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UK census: Under 50% of population identify as Christian; Buddhists overtake Jews

Those identifying as Muslim and those with no religion increase since 2011 census; archbishop of York says it is ‘no great surprise’ the Christian proportion is declining over time

Archbishop of York Stephen Geoffrey Cottrell, left, and The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby walk in central London, Sept. 14, 2022 ahead of the ceremonial procession of the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II, from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall, London. (Justin Tallis/Pool Photo via AP)
Archbishop of York Stephen Geoffrey Cottrell, left, and The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby walk in central London, Sept. 14, 2022 ahead of the ceremonial procession of the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II, from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall, London. (Justin Tallis/Pool Photo via AP)

LONDON — For the first time, less than half of the population in England and Wales identifies as Christian, according to census data released Tuesday.

The 10-yearly census carried out in 2021 showed rapid growth for the Muslim population, but “no religion” was the second most common response after Christian, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.

In an increasingly secular age, Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell said it was no “great surprise” that the Christian proportion was declining over time.

But he said that, facing a cost-of-living crisis and war in Europe, people still needed spiritual sustenance.

“We will be there for them, in many cases, providing food and warmth. And at Christmas millions of people will still come to our services,” said the archbishop.

“At the same time, we will be looking beyond our immediate surroundings, remembering we are part of a global faith, the largest movement on Earth and its greatest hope for a peaceful, sustainable future.”

Britain King Charles III and the Queen Consort are met by the Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell, left, as they arrive at York Minster to attend a short service for the unveiling of a statue of Queen Elizabeth II, and meet people from the Cathedral and the City of York, England, Nov. 9, 2022. (Danny Lawson/Pool Photo via AP)

The religion question was added to the UK census in 2001. It remains voluntary to answer, but 94% of respondents did, according to the ONS.

Some 27.5 million people or 46.2% in England and Wales described themselves as Christian, down 13.1 percentage points from 2011.

“No religion” rose by 12 points to 37.2% or 22.2 million, while Muslims stood at 3.9 million or 6.5% of the population, up from 4.9% before.

The next most common responses were Hindu (1.0 million) and Sikh (524,000), while Buddhists overtook Jewish people (273,000 to 271,000).

The ONS has been releasing key sections from last year’s census piecemeal, and the latest dealt with religion and ethnic identity.

Data for Scotland and Northern Ireland are released separately.

It found the number of people in England and Wales identifying their ethnic group as white had fallen by around 500,000 since 2011, from 86% to 81.7%.

The proportion identifying as white and from the British Isles stood at 74.4%, down six points from 2011.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby listens to debate at the General Synod in London, on Feb. 13, 2017. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

The category of “other white” grew, in a decade when Britain saw continued immigration from Eastern Europe both before and after its Brexit referendum in 2016. But the ONS noted that respondents could also choose from more options than in 2011, encouraging them to list other identities.

The second most common ethnic group after white was “Asian, Asian British or Asian Welsh” at 9.3%, up from 7.5% a decade ago.

Within that group, most respondents identified their family heritage as Indian, followed by Pakistani, “other Asian,” Bangladeshi and Chinese.

The next largest ethnic group was the fast-growing African population, followed by the Caribbean.

African evangelical churches have proliferated in London and elsewhere, providing some succor to the Christian share.

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