Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Census 2011 : Losing our religion?

Is Wales turning its back on established religions?
What are we embracing instead?
In my second visit to the census data, it's time to look at another one of the more dramatic changes compared to 2001 – an increasingly secular Wales.

As a humanist scientist, who's put on record his support for a secular state, you would expect me to perhaps welcome that development. However, I think the picture's a little more complicated than that.

Believe it or not, I still think there's a place for religion - or at the very least some sort of personal worldview - which you can have even if you don't believe in God(s). It's just the warping of these beliefs or forcing them on non-believers that I object to.

What does the picture look like in Wales? And what might it mean for us as a nation?


Wales is still, just about, a majority self-identifying Christian nation. However, the falls in the numbers identifying themselves as Christian are quite dramatic.

As you can see from this first map, all Welsh local authorities have a Christian majority (with the exception of Blaenau Gwent, which is just below 50%).

Christians as a % of the population per
local authority
(Click to enlarge)

The local authority average/mean Christian population was 72.6% in 2001. In the space of ten years that's fallen to 58.5%. The overall national figure is slightly worse at 57.6%. Flintshire has the highest percentage at 66.5%, with all north Wales local authorities – except Gwynedd – above 60%. The only obvious pattern is that rural Wales is significantly more Christian than urban south Wales.

That could be because they're "older" in demographic terms - and church attendances and adherence has traditionally been stronger amongst older generations. It could be that there's a stronger legacy of non-conformism in these parts of Wales.

How precisely has this changed?

The lowest fall in the Christian population compared to 2001 was a "mere" 12.3% in Monmouthshire. The average drop across all Welsh authorities was 14.1%, with 15%+ falls in seven local authorities – the sharpest in Bridgend at 17%.

These authorities already had some of the lowest percentage of Christians in general terms. Though it does appear, on the basis of both figures, that Christianity is holding up relatively well compared to the rest of Wales in the former county of Dyfed (Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire).

Percentage change in the numbers of
Christians 2001-2011
(Click to enlarge)

I couldn't find any denominational breakdown of the figures, so it's hard to tell which particular church is losing the most members. Logically, you've got to presume it's the two big establishment churches – the Anglican Church in Wales and Catholicism.

The picture is also complicated as Wales' non-conformist tradition means there are more active denominations than other parts of EnglandandWales, except perhaps Cornwall and Greater London. These denominations, especially more evangelical ones (Baptists, Pentecostals), tend to be spread out a bit more and have small, but very loyal groups of worshippers.


The number of Welsh Muslims has more than doubled, from 0.7% of the population in 2001 to 1.5% in 2011- around 46,000 people. That's still pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things nationally.

There's a local authority average/mean of 1%, however this is distorted by Cardiff (6.8%), Swansea (2.3%) and Newport (4.7%). Cardiff's Muslim population has increased by around two-thirds compared to 2001 (3.7%).

In nearly all other Welsh local authorities the Muslim community is comfortably below 1%, with the (perhaps surprising) exception of Gwynedd (1.1%).

Judaism, Eastern religions and Other religions

The largest religion in Wales other than
 Christianity or Islam is Hinduism.
(Pic : bhujmandir.org)
To be frank, other than Christianity and Islam the other religions are – in statistical terms – practically non-existent in Wales as a whole. But obviously they still have thousands of worshippers on the ground.
  • Jews – 0.1% of the population
  • Sikhs – 0.1%
  • Buddhists – 0.3%
  • Hindus – 0.3%
  • Other Religions – 0.4%

There have been concerns expressed about the terminal decline of Wales' Jewish population, however it appears to have held up compared to 2001, with only a small fall (~300) in the number of Welsh Jews, most of whom live in Cardiff.

However, Sikhism, Buddhism and Hinduism have all seen increases, but only Hinduism had more then 10,000 Welsh believers in 2011, with Buddhism close behind it. Once again, you're more likely to find worshippers of these faiths in the three main cities (Swansea, Cardiff, Newport). That could be down to students from India and China studying at Welsh universities, or that long-established communities have grown in that time, topped up with modest levels of immigration.

