(CNSNews.com) – For the first time ever, census data in England and Wales have found that fewer than half of the population considers itself to be Christian – and groups that reject religion says it’s time that reality is reflected in education, law, and public policy.
Data released on Tuesday from the 2021 census show that those describing themselves as Christians now account for just 46.2 percent of the population – down from 59.3 percent in 2011, and from 72 percent in 2001.
Islam, the second-largest faith by adherents, continues to grow. Muslims now comprise 6.5 percent of the population, up from 4.8 percent a decade ago, and from 3 percent in 2001.
Possibly the most striking finding in the new census figures was the increase in the number of those saying that have “no religion” – 37.2 percent, up from 25 percent a decade earlier.
The data covered only England and Wales. The other constituent countries of the United Kingdom, Scotland and Northern Ireland, report separately. (In Northern Ireland, data released last September showed that the number of those choosing “no religion” had climbed from 10.1 percent in 2011 to 17.4 percent in 2021.)
Responding to the figures, the Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, said they were not a surprise, but were a challenge to Christians.
“The Christian church exists to share the good news of Jesus Christ, serve our neighbor and bring hope to a troubled world,” said Cottrell, whose post makes him the second most-senior cleric in the established Church of England. “That’s what we’ve done for 2,000 years – in times of war and peace; hardship and plenty; revival and decline and it’s what we must do now more than ever.”
“It’s not a great surprise that the census shows fewer people in this country identifying as Christian than in the past, but it still throws down a challenge to us not only to trust that God will build his kingdom on Earth but also to play our part in making Christ known,” Cottrell said.
“We have left behind the era when many people almost automatically identified as Christian, but other surveys consistently show how the same people still seek spiritual truth and wisdom and a set of values to live by.”
‘One of the least religious countries on Earth’
Advocacy groups opposed to religion – or opposed to religion in the public square – welcomed the latest data.
“It’s official – we are no longer a Christian country,” said the chief executive officer of Britain’s National Secular Society, Stephen Evans.
“The census figures paint a picture of a population that has dramatically moved away from Christianity – and from religion as a whole,” he said. “The current status quo, in which the Church of England is deeply embedded in the U.K. constitution, is unfair and undemocratic – and looking increasingly absurd and unsustainable.”
Evans said fundamental reforms were needed for Britain to become a secular democracy.
Andrew Copson, chief executive of Humanists UK, pointed to the growth in number of non-religious, and said the figures mean that Britain “is almost certainly one of the least religious countries on Earth.”
(Secularists promote separation of state from religious institutions; humanists advocate a rationalist outlook, prioritizing the human rather than divine or supernatural.)
Humanists UK attributed the changing trends in part to the fact that “some religious groups have found themselves increasingly at odds with public attitudes on issues such as sexual orientation, the role of women in society, and abortion.”
Also, it argued that “scientific explanations of how life came to be are nowadays pretty complete.”
“One of the most striking things about these census results is how at odds the population is from the state itself,” Copson said. “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.”
Humanists UK noted that one-third of state schools in England are Christian, and even schools without a religious character “must have a daily act of Christian worship.”
Furthermore, Church of England bishops are seated and vote in the upper legislature, the House of Lords, and pastoral care in hospitals, prisons, and the military is “overwhelmingly Christian.”
Monarchs since the 16th century have held the title of “Defender of The Faith” – the faith in question being the doctrine of the Church of England – and when King Charles III was proclaimed king in September the title was ascribed to him too. The monarch is also crowned as “Supreme Governor of the Church of England.”
In the U.S., the Pew Research Center found 29 percent of U.S. adult respondents in 2021 identified as having no “religion,” up from 16 percent in 2007.
The number of those who identify with Christianity fell from 78 percent in 2007 to 63 percent in 2021, Pew found.