Irreligion in the United Kingdom

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Religion in the United Kingdom (2015 research)[1]

  Church of England (37.9%)
  Catholic Church (8.7%)
  Other Christian (13.2%)
  None (29.7%)
  Islam (5.1%)
  Other religions (3.6%)
  Not stated (1.7%)

Irreligion in the United Kingdom is prevalent, and British society is one of the most thoroughly secularized in the world. Agnosticism, nontheism, atheism, secular humanism, and more so casual non-affiliation or apathy, are common. At least 33% of Britons, and over 50% in some[citation needed] recent polls, do not identify with any faith when surveyed. Some 40%[citation needed] of Britons do not believe in a deity, and some 15% are agnostic. While non-affiliation is the primary indicator, objective irreligion does not necessarily correlate with it. A third of Anglicans polled in a 2013 survey doubted the existence of God, while 15% of those with no religion believed in some higher power, and deemed themselves "spiritual" or even "religious."[2]

Freedom to be irreligious had been limited by the country's blasphemy law, which punished criticism and mockery of Christianity, particularly the state Church of England. The last conviction was in 1977, with the law being abolished in England and Wales in 2008 and Scotland in 2021. Similar offences remain in statute Northern Ireland, and remain theoretically incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998 and European Convention on Human Rights.


Organised activism for irreligion in the United Kingdom derived its roots from the legacy of British nonconformists. The South Place Religious Society, which would later become associated with the Ethical movement, was founded in 1793 as an organisation of Philadelphians or Universalists.

In 1811 “The Necessity of Atheism” was published by a young Oxford student, Percy Bysshe Shelley. It was one of the first printed, open avowals of irreligion in England.

The Oracle of Reason, the first avowedly-atheist periodical publication in British history, was published from 1841 to 1843 by Charles Southwell. It suffered from numerous imprisonments of its staff, including Southwell, George Holyoake and Thomas Paterson, for missives deemed "blasphemous" by the authorities (Holyoake was the last person in Britain convicted of blasphemy in a public lecture). Holyoake took to publishing The Movement (1842–1845) following his six-month sentence, which later became The Reasoner (1845–1860) and shifted to a larger focus on social issues facing the British working class, increasing the publication's readership. It was during this time that Holyoake developed his idea for the replacement of Christianity with an ethical system based upon science and reason, terming his proposal "secularism".[3]


George Holyoake's coining of the word secularism in 1851 offered the English-speaking world the clarification of the nascent movement for separation of religion and state. The National Secular Society, founded in 1866 by politician Charles Bradlaugh, spearheaded the advocacy for freeing citizens from absolute government requirements involving religious observances; the Leicester Secular Society was founded in 1851. Bradlaugh's 1880 election to Parliament brought on a decade-long dispute over the demanded right to affirm declarations of office rather than swear oaths, as he was denied his seat for five years by a ruling that he had no right to affirm and resolutions preventing him from swearing an oath. When Bradlaugh was ultimately admitted in 1886, he took up the issue and saw the Oaths Act 1888 passed, which confirmed the right to optionally affirm declarations for inaugurations to office and offering testimony to government bodies.[4]

In 1881, The Freethinker began circulation as Britain's longest-running humanist periodical. In 1896, the Union of Ethical Societies was formed in the United Kingdom by American Stanton Coit as a union of pre-existing British Ethical movement societies; this group would later become known as the Ethical Union and the British Humanist Association.[5] In 1899, the Rational Press Association was formed by a group of free-thinkers including Charles Albert Watts and George Holyoake.

Meanwhile, the South Place Religious Society became further aligned with organised secularist advocacy during the tenure of Moncure D. Conway as minister of the congregation; Conway, an American Unitarian minister who served from 1864–1885 and 1892–1897, moved the congregation further away from doctrinal Unitarianism, and spent the break in his tenure (during which Stanton Coit served in his stead) writing a biography of American revolutionary ideologue Thomas Paine. In 1888, the South Place Religious Society became the South Place Ethical Society, now known as the Conway Hall Ethical Society.

20th century[edit]

Richard Dawkins has been a significant figure in irreligion since the 1970s

The 1960s were a significant time for irreligion, as the Ethical Union rebranded as the British Humanist Association, which went on to co-found the International Humanist and Ethical Union and create a symbol for humanism, the Happy Human.[5] Broadcasters such as Margaret K. Knight sensationalised Britain with open advocacy of non-religious values and secular education.[6] Senior figures in the British humanist movement went out to take on leading roles in institutions such as UNESCO, the World Health Organization, and the Food and Agriculture Organization.[7]

John William Gott, a working man of Bradford, West Yorkshire, attacked religion, especially Christianity, seeing it as reducing the opportunity for a socialist revolution. His lectures on rationalism and scepticism, and anti-Christian pamphlets, saw him jailed for blasphemy in 1911. Liberal Prime Minister H. H. Asquith was one of a group of Members of Parliament who proposed an ultimately unsuccessful piece of legislation to abolish blasphemy offences. Gott was jailed again ten years later for a pamphlet showing Jesus as a clown, and died in 1922 soon after his nine-month sentence which included hard labour despite his worsening physical condition. There was a public backlash against his sentence.[8]

Gott was the last Briton jailed for blasphemy, but the offence remained a technical crime through common law until being abolished in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who first came to prominence in 1976 following the release of The Selfish Gene, increasingly figured in British irreligion with the release of his 1986 work The Blind Watchmaker, in which he argued in favour of evolutionary natural selection as opposed to intelligent design and creationism.

