’re starting to see with, say, Catholic or Evangelical young adults. If they’re at Church in their late teens or early 20s, they’re there for a reason — and of course, the other young adults they meet there are, too. Ultimately, they’re the kinds of countercultural groups — ‘creative minorities’ as Pope Benedict likes to call them — where you might hope to see some kind of counter-trends starting to appear.”
Among other religious adherents in England and Wales, Muslims are the most populous. They now make up 6.5% of the population. Muslims now number 3.9 million, an increase of 1.2 million from a decade ago. Hindus now number about one million, 1.7% of the population. Sikhs number 524,000, just under 1%, while Buddhists number 273,000, about 0.5% of the population. The collective Jewish population numbers 271,000, smaller than the collective Buddhist population.
About 40% of the London population is Christian, while 15% are Muslim and 5% are Hindu. Among Londoners overall, 25% profess a non-Christian religion.
The Church of England is the established religion of England, with the British monarch as its supreme head. It broke from the Catholic Church in the 16th century.
Anglican Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell responded to the survey Tuesday, saying “the Christian church exists to share the good news of Jesus Christ, serve our neighbor, and bring hope to a troubled world.”
“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,” 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.”
Cottrell said that many people this winter still will turn to their local church for both spiritual and 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,” he said.
Previous studies have shown a decline in Christian adherence across the U.K.
The 2019 edition of the British Social Attitudes Survey, which includes Scotland and Northern Ireland, includes figures on religious adherence in 2018. In that year, 52% of British residents professed no religion while only 38% professed Christianity. Church of England or Anglican adherents made up 12% of respondents, while Catholics made up 7%.
The Social Attitudes Survey is based on a representative sample of about 3,000 respondents. It is conducted by the National Centre for Social Research, an independent social research center.