Trends indicating an increase in atheism and a decline in Christianity have been observed in Britain over the past decade. An early indicator was the British Social Attitudes survey in 2013 which reported that 50.6% of British people described themselves as non-religious. This is one of the first surveys that reported the percentage of non-religious people as the majority, a trend that has steadily continued since.
Christianity now a minority religion
This shift has become a much bigger focus since the release of the 2021 census data which confirmed the trend. While it still doesn’t show a majority adopting atheism, religiously non-affiliated represent 37% of the country, which is a 12% increase. The previous 2011 census revealed that 59.3% in England and Wales identified as Christian, a figure that has now dwindled to 46.2%, although Christianity in its multiple denominations remains the largest single defined religion.
Linda Woodhead, an academic specialising in religious studies and the sociology of religion at King’s College London, suggests discrepancies around percentages can be explained partly because “census forms are completed by a head of household on behalf of others, but older people in Britain today are much more likely than younger ones to say they have a religion, so heads of household may be inaccurately imputing their own identity to children”. This further suggests that the number of Christians is likely to be lower and the number of atheists is likely to be higher than the current census data shows.
Paganism, Wicca and shamanism
Another significant indicator in the 2021 census data is a move away from popular organised religions, not toward atheism but to paganism. Wicca, shamanism and other less common belief systems now rank in the most common religious identities outside the main six (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism and Sikhism).
There are now 74,000 pagans in Britain compared to 57,000 in 2011, as well as 13,000 Wiccans and 8,000 followers of various shamanistic traditions. Shamanism reportedly experienced the largest increase, since there were only 650 who identified as adherents in 2011.
New Age spirituality
Young people, aged 18–24, are the demographic overwhelmingly responsible for driving these changes, with many non-traditional religious practices grouped under the broad term spirituality. The hashtag ‘spirituality’ has received 15.3bn views on the social media app Tik Tok. Also referred to as ‘post-traditional spirituality’, these belief forms are often a patchwork of many practices and belief systems. They allow space for individualism where each person is ultimately able to decide what aligns best for them.
For many, the criticism of traditional religions lies in the rigidity of their rules; how these have been historically abused within religious hierarchies, and also how certain doctrines have perpetuated discrimination against minority groups.
Even young people who identify as atheists show an interest in New Age spirituality. While 30% of British people say they are spiritual, 46% believe that humans emit positive and negative vibrations and 44% believe in good and bad karma. Practices like astrology, meditation, and having a connection with nature are also increasingly popular among British people.
The meditation app Headspace has been downloaded over 65 million times, with most downloads occurring in the last three years. The NHS supports the app and offers free access to its employees while mindfulness meditation, rooted in Buddhist practice is now offered in many workplaces, classrooms, and even within the Houses of Parliament.
The search for meaning is a driving force in people’s lives, and the data clearly reveals that many are pursuing this on their own terms, rather than trying to find a path in mainstream religion.