Online Tools for Analysing Religious Data: (1) The 2001 Census

About a month ago I gave a talk at an Open University M.A. workshop on researching religion using online resources (thanks to Stefanie Sinclair for inviting me). I will soon be writing up the material for a formal BRIN commentary paper, but thought it worth providing a summary of what we covered and the resources available here in advance of the finished version.

Many students researching religion are keen to run their own surveys and devise their own questions. For very specific and unresearched areas, this can be innovative and valuable. It’s helpful however to turn to the wealth of data resources which have already been created – often at great expense, and often virgin territory.

Furthermore, large-scale survey organisations are usually keen to maintain a reputation for quality, and so generally pre-test or pilot survey questions to ensure that responses seem valid and not triggered by very specific wording and use of emotional language. Many existing surveys also replicate questions from other surveys, so that responses can be compared between groups or over time. Student researchers running smaller surveys might also want to consider whether replicating questions might be useful for their own work.

Much of the data on is drawn from the 2001 Census and the 1983-2008 British Social Attitudes surveys, each of which can tell us a great deal about religion in Britain. For both of these datasets, online tools are available for capturing and analysing data. I’ll begin in this post by describing access to Census data.

The 2001 Census has been described in detail elsewhere (see the sources listed here), but it’s worth revisiting briefly.

England and Wales residents were asked, ‘‘What is your religion?’ with the following options provided: None; Christian; Buddhist; Hindu; Jewish; Muslim; Sikh; and Any other religion, please write in…..

The question followed questions on ethnicity and it is thought that people may have accordingly considered their religion in cultural or ethnic terms, as well as (or instead of)belief and religious practice.

In Scotland, the question wording was more specific:

What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?

None; Church of Scotland; Roman Catholic; Other Christian (please write in); Buddhist; Hindu; Jewish; Muslim; Sikh; Another religion (please write in).

In addition, Scottish residents were asked:

What religion, religious denomination or body were you brought up in?

None; Church of Scotland; Roman Catholic; Other Christian (please write in); Buddhist; Hindu; Jewish; Muslim; Sikh; Another religion (please write in).

Northern Ireland has a longer history of a religious question being included on the Census. The questions were:

Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion? (Yes; No)

If yes, what religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?

Roman Catholic; Presbyterian Church in Ireland; Church of Ireland; Methodist Church in Ireland; Other, please write in

If no, what religion, religious denomination or body were you brought up in?

Roman Catholic; Presbyterian Church in Ireland; Church of Ireland; Methodist Church in Ireland; Other, please write in

Notably, in England and Wales, unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland, the Christian category is not subdivided further. Nevertheless, we can still learn a good deal about religiosity in England and Wales – and at more local scales – through resources available online.

To get hold of Census data, there are various options.

For academic researchers with a UK Higher Education Federation login, you can go to CASweb to download aggregate data at any of the following scales: the country, the government office region, the county, the unitary authority, district authority, standard table ward, census area statistics ward, or output area. CASweb is user-friendly in that it’s straightforward to combine area-level variables. It’s also valuable in that it’s possible to download the data with geographical boundary information (as ESRI shapefiles), and to map the results.

Alternatively, Neighbourhood Statistics is available to all users. This website is a resource provided by the Office for National Statistics: there is no need to register, or use a UK Federation login. There are various ways of looking at Census religion data, for example by entering your postcode and selecting ward or local authority area. To get data on all areas, go to:

Click on ‘Topics’ on the left-hand side of the page, and then select ‘2001 Census: Census Area Statistics’. You can then select ‘Religion’, and choose to view online, or download. You can choose a specific region (North West, North East, etc), or ‘2003 Administrative Hierarchy’ for all regions. You can then save the data in Excel, CSV, or pdf file. The numbers belonging to each religious group or none is given for England, Wales, for Government Office Region, County, Local Authority, and Electoral Ward.

Finally, academic researchers can also go to to access individual-level data from the 1971-2001 censuses. You need to register, and once logged in, go to ‘Available Data’ and then ‘Microdata’. You will then need to access to download files as SPSS, Stata, or tab-delimited files. They can also be explored online, running simple analyses, using the Nesstar online analysis tool.

The following versions of the Census data are available:

  • The individual licensed SAR, a 3 per cent sample of individuals in the UK with 1.84 million records. Each individual record provides information on their age, sex, the region they live in, educational background, employment status, ethnicity, country of birth, and housing situation alongside religious affiliation. The size of the sample means that it’s possible to examine minority groups in much greater detail.
  • The Individual Controlled Access Microdata Sample (I-CAMS) provides a more detailed version of the individual SAR and can be accessed, following approval of a research proposal, in a secure environment at the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
  • There is also a Special Licence Household SAR (2001 H-SAR) released for England and Wales only, with a 1 % file providing details on individuals in the same family and in the same household. Access can be obtained through an ONS Special Licence from the UK Data Archive. Users have to agree to protect the data during their research to maintain confidentiality.
  • The Household Controlled Access Microdata Sample (Household CAMS) provides full detail on all variables in each file, and also includes data for Scotland and Northern Ireland. The file can be accessed in a secure environment at the ONS, again following approval of a research proposal.
  • Finally, the Small Area Microdata file (2001 SAM) is a 5% sample of individuals in the UK, with 2.96 million cases. The local authority is also identified for England and Wales respondents, council area for Scottish respondents, and parliamentary constituencies for Northern Ireland residents. However, because of the greater geographical detail, the individual-level detail is less than in the individual 3% SAR – again to protect anonymity.

More information is available on The site also provides customised subsets in SPSS or Stata formats, which may be helpful and accessible if you are still learning how to handle such data. I’ve only worked with the aggregate and individual SAR datasets so far and found plenty to be getting on with.

In my next post I’ll describe what is available for the British Social Attitudes survey, but hope this is helpful for now.

British Religion in Numbers: All the material published on this website is subject to copyright. We explain further here.

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