"Other Religions" have almost doubled. I'm not sure what would be included under this label, but presumable smaller religions like : Zoroastrianism (Cardiff's Iranian community), Shinto, Celtic Paganism/New Age Paganism, Wicca, Satanists and people putting down Jedis, Klingons, Football etc. If Welsh/Celtic Paganism made a comeback that would be....interesting. I don't think any of us need wake in a cold sweat over the Hounds of Annwn anytime soon though.

But, as all you heathens out there should know, there is only one true religion. Worship, brothers and sisters, at the altar of steel :


Irreligious & Religion not stated

The other dramatic change is the rise in the number of non-religious people. That doesn't mean exclusively that they're atheist, it could perhaps include the "not religious, but spiritual" people and agnostics. In fact, compared to 2001, the numbers not stating a religion (instead of non-religious) fell slightly.

Overall there was a combined average 13.2% rise in irreligious and non-stated per local authority. However, it's fair and right to point out that in 2011, no Welsh local authority had a non-religious majority. That's rapidly changing though

Percentage of the population irreligious or
religion not stated.
(Click to enlarge)

As you can see, the numbers of irreligious and non-stated religious are more heavily weighted towards the south Wales valleys than elsewhere.South Wales is now, arguably, amongst the least religious parts of the UK and in the next census, it will probably be Blaenau Gwent, Caerphilly or RCT that become the first Welsh local authorities to have a non-religious majority. That contrasts with north east Wales, where religions are holding up perhaps slightly better than the rest of the country.

In terms of how it's changed compared to 2001, the sharpest rises were again in the south of Wales. Bridgend, Caerphilly and Torfaen saw the joint-sharpest rises at 14.8%. Cardiff had the slowest rise at 11.6%, perhaps because there's a more diverse population there.

Percentage change in people describing
themselves as irreligious or religious not stated
(Click to enlarge)

It's hard to tell if these people have simply ditched the Christian label since 2001. It's also pretty hard to give any reasons precisely why there's been such a dramatic change.

I don't think scientific rationality has replaced faith to a great degree. I don't think it's because everyone has suddenly taken to dressing like vampires and listening to My Dying Bride either. I think it's probably that in some parts of Wales, a sense of faith tied to community has been replaced with a browbeaten fatalism, you could even say nihilism, as a result of the condition their communities have been in for decades.

If that were turned into a bottom-up secular communitarianism it could be a positive in the long run, but I think that's a big, big ask as it flies in the face of political and economic realities in Wales. I'd like to retain some hope that it could happen though.

What could this mean for Wales?

This is probably going to become an increasingly common
sight over the next 10-20 years unless Christian churches can
turn around the decline in attendances.
(Pic : ITV Wales)
Wales is still, for now, a "Christian country" – Although there have been colossal falls in the numbers of people identifying as Christians since 2001, they are still a healthy majority in Wales. Based on the trend, I don't think it's too outlandish to suggest that Wales will probably cease being a majority Christian country between the 2021 and 2031 censuses.

Churches need to take a look at themselves – I'm convinced the falls are terminal unless Christian churches adapt to life in the 21st century. That could come down to how worship is conducted. It looks as though the Church in Wales is starting to look at that, but will it be too little, too late? It might well come down to some core Christian beliefs no longer seeming relevant to younger generations in particular. Re-evaluating these beliefs and their interpretations might be a step too far for many denominations. I'm not sure if churches will be satisfied with a social role reduced to just conducting christenings, weddings and funerals.

Wales is rapidly secularising
– This could have massive social and political implications. It could mean changes in policy such as school "daily acts of worship" in the medium-term. It could perhaps mean that right-wing parties in Wales are going to have to become more socially liberal. It probably means that pseudo-religious phrases like "family values" and "moral majority" are going to have very little political clout in Wales. It also means a materialistic evidence-based approach to some public policy issues – abortion and same sex marriage for example – might be increasingly more palatable to the Welsh as a whole.

