Last year was probably the last time the UK will ever see a full nationwide paper census. Last year’s census had the option to complete it online, one would imagine that in another 10 years online will be the only option. Developing, printing and mailing paper forms to every household in the land is getting expensive! There has been a census every 10 years in the UK since 1801, apart from 1941 due to the second world war. The first few censuses were simple head counts but have since grown to include all sorts of questions about personal views on the way way the country functions and British life in general.
You might wonder why I’m waffling on about some archaic aspect of being a Brit, but yesterday saw the publication of the results from last year’s census. The numbers have been crunched, the statisticians have done their jobs and there are some interesting, though unsurprising, results pertaining to religious belief and practice in this country. The first figure that leaps out at me is the rise of non-religious population. In 2001 we were 14.8% of the population but are now 25.1%. The non-religious rise has been mainly taken from the Christian numbers. In 10 years their share of the population has dropped from 71.7% to 59.3% – a result recently described by a spokesman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales as ‘challenging’. In real numbers it is even more encouraging, the population of the non-religious has swelled from 7.7 million people to 14.1 million in a decade.
There is some argument as to how much of a shift this actually is and if it even proves anything. As anyone who has ever had to write or answer a survey will know – it’s all about framing the question. The question used in both 2001 and 2011 was “What is your religion?”. This pre-supposes the person has a religion. Separate but smaller surveys put non-religious numbers much higher by first asking the yes/no question “Are you religious?”, with the yes answer inviting the responder to enter their religious affiliation.
There is also a grey area around what counts as ‘No Religion’. I think to most people, myself included, no religion means you don’t identify as a member of a particular organised group. However, there are a lot of people out there for whom that statement is true, but believe in all kinds of spiritual peculiarities. The Muslim faith is also on the rise but possibly for different reasons. The census showed a rise in the number of Muslims, with the proportion of the population in 2011 standing at 4.8%, or 2.7 million, up 2% from 1.5 million in 2001. Most of this has been attributed to immigration levels from Muslim countries and the high birth rate amongst immigrants compared to other groups, but the true reason behind their rise is probably a mixture of different reasons. Other faiths all showed slight increases, all taking a piece of the pie from the collapsing of the Christian majority.
The Church of England especially is in in big trouble, its own surveys of its members paint a grim picture of the future. Despite being the largest religion in the UK, only 20% people identify as Anglican. A good proportion of those probably only attend church a few times a year, in fact 48% of those who identify as Anglican admit to never going to church. The Rev Dr Patrick Richmond believes the church will cease to have any meaning or possibly even exist in 20 years time if it cannot muster a serious recruitment drive. The average age of its congregation now stands at 61, over 65 in more rural parishes. Once this generation has died there is unlikely to be anyone to replace them. Adult attendance has halved in the last 40 years and childhood attendance has seen an incredible decrease of 80%. The results from the census are not perfect and people shouldn’t place too much trust in statistics like this, but the results are encouraging. As the great Homer Simpson once said; “Aw, people can come up with statistics to prove anything, Kent. 14 percent of all people know that.”.