Today’s 2021 Census results have revealed that the number of non-religious people in England and Wales is now greater than the number of Christians among those under 66 years of age. This surge in the number of people who identify as non-religious marks a significant shift in the demographics of our country and it’s time politicians recognised this.
The demographic inevitability – barring a massive religious revival – of our non-religious future (by comparison, more people ticked ‘Christian’ than ‘No religion’ in every age demographic in the 2011 Census) couldn’t be plainer. But our state institutions haven’t even caught up with our present, let alone our future.
No other European country 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. Over a third of public schools in England are religious with more opening each year. In both England and Wales, the law still mandates that all schools hold a daily act of collective worship. In schools of no religious character, this must be Christian – in spite of just 35% of school-age pupils having ticked ‘Christian’.
We know that today’s statistics are just the tip of the iceberg. In practice, the figure of people who are religious in any meaningful sense that a person on the street would use the word is even lower. This is because the Census question is leading in how it is phrased and causes many people who tick a religious box do so despite not believing in or practising a religion. What’s striking then – even by Census terms – is just how at odds our state institutions are with the working age population.
Politicians should look at today’s results and recognise they must renegotiate the place of religion or belief in today’s society. Today’s figures should be a spur to create a more inclusive approach to people of different religions and non-religious ways of life across our law, policy, and public life.