Christian or No Religion?
This week, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released the 2021 census data on religious identity[1,2]. The headline figure was grim news for Christians and their churches: Less than half of England and Wales identify as Christian. Christians had fallen from 58.3% of the population in 2011 to 48.2%. By contrast, those identifying as having no religion, the “Nones”, rose from 25.% to 37.2%. These are the two largest categories by far. Islam and no answer are next at 6.5% and 6.0%, respectively.
Change from Christian to No Religion
Why the big changes? To unpack that question, we need to see the raw numbers. Percentages can be misleading. The population has grown in that time, and the response of other religions has also changed. Using the ONS data, the numbers responding Christian or None are:
In 20 years, the Christian identity has lost 10 million people, some of which must be through death. There would have been at least 8 million deaths of Christians during this time, possibly more if they had an older age distribution. These are not all losses. Deaths will be partially offset by births if some of those are Christian when they mature. By contrast, those with no religious identity have gained 15 million people. This number is more than the Christians have lost. But the population has grown.
With around 13 million births and 5 million net migrants in that period, it is reasonable to hypothesise that Christians have failed to transmit their identity to new generations. It must also be the case that unless many migrants have identified as non-religious, some who were previously Christian have switched identities to None.
Sources of Change
A graph of the numbers indicates the dramatic changes, figure 1. The Christian identity has declined slower (1.5% per year) than the “no religion” group has grown (5.7%). This difference is understandable because the numbers transferring would constitute a larger percentage of a small population (the no religion) than the larger population (Christian). How do these changes come about?
A stock-flow diagram, figure 2, describes the population changes. Births, deaths, migration and switching identity/transfer are flows. These are changes per year. The numbers of Christians and No Religion are the stocks.
If the children of Christians decide they have no religion by the time they mature, then that counts as a “birth” into the No Religion stock. For No Religion to grow, they must pick up people from the excess of these births over deaths or from adults who switch identities from Christian. There could also be transfers from other religions and migrants with no religion.
There is insufficient data to determine each of these flows. However, I can estimate the amount of switching by assuming a value for generational transmission. If 50% of the children of Christians remain in the Christian category, then at least 6.5 million people would have changed from Christian identity to No religion in 20 years. Had these people changed their views? A sort of “conversion” to unbelief. Or are people being more honest about their identity in a more secular age – now brave enough to dismiss religion?
Christian Identity and Church Membership
What does Christian identity mean? Well, it means whatever the respondents interpreted it to mean! Some will attend a church every week down to once a year. Some may be church members. Others may have been to a church school or think being born in a Christian country is enough to identify.
In reality, church membership and attendance are much less than the number who responded “Christian”. Figure 3 compares the trends of church membership and the census data. The gap is considerable, with membership a tenth of identity. Why do so many people say they are Christian but never belong to a church? Regular attendance is usually lower than membership. Why do so few self-identified “Christians” not attend church and worship God? Big questions for the church.
Church membership and attendance are marks of commitment. Answering a survey question is not. There is, of course, no equivalent indicator of commitment for not having a religion. People with no religion do not gather regularly to reinforce their beliefs. They do not give time or money to the “cause”. So, we are in the dark about the level of commitment among non-religious people.
Projections are dangerous – I get in trouble for these! If we project census religion numbers into the future, we see “No Religion” pass “Christian before the next census in 2031, figure 4. By 2040, only 10 million would identify as Christian. By that date, total church membership in England and Wales would be down to a million. That is still 10% of those who identify. as Christian. What if the church could see some of those who only identify converted into church members? It is possible the church could grow by 2040 even though Christian identity is falling.
Challenge to the Church
Christian identity is falling, church membership and attendance decline, and Christian influence is dwindling. The next few years are bound to see increased pressure to remove Christianity’s protected status in law, the monarchy, and parliament. Humanists UK lost no time in making the case. What should Christians do?
The church should reflect on what is its core mission. What battle is it fighting? Is it trying to preserve Christianity in a nation, hold on to an institutional church, or save souls? Of course, these are not independent. But if individuals are not converted, then ultimately, there will be no church and no Christian nation.
Our primary role is to see people become Christians, a position open to any Christian! Of course, I mean one who truly believes in Jesus. We can all witness and speak to our friends. We can all live in a way that attracts people to Christ. For most of us, saving an institutional church is not in our power, let alone keeping the nation officially Christian. That is for others. We make disciples of all nations by making disciples of our next-door neighbours.
Even if there were a revival of historic proportions tomorrow, increasing the conversion rate, it would take many years for the church to start growing again. That is the result of ageing. It would take far longer to see the number who identify as Christian increase. That is far down the “supply chain”.
Will the “ordinary” Christian take on the task of proclaiming the gospel, asking the Lord Jesus to send revival upon us?
References and Notes
- Less than half of England and Wales population Christian, Census 2021 shows. BBC News, 29/11/22.
- Office for National Statistics (ONS), released 29 November 2022, ONS website, statistical bulletin, Religion, England and Wales: Census 2021
- The question about religion was not asked in previous censuses, except in 1851.
- Analysis of the Welsh Presbyterian church from 1895-1960 showed that they kept 50% of their children in church. See:
Blog: Church Decline Caused by Lack of Conversions 6/11/15.
Other research has suggested a 30% transmission among Christians. See Intergenerational Transmission of Islam in England and Wales: Evidence from the Citizenship Survey, by J. Scourfield, C. Taylor, G. Moore, and S. Gilliat-Ray, Sociology, 46(1): 91-108, 2012
- The numbers do not quite balance in figure 2. The No religion identity is a couple of million short. There may be some effect from migration, some transfer from other religions. Perhaps more people have answered the question. It would take a full simulation model to investigate this further.
- The accelerating decline of the Christian identity is a combination of increasing deaths due to an ageing population and people switching to no religion. It would take a full simulation model and a knowledge of each category’s age distribution to give robust forecasts of numbers.
- Non-religious surge: 37% tick ‘No religion’ in 2021 Census – UK among least religious countries in the world. Humanists UK, 29/11/22.
- A full simulation model could estimate these timescales.