The Census Campaign 2011

In the run-up to the 2011 Census, the BHA ran a high profile campaign – the ‘Census Campaign’ – in which we asked non-religious people to make sure that they ticked the ‘No religion’ box, in order to give a more accurate picture of religious affiliation in the UK. The results of the 2011 Census in England and Wales show an increase in the percentage of non-religious, from 15% in 2001 to 25% in 2011. This represents a 67% proportional increase in the number of non-religious people. At the same time, the percentage ticking the ‘Christian’ box has declined from 72% to 59%. More details can be seen on our results page.

In depth

What’s the problem with the Census data?

The Census data on religion still gives a misleading picture of the religiosity of the UK, despite the rise in the percentage of non-religious. This is because of the flawed nature of the Census question on religion. ‘What is your religion?’, the question which was used in England and Wales in the 2001 and 2011 Censuses, is a loaded question, because it assumes that the respondent has a religion. In addition, many respondents who answer this question by ticking a religion only do so because their family brought them up in that faith, not because they still believe in it or actively practice it. The data on religious belief in the Census should therefore be viewed as indicative of the loosest of cultural affiliation rather than of any sense of belonging, belief, or practice.

Despite the fall in the percentage of the population who identify as ‘Christian’, the Census results in England and Wales still give a higher figure for ‘Christian’ than any other survey. The figures were probably also distorted by the fact that the question on religion appeared immediately after a series of questions on ethnicity, which may well have encouraged people to respond more on the basis of culture than actual beliefs or religious affiliation.

poll conducted by YouGov in March 2011 on behalf of the BHA confirms the way in which the Census question in England and Wales encourages people to say that they belong to a religion, even if they do not actually hold religious beliefs. In the YouGov poll, 61% of respondents in England and Wales ticked a religious box when asked ‘What is your religion?’ (53.48% said they were Christian, and 7.22% said that they belonged to other faiths), while 39% ticked ‘No religion’. However, when the same set of respondents were asked the follow-up question ‘Are you religious?’, only 29% said ‘Yes’, while 65% said ‘No’.

Before the Census was conducted, we campaigned for an improved question, but the flawed question, which had already been used in the 2001 Census, was used again in 2011. Before the 2011 Census we received strong assurances from the ONS that it would do its utmost to make clear that the leading character of the question means that it records a higher religious response than any other prominent public survey on the topic – indicating that it agreed with our assessment of what the question shows. As a result, in its 2009 draft paper on the religion question, it wrote that:

The idea of ‘Christian’ population… could quite reasonably be used to refer to a number of different groups including people who had a Christian upbringing; people who hold some definitive Christian beliefs; or people who attend church and/or pray regularly. However, using the term ‘Christian’ (for example) without distinguishing which population is being referred to is therefore likely to cause confusion. Clarity that the 2001 [and hence 20011] census question aims to include the weakest form of affiliation… (‘loose belonging including ethnic or family connections’) will help to minimise confusion.

But when the final paper was published later year, the last two sentences of the above quote were removed (with no other changes being made to the paper). And publications released once the Census results were announced did not include any such caveats.

Once the question had been decided, with only minor changes proposed, the BHA then ran the Census Campaign.

Data from other surveys

The Census information on religion contradicts data from various other surveys over the past decade, which record even higher figures for the percentage of the population which is non-religious. In the results of the 29th British Social Attitudes Survey (BSA), published in September 2012, 45.7% of respondents claimed not to belong to a religion. The results also showed that levels of religious practice remain static at a low level, with only 14.3% claiming to attend religious services once a week or more (itself a figure inflated by social desirability bias). The BSA’s question on religious upbringing also showed that many respondents have left the religion which they were brought up in. Only 18.3% said that they were brought up in a family that did not have a religion. The non-religious group therefore includes a large number of people who had a religious upbringing but decided to leave their faith. Compared with the results of the first BSA in 1983, the results showed that religious identity in Britain has been in decline over the past three decades.

