(CNSNews.com) – New census data released in Britain show that Islam is the fastest-growing religion in England and Wales, as the number of people identifying with no religion has almost doubled over the last 10 years, and the number of those describing themselves as Christian has dropped to 59 percent, down from 72 percent in 2001.
Major church denominations put a brave face on the results, arguing that people are less likely these days to call themselves Christian simply as a cultural indicator, and that those who say they are Christians tend to be committed to their faith.
“Christianity is no longer a religion of culture, but a religion of decision and commitment,” said a spokesman for the Catholic Church. “People are making a positive choice in self-identifying as Christians.”
A similar view came from a spokesman for the Archbishop’s Council of the (Anglican/Episcopalian) Church of England.
“One of the reasons [for the decline] may well be fewer people identifying as ‘Cultural Christians’ i.e. those who have no active involvement with churches and who may previously have identified as Christian for cultural or historical reasons,” said the Rev. Arun Arora. “They indicate a changing pattern of religious life in which traditional or inherited identities are less taken for granted than they used to be.”
The results of the 2011 census released this week apply to England and Wales only. Separate data from Scotland will be published shortly.
Of the total 56.07 million people counted in the census, 33.24 million described themselves as Christian. The number of self-identified Muslims rose to 2.7 million--an increase from 3.0 percent to 4.8 percent over a decade, making it the fastest-growing religion.
The Muslim Council of Britain welcomed the result, saying Muslims were playing “a significant part in the increasing diversity of Britain.”
Islam’s 2.7 million adherents make it the second-largest religion in England and Wales, far ahead of Hinduism (817,000), Sikhism (423,000), Buddhism (248,000) and Judaism (263,000).
Other mainstream and fringe faiths (including pagan, pantheist, wiccan, satanist, druid, “Jedi Knight” and others) lagged far behind, but the number of people declaring themselves to have no religion jumped to 14.4 million, from 7.7 million a decade ago. This means a full one-quarter of people in England and Wales now identify as having no faith.
In the U.S., by contrast, a 2007 Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey found 16.1 percent of respondents identified as “unaffiliated” with any particular religion, while in the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey the figure was 14.9 percent. (The U.S. Census Bureau is prohibited by law from asking questions on faith affiliation on a mandatory basis.)
British secularist groups did not conceal their delight, reiterating predictions that Christians could be in the minority within five years.
The British Humanist Association (BHA) had argued that the wording of the census form question – “What is your religion?” – was biased since it implied that every respondent has one. It campaigned to encourage people who are “not religious” to make that clear on the form, rather than simply tick a box reflecting family background or tradition.
“In spite of a biased question that positively encourages religious responses, to see such an increase in the non-religious and such a decrease in those reporting themselves as Christian is astounding,” commented BHA chief executive Andrew Copson.
He said it was time governments caught up to the fact that religion was “decreasingly relevant” and move away from state-funded religious schools and faith-based initiatives.
Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society said the census figures “should serve as a warning to the churches that their increasingly conservative attitudes are not playing well with the public at large.”
Arora, the Church of England spokesman, predicted that campaigning atheist groups would try to minimize the significance of the fact that a majority still identifies as Christian.
He noted drily that the total membership of groups like the BHA and National Security Society “would barely fill half of Old Trafford” – the home stadium of Manchester United.