This Sunday marks the day of the 2021 Census in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and Humanists UK is encouraging people who are not in any meaningful sense religious to tick the ‘no religion’ option.

It is doing so because the Census question is used by decision-makers on everything from the continuing requirement for compulsory Christian worship in state schools, the ever-increasing number of state faith schools, and funding for chaplaincy and pastoral care in hospitals.

These uses stand in contrast to the reasons most people give for ticking a religious option. Polling conducted by YouGov in late February suggests that most people who tick ‘Christian’ will do so because of their religious upbringing, as opposed to their beliefs or practices today. Most attend a place of worship less than once a year, outside the pandemic, and only a minority said they are ‘religious’.

People tick a religious option because of the leading nature of the question, and its placement after the question on ethnicity. In England and Wales, the question is ‘What is your religion?’, and the non-religious option is ‘No religion’. In Northern Ireland the question is ‘What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?’, and the non-religious option is ‘None’. In 2011 the consequence was that, compared with more accurate surveys like the British Social Attitudes Survey, the number of non-religious people was cut in half.

Humanists UK’s campaign to get people to tick ‘no religion’ appears to have attracted more attention among the public than any other. At least 12 million people have seen the campaign online, with millions more seeing adverts in newspapers and magazines. And analysis provided by TweetBinder for the period since the campaign launched shows that Humanists UK’s tweets have been the most retweeted among those using the official #Census2021 hashtag since the campaign launched – showing the campaign had a larger reach than high-profile protests around answers on sex, national identity, or the environment.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented:

‘Our message to the British public is this: if you don’t believe in or practise any religion and don’t want to be counted as if you do, then you should tick the “No religion” box in the Census. You may be ticking a religious box due to your upbringing or family background, but if you do then you will be considered as fully religious by policymakers, the media, and religious groups. The best way to make clear that this is wrong is to tick the “No religion” box.’

The leading nature of the question

The Office of National Statistics (ONS), which runs the Census in England and Wales, itself acknowledges that the question captures what it terms ‘weak affiliation’, which ‘includes those whose practising habits vary from none to frequent. This ranges from those who actively practice a religion to individuals who chose to declare an affiliation with a particular religion based on being christened or baptised, being married or wanting to get married in a church and wanting their children to be raised in a particular faith.’ ONS research also suggests that some people tick Christian simply because that was the religion they were brought up in – regardless of present beliefs or practices.

Through engagement running up to the Census, Humanists UK argued that this measure is not the most appropriate for decision-makers, where measures of religiosity based on belief or practice would be better as those correlate much more strongly with people’s service needs. However, the ONS rebuffed these efforts, largely based on the argument that statisticians would want the result to be comparable to the 2001 and 2011 Censuses. However, the ONS has now acknowledged that in ‘the 2021 Census topic consultation… there was… evidence of demand for data covering religious beliefs and practices. [We] plan to conduct an implementation review of the religion principle to identify how it is being used across government. The outcome of this review will inform future work in this area, which may include additional questions to measure concepts such as belief and practice.’

Notes:

For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at press@humanists.uk or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.

Visit the website of the 2021 Census campaign.

Read Humanists UK’s previous press releases on the campaign:

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

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