An Ipsos Mori poll published in 2007 also showed that 36% of people are humanist in their basic outlook. According to this survey, 41% endorsed the statement ‘This life is the only life we have and death is the end of our personal existence’. 62% chose the statement ‘Human nature by itself gives us an understanding of what is right and wrong’, against 27% who said ‘People need religious teachings in order to understand what is right and wrong’.

Government use of Census data

Apart from the inaccuracy of the Census data collected on religious affiliation, there are real, practical problems with the use of such data. The Census data on religion says nothing about the actual religious practice, involvement, belief or belonging of the population – and as we have seen, measuring any of these finds significantly higher numbers in the ‘None’ camp. However, central and local governments use the data in resource allocation and for targeting equality initiatives. In the past, the large percentage of the population designated as ‘Christian’ in Census data has been used in a variety of ways, such as to justify the continuing presence of Bishops in the House of Lords, to justify the state-funding of ‘faith’ schools (and their expansion), to justify and increase religious broadcasting and to exclude the voices of humanists in parliament and elsewhere.

The police, the NHS and local authorities use Census data when making decisions about resource allocation, and this means that there are detrimental effects on local policy as well. Inflated figures on religious belief can lead to decisions that treat non-religious people as if they are active practitioners of a particular faith, when they may only have a loose cultural affiliation. For example, someone who loosely identifies themselves as Christian in a cultural sense might not necessarily agree with the idea of Christian organisations taking over public services in their area.

What we’re doing

2011 Census Campaign

Before the 2011 Census was conducted, we responded to ONS consultations on the question, and made a detailed submission and a supplementary submission to the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee on the problems with the Census question on religion proposed for the 2011 Census. In a series of meetings with the Office for National Statistics, we also pressed for a replacement question which would have genuinely measured religious affiliation in the UK, either by being a more open question or by being two-part (ie a. Do you see yourself as belonging to any particular religion Yes/No b. If so, which?). As outlined above, we received assurances that the results of the question would be presented in a well-caveated way, although these recommendations were later subtly dropped and in the event no such caveats were included.

The Census CampaignOnce it was decided that the same question was used, we ran the Census Campaign, encouraging people who are not religious to tick the ‘No religion’ box. We did this by highlighting all the ways in which the results are used – to help people realise that if they tick ‘Christian’, then this would not simply be taken as cultural background, but would be used to justify political ends.

One issue we faced along the way is that a number of adverts we proposed to run in railway stations were blocked from appearing by the organisation that controls the advertising space because they contained the slogan, ‘If you’re not religious, for God’s sake say so’. This was because organisation asked the Committee on Advertising Practice whether they thought this slogan complied with the Advertising Code. CAP said that they did not as they deemed ‘for God’s sake’ to be offensive. The ads were subsequently allowed to appear on billboards in an unmodified form – but the incident provides a strong example of the need for reform of the codes around advertising and religious offence.


The outcome of the Census was a drop in the number ticking ‘Christian’ in England and Wales from 72% to 59%, and a rise in the number of those ticking ‘No religion’ from 15% to 25%. This represented the largest single demographic swing on the entire census. These trends do bring the Census somewhat more back into line with other surveys, although still leave it showing a higher ‘Christian’ and lower ‘no religion’ figure than any other major survey.

Work has already begun on the 2021 Census. We are a member of ONS’s Census Diversity Advisory Group and responded to the first consultation on the Census’s contents in 2015. We will update our members and supporters on this as it progresses.

Get involved

We would like to know of any difficulties created by data from the 2011 Census. So you can help by looking out for information in your locality which justifies ‘faith-based’ practices by public bodies based on Census results. Examples of this may include making funding decisions using this data or changes in service delivery or justifying the allocation of resources on the basis of census data on religion. If you have any pertinent examples, please let us know so that we can build up evidence showing the misuse of the data, and challenge those using the data incorrectly.

You can also support the BHA’s campaigns by becoming a member. Campaigns cost money – quite a lot of money – and we need your financial support. Instead, or in addition, you can make a donation to the BHA.