Professing Christians in this country are declining by one and a half percentage points annually and, on present trends, ‘the number of people with no religion will overtake the number of Christians in Great Britain in twenty years’. This prediction is made in an article by Oliver Hawkins in the January 2012 edition of Social Indicators (House of Commons Library Research Paper 12/05), and updated on 14 February 2012. It is available at:
The analysis is based on the Government’s Labour Force Survey (LFS), a quarterly study of around 50,000 households (and 100,000 individuals), for 2004 to 2010 inclusive. The religion question asked in Great Britain (different wording was used in Northern Ireland, which is excluded from the following figures) was: ‘What is your religion even if you are not currently practising?’ Responses covered persons of all ages (since proxy replies were permitted).
The data indicate that between the fourth quarters of 2004 and 2010 professing Christians in Britain fell by 3,410,000 (or 8%), from 44,820,000 to 41,410,000, or by 570,000 each year. At the same time, the number of people with no religion increased by 4,380,000 (49%), from 9,010,000 to 13,390,000, equivalent to 730,000 per annum. Starting from lower baselines, there was also significant six-year growth in Buddhists (74%), Hindus (43%), Muslims (37%), and religions other than the main world faiths (57%).
The decline in Christian market share, from 78% in 2004 to 69% in 2010, would have been still more serious had it not been for the effect of net migration (which was at a substantial level during this period). Among those born outside the UK there were 730,000 more Christians in 2010 than in 2004, partly offsetting the fall of 4,140,000 in UK-born Christians. People with no religion were the most likely to be born in the UK (94%), albeit net migration also improved their numbers by 320,000 between 2004 and 2010. The majority of Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims were born outside the country, with migration accounting for 43% of the growth in the Muslim population.
From 2011 the LFS dropped the qualifying phrase ‘even if you are not currently practising’ and also altered the running order of response categories, moving no religion from last to first position. These changes had an immediate effect, comparing the fourth quarter of the 2010 LFS with the first quarter of 2011. In particular, the number of professing Christians reduced by a further 2,800,000 and of persons with no religion rose by 2,750,000, a 5% swing in religious allegiance. This is a graphic reminder of the effect which question formulation can have on religious data.
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