Question marks over the future and relevance of faith schools - I don't think this is that big an issue. As long as there is demand for faith-based education, then it'll be provided somehow, just like Welsh medium education. If both parents and pupils alike are questioning/rejecting faiths in increasing numbers, then you have to wonder what role faith-based schools are going to play in the future - perhaps their very existence in the long-term.

Considering Wales' history of non-conformism, it's (somewhat) understandable
that Wales is targeted by evangelical groups. However, attempts to
convert or create a "Bible Belt" aren't working and probably never will work.
(Pic : Yahoo News)

Attempts by Christian evangelicals to create a "Bible Belt" in Wales are doomed – We've seen a lot of groups come to Wales over the last decade, bringing some really quite hardcore "fire and brimstone" views with them under the guise of community work or missionary work. They've been targeting parts of west Wales in particular. Some even end up with public money, perhaps an excuse by local authorities to offload responsibilities. The hard evidence says this isn't working and they're not really converting many new people, perhaps just making the inevitable decline a little bit slower by being quick to adopt modern ways of proselytising.

Wales is still relatively monocultural – With the exceptions of Cardiff, Swansea and Newport, Wales remains fairly homogeneous compared to vast chunks of England. I imagine this will be reflected in the ethnicity figures as well, which will be my next port of call.


  1. Another interesting post.

    A few more things we should consider. As you point out Christianity is holding up in Dyfed, this is partly due to evangelical groups (probably mostly English incomers) trying to build up a Welsh bible belt, but we also need to consider the number of middle class English retirees moving into the region, (and rural Wales in general) they are far more likely to be religious than the local people due to age and class.

    In particular they are likely to be Anglicans, and will soon be a majority in many Church in Wales congregations, if they aren't already. Given that it seems a distinct possibility that the Church in Wales will be re-integrated into the Church of England, with disestablishment effectively reversed. In their campaign against same sex marriage (and their demand that they be treated in exactly the same way as the established CofE) and the election of the Archbishop of Canterbury that are increasingly acting as a part of the CofE rather than an independent church.

    I also suspect that the rise in the number of 'no religion' identifiers is because Christianity has increasingly become an active rather than a passive identity. By that I mean that there was a time when growing up in a Welsh community you were likely to identify as a Christian unless you were specifically a member of another religion, or if you believed in vaguely defined 'Christian values.' It was the default identity.

    Over the last few decades many Christian spokesmen have been increasingly vocal in insisting that only someone who has accepted the Lord Jesus as their personal saviour and is a 'paid up' member of the Church can truly be a Christian. An increasing number of them also insist in the the literal truth of the Bible (the creation of the world in 4004 BC, the Garden of Eden etc.) as essential if you are to be considered a true Christian.

    Hence, 'Christian' is increasingly seen as an identity which must be actively adopted, the default identity being 'non-religious.'

    Christianity is therefore becoming a smaller but ideologically 'purer' group.

  2. Thanks, Welsh Agenda.

    It depends on the sort of middle class English person moving here. Your Guardianista good-lifer might be more likely to adopt some sort of new age "I want to be a tree" philosophy - and Wales has a much of them out west as we do Colonel Blimp UKIPer's who want to bring back "an eye for an eye".

    I think you make a good point re. "dis-disestablishment". Maria Miller practically ignored the Church in Wales' independence a few months ago on that issue. I think the Church in Wales has always been an English church in Wales anyway, the hint's in the name - in Wales, not "of" Wales. Similarly it's a National Assembly "for" Wales - as if it's a gift bestowed upon us by the kindness of establishment hearts - instead of "of Wales".

    I wanted to make the same point as you about Christianity becoming an active idenity than passive, but I think you put it better than I could have. "Smaller, but ideologically purer group" hits the nail on the head. But I think if that happens, those of us who support a secular state can just sit back and watch it happen naturally.

    A few bad headlines about dodgy beliefs and it's the beginning of the end. Far from everyone else having to walk on eggshells to avoid offending religious groups, I think it'll have to be the other way around from now on to prevent their own decline and eventual extinction. There's something delightfully....Darwinian about that.