21st century[edit]

The City of Norwich, according to the United Kingdom's 2011 census, is the most irreligious local authority in England, with 42.5% professing no religious affiliation.

In the 21st century, New Atheism became a popular topic of debate, support and critique in the United Kingdom. Dawkins' 2006 book The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens' 2007 book God Is Not Great were considered emblematic works of the era among British authors, and Dawkins advocated for the Brights movement.[9] The Atheist Bus Campaign was inaugurated during this time, in which advertisements on double-decker buses were purchased by the British Humanist Association in order to advocate non-belief in the supernatural; the campaign caused controversy and complaints to authorities, but soon spread to other countries and continents, taking root in the United States as a variety of atheist billboard campaigns.[10] A 2009 survey of 1,000 teenagers aged 13 to 18 reports that two-thirds of British teenagers do not believe in God.[11]

The rise in irreligion was confirmed in the UK's 2011 census, which saw irreligion rise from 7.7 million in 2001 to 14.1 million, a rise of 10.3 percentage points. The local authority in England with the highest level of irreligion was Norwich, the county town of Norfolk, where the level was 42.5%.[citation needed] Religion has the least influence on youth.[12] According to the 2011 census, 25% of England has no religion, 7% of Northern Ireland,[13] one third in Scotland and one-third of Wales.[14] In 2015, over 110 Parliamentarians in the UK are members of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, which means the non-religious have substantial representation among MPs and Lords.[15]

According to YouGov, Christianity is perceived to be on the decline.[16][17] Mori Polls have shown that British Christians support a secular state.[18][19][20] Britons are amongst the most skeptical about religion.[21]

Statistics from the Office of National Statistics published in 2019 showed that the number of non-religious people in Britain has increased by 46% since 2011 (up to a total of 39% of the population), with over 8 million more people declaring that they do not belong to any religious group. As well as this, the figures also show a 15% decline in the number of people identifying as Christian.[22][23]

Humanists UK is the most prominent organisation espousing irreligion in Britons. The organisation supports the United Kingdom becoming a secular state.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "United Kingdom". Association of Religion Data Archives. 2015. Retrieved 18 May 2020.
  2. ^ Linda Woodhead, “No Religion” is the New Religion, Westminster Faith Debates, 2013; The Rise of ‘No Religion’ in Britain: The Emergence of a New Cultural Majority, Journal of the British Academy, 2016.
  3. ^ "George Holyoake : Biography". Retrieved 27 February 2019.
  4. ^ Schumaker, John F. (15 October 1992). Religion and Mental Health - Google Books. ISBN 9780195361490. Retrieved 9 August 2012.
  5. ^ a b "Our History since 1896". Retrieved 2 November 2013.
  6. ^ "Margaret Knight". Retrieved 13 May 2016.
  7. ^ Pollock, David. "Humanism: Beliefs and Values". Retrieved 13 May 2016.
  8. ^ "John Gott". Retrieved 18 August 2013.
  9. ^ James Wood (26 August 2011). "The New Atheism | Books". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 9 August 2012.
  10. ^ Andrew Brown (26 April 2012). "The persistence of superstition in an irreligious Britain | Andrew Brown | Comment is free |". London: Guardian. Retrieved 9 August 2012.
  11. ^ "Two thirds of teenagers don't believe in God". London: The Daily Telegraph. 22 June 2009. Retrieved 9 August 2012.
  12. ^ "British Youth reject Religion". Retrieved 18 August 2013.
  13. ^ Devenport, Mark (11 December 2012). "BBC News - Census figures: NI Protestant population continuing to decline". Retrieved 28 September 2013.
  14. ^ "BBC News - Census 2011: One third in Wales have no religion". 11 December 2012. Retrieved 28 September 2013.
  15. ^ "Humanists in Parliament". British Humanist Association. British Humanist Association. Retrieved 9 July 2015.
  16. ^ "Hard evidence: is Christianity dying in Britain?". Retrieved 27 November 2013.
  17. ^ "Secularism in Britain". YouGov. Retrieved 6 September 2013.
  18. ^ "Religious and Social Attitudes of UK Christians in 2011" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 29 October 2013. Retrieved 28 September 2013.
  19. ^ "Christians don't want religion to 'influence public life'". London: Telegraph. 14 February 2012. Retrieved 28 September 2013.
  20. ^ "Ye of little faith". Prospect Magazine. Retrieved 17 February 2015.
  21. ^ "UK among most sceptical in world about religion". The Daily Telegraph. London. 17 April 2014.
  22. ^ "Religion by Local Authority, Great Britain, 2011 to 2018 - Office for National Statistics". Retrieved 26 March 2020.
  23. ^ "Number of non-religious people in Britain jumps by 46%, new figures show". Humanists UK. Retrieved 26 March 2020.
  24. ^ "Secularism". Humanists UK. Retrieved 29 September 2020.