Number of people identifying as Christian falls below half of population for first time

The latest census data has revealed just how much the population of England and Wales is changing. ITV News Correspondent Ben Chapman reports

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

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, according to the latest figures.

The newly released 2021 Census data was published, documenting the continuing decline of religious identity, and a growth in multiculturalism in England and Wales.

The Archbishop of York said the figures cataloguing a decline in the Christian population were "no great surprise," noting the country had “left behind the era when many people almost automatically identified as Christian.”

The charity group Humanists UK said the figures should be a "wake-up call" that the influence of religion in public life should be reviewed.

The census is carried out every ten years. Credit: ITV News

Religious identity declines

The percentage of people in England and Wales who said they had no religion jumped from around a quarter in 2011 (25.2%) to over a third in 2021 (37.2%), the latest figures showed.

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% of the overall population of England and Wales, up from 92.9% in 2011, the ONS added.

The Most Reverend Stephen Cottrell said despite the decline in the population identifying as Christian, "people still seek spiritual truth and wisdom and a set of values to live by."

Middlesbrough Mosque pays respects to the Queen Credit: ITV News

He added: “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.”

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."

People cheer in Leicester at the start of Diwali Credit: PA Images

He singled out Christian worship in schools as an example of the UK's wider failure to reflect a changing society.

Mr Copson added: “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.”

Ethnic diversity grows

The number of England and Wales residents identifying their ethnic group as white had also declined.

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

The number had fallen by around 500,000 over a decade, the figures showed.

The second most common ethnic group across England and Wales 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” on the census.

'East Wall' performers celebrate the culture and diversity of East London, as they dance at the Tower of London. Credit: PA

A total 3.7 million (6.2%) identified themselves in this category 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.

A total of 91.1% of residents in England and Wales had English as a main language on the day of the 2021 census, down slightly from 92.3% a decade earlier, the ONS said.

The census also captured the diversity in languages spoken in different parts of England and Wales.

For instance, the East Midlands recorded the highest percentage of people who said they spoke Polish as their main language (1.5%, or 71,000). A total of 5.7% in the local authority of Boston in Lincolnshire recorded Polish as their main language.

Migration booms

Figures released last week showed net migration to the United Kingdom had climbed by a record half-a-million, reflecting "unprecedented world events," including the war in Ukraine and the end of lockdown restrictions.

Around 504,000 more people were estimated to have moved to the UK than left in the 12 months to June 2022.

The figure rose sharply from 173,000 in the year to June 2021, the ONS said, and represented the highest net migration since the Second World War.

It was also far higher than pre-Brexit levels, statisticians noted.

'An increasingly multicultural society'

Census deputy director Jon Wroth-Smith said of the latest figures on religious and ethnic identity: “Today’s data highlights the increasingly multi-cultural society we live in. The percentage of people identifying their ethnic group as ‘White: English, Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish or British’, continues to decrease.

“Whilst this remains the most common response to the ethnic group question, the number of people identifying with another ethnic group continues to increase.

“However, the picture varies depending on where you live. London remains the most ethnically diverse region of England, where just under two-thirds identify with an ethnic minority group, whereas under one in 10 identify this way in the North East.

“But despite the ethnically diverse nature of society, nine in 10 people across England and Wales still identify with a UK national identity, with nearly eight in 10 doing so in London.”

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