Weird Religious Insights from the UK Census

Every ten years the UK runs a national census. Most nations in the western world do this now. It is a way to gather information that enables decision makers to make sensible plans. For example what funds will be needed and where should they be directed in the years to come.

The UK National Census was run in 2021. It is mandatory. If you don’t complete it then somebody will come knocking on your door asking you to complete the form. Once all the forms are back, it then takes time to process it all and crunch the data gathered. The office of National Statistics then proceed to release details in tranches…

The one that has sparked a bit of interest landed with a bit of a thud on Nov 29, 2022. It was titled “Ethnic group, national identity, language, and religion: Census 2021 in England and Wales

Just England and Wales!! what happened to the data for Scotland?

Scotland is one year behind. They gathered data in 2022, so that will all get published in 2023.

The interesting bit is the religious question. It is optional, so how many completed it?

Most did. To be a tad more specific, 94% did. That is about 56 million people. That’s an increase from the 92% who answered it in 2011.

The Headline Items

For the first time ever in the national census, less than half of the population (46.2%, 27.5 million people) described themselves as “Christian”.

That is a rather staggering 13.1% drop since the 2011 census.

Where did they all go?

After “Christian” the most popular response was “No religion”. 22.2 million people selected that option. In 2011 only 14.1 million did so yes, that is indeed a huge increase and clearly where there they mostly went.

What about the others?

We have these numbers …

  • Muslim – 3.9 million (up from 2.7 million in 2011)
  • Hindu – 1 million (up from 818,000 in 2011)

Here is an illustration with a bit more detail …

Weird Insight 1 – Those religious statistics are probably not accurate

I’m not suggesting that people lied. Instead, the way the question is phrased can greatly influence the religious statistics.

Here is how the question was presented …

It is a simple question “What is your Religion?“. You get to pick an option, or if you prefer, you can write in your own alternative answer.

So how do you answer that?

There rests the problem. The question is open to interpretation.

If you were raised, let’s say Catholic or Church of England, then you might tick “Christian” because that is part of your cultural identity. That can remain true for many, even those that never attend, don’t believe, and also don’t actually practise a belief.

Now here comes an even more interesting twist to it all.

In the UK there are both state run schools, private schools, and also schools run by the Church of England and also other religious groups. The Church of England schools get mostly state funding, but also some funds from the Church of England (C of E), the formally established church. Because of that they get to decide who can go to their schools. They generally have a better reputation than the state schools, but are not quite as good as private schools which for most people are way too expensive. Since C of E schools are the affordable best, parents will strive to get their kids into C of E schools. Inevitably, the demand is higher than the number of school places available so the C of E gets to pick.

Yep, you can see where this is going.

Parents eager to get their kids into a C of E school will start attending a C of E church, register as C of E members and thus go to the top of the list for places. Being mindlessly board for one hour a week on a Sunday morning is for many parents a great investment for their kids education.

So yes, tactics like this will tend to skew the numbers in the census as well.

Bottom Line: The census reports a minority is “Christian”, but the truth is that if you removed the eager parents and the “I was raised Christian, but don’t actually believe” folks, then it would probably be a lot lower.

Side Note: Yes the C of E knows what is going on. They do this as a recruitment methodology. To get your kids into a C of E school parents need to stick it out for a couple of years. The C of E hope and pray, literally, that they get into a habit of going, make friends, get sucked into the social life, and thus it becomes a lifetime habit.

Weird Insight 2 – The Head of the Church is also the head of state

In the UK, the C of E is the official established church. OK, so you probably knew that bit.

The UK head of state, King Charles III, is also the official head of the Church of England, yet clearly this is a minority belief by any measure.

It raises questions. Why should the head of state also be the leader of a minority church that does not represent the majority of the population?

Having a King is a tad archaic so it will be fascinating to see if also having his as leader of a church is something that is maintained in the years to come. Will Season 9 of “The Crown” have a plot line that involves Charles declaring that he has joined the Mormons?

The stance that Charles has taken is that he is for all faiths, and not just the C of E. However, remember that 22.2 million people selected “No faith at all”. With that observation in mind his recent stance has been this …

“respect those who follow other spiritual paths, as well as those who seek to live their lives in accordance with secular ideals”.

It will also be interesting to see how his coronation plays out. By tradition it is a deeply religious process. After the communion and his official anointing by the Archbishop of Canterbury, he is then supposed to swear to “maintain and preserve inviolately” the establishment of the Church of England and the rights and privileges of its clergy.

That does not exactly align with what he has said.

I’m really not sure how well that will be received by those that ponder over such things.

To be honest I suspect next May the majority will simply view it as the latest episode of “The Crown” and just get on with their lives after enjoying a bank holiday.

Weird Item 3 – The Bishops and the Law

The UK has the rather unusual tradition terms “Lords Spiritual”. To translate, what that means is that 26 C of E Bishops get to sit in the House of Lords and influence lawmaking.

Justin Welby (Archbishop of Canterbury) and Rachel Treweek (Bishop of Gloucester) in the House of Lords in 2021

Let’s be wholly frank about this. The entire basis for them be there, the “skill” that entitles them to that seat, is that they have made an entire career out of promoting their imaginary friend as real.

Another interesting twist here is that it is only English Bishops who have this right. Welsh, Scottish, and Northern Irish Bishops don’t.

In the context of a census that reveals that these English guys in funny hats do not represent the UK population, it is very obviously wholly and completely weird to find a western democracy grants a religious denomination the automatic right to sit in the legislature.

The claim is that they represent 26 million baptised members, but in reality something akin to roughly just over 1 million actually practise their belief.

Weird Insight 4 – What did people write in?

Were you expecting lots of Jedi knights to pop up?

Nope, that did not happen.

This is how it broke down.

Among the 405,000 (0.7% of the overall population in England and Wales) who chose to write-in a response through the “Any other religion” option, we got the following:

  • Pagan (74,000)
  • Alevi (26,000)
  • Jain (25,000)
  • Wicca (13,000)
  • Ravidassia (10,000)
  • Shamanism (8,000)
  • Rastafarian (6,000)
  • Zoroastrian (4,000)

The interesting one there is perhaps Shamanism. That 8,000 was an increase from 650 in 2011.

Some non-religious also opted for this box …

  • Agnostic (32,000)
  • Atheist (14,000)
  • Humanist (10,000)


So basically this appears to be where things stand.

In the UK we have the head of a religious church as the official head of state. We also have clerics from that church sitting in the house of Lords influencing law-making, yet the majority of the population are mostly secular and not religious at all.

Meanwhile over the the US we have a secular state, yet quite of few members of the population are fanatical religious nutters who are rather determined to impose their whacky beliefs upon everybody by force.

How the heck did it all pan out like this?

It really is two nations divided by a common language.

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