  3. Owen

    It's the church in Wales not the Church of Wales because it's one body among many not the state church ....... you seem to have forgotten about Disestablishment. Actually I think there's a tendency to over-estimate the historical patriotism of the non-conformists while under-estimating that of the Anglicans

    "Colonel Blimp UKIPer's who want to bring back "an eye for an eye" - Wouldn't that be better applied to our Islamic compatriots or at least that newer element who have emerged in Cardiff of late.

  4. VBasically Owen, the 'intellectual' Welsh speakers (I'm using this term very losely and not implying that Christians aren't intellectuals) have given up on religion.

    There'r s general feeling of 'we've been there, we've done that, we spent our lives in chapel and what's it left us - nothing'. Frankly, we've wasted enough time on religion in the 19th and early 20th century when we should have been creating a secular nationalist movement.

    In the past religion was a subsitute for Welsh identity and was the only place in society where a Welsh speaker could have respect and a career path in his own language. In that respect it was similar to Islam to young Muslims in the UK. Those times are gone. If a bunch of English settlers want to waste their time on religion, fine, but as Welsh-speakers we've given religion too much time and we lost our language and didn't fight for our national rights because of it.


  5. Thanks for the extra comments.

    Anon 22:47 - You're right, thanks for correcting me on disestablishment. However, the two Irelands don't have an official established church and their Anglican church is the autonomous Church of Ireland. Similarly the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Why shouldn't the Church (of England) in Wales be the Church of Wales?

    As for Islamists (as opposed to Muslims), you have a point. But I consider all those on the extremes of faith equally equally committed as dragging us back to the Dark Ages. They should be pitied, not feared.

    Anon 09:38 - Good points, but a secular movement wouldn't/shouldn't really care what religious beliefs anyone would have. As for career paths, the media and arts (perhaps politics too) has probably just simply replaced the chapel as a career of standing and respect for Welsh-speakers. I don't think it's people turning their back on it as such as though it never meant anything, just outgrowing it in other ways as Wales/Welsh was brought back from the dead (even if it's still on life support).

  6. Good post and comments. As a liberal Christian, I would argue that the type of Christianity practiced in Wales over the years has never achieved the full liberating potential outlined by Christ himself.As things stand at present, secularism might seem to be the only game in town, but it could be argued that Christianity( both the liberal and fundamental versions) are now part of the counter-culture, and that's no bad thing. Following 30 years of reckless capitalism, we are now mired in a serious economic crisis, and I sense that people in Wales are actively seeking new answers, and for me, those need to include a spiritual dimension.

    But, that must be a reformed spirituality suitable for today, incorporating the timeless religious truths with all the modern insights we have gained from such fields as psychology, arts, science and medicine.

  7. Thanks, Anon 13:28.

    I think some sections of Christianity - in particular Unitarians - have great potential to replace the more established denominations if they can make their voices heard. It doesn't do the bigger churches any good that in this day and age there's still arguments over issues like women bishops and gay marriage. I think some sections have become too focused on hierarchical squabbles and getting directly involved in public policy instead of being - for want of a better description - "the nation's soul".

    I think there's a lot going for some of teachings of major established religions, probably best encapsulated in "Do unto others". I think we could all do with a healthy dose of Buddhism's teachings on suffering being the result of (material) desire too. Those cross boundaries whether you're athiest, agnostic or not.

  8. According to the Church in Wales:

    "The Church in Wales adopted its name rather by accident. The Welsh Church Act 1914 referred throughout to "the Church in Wales", the phrase being used to indicate the part of the Church of England within Welsh territory. In 1920, a convention of the Welsh Church considered what name to select and tended to favour "the Church of Wales". However, there were concerns that adopting a name different from that mentioned in the act might cause legal problems. Given the situation, it seemed sensible to adopt the title "the Church in Wales".

    source: http://www.churchinwales.org.uk/swanbrec/tourism/history/

    Certainly in 1909, that part of the Church of England in Wales was referred to as the 'Church in Wales' see

  9. Thanks for the extra info, Anon 18:57. Interesting read, but I suppose that does make sense. I guess there would be too many hoops to jump through to get things changed, but I do wonder if the Assembly would be able to change the name if it requires legislation (and if it were requested by the Church in Wales).