In this Blog, our Development Director Tim Thorlby delves into the Census to explore some of the evidence about one of East London’s fastest growing religious groups – the one without any religion at all….
Recently, the Anglican Bishop of Stepney circulated a weighty tome of data about his area in east London – the Stepney Contextual Survey 2013. His researcher has pulled together lots of about the Stepney Area – Islington, Hackney and Tower Hamlets – and painted a statistical picture of this deprived and diverse area and how it is changing. It is certainly not light bedtime reading, but it contains some fascinating observations.
Part of the Survey is about people’s (self-declared) religious identity, drawn from the 2011 Census. Stepney is one of the most religiously diverse areas in the UK. So, although it shows that Christians remain overall the largest group in the area (35%), there are plenty of other religious groups too – including a significant Muslim community. But which is the second largest group after Christians….? That would be those who described themselves as having ‘No religion’ – at 25% of the population.
This is in line with the rest of England and Wales, where one in four people also ticked the same box of ‘No Religion’, and up since 2001. (The least religious area in England? Norwich, at 42.5%. No, we have no idea why either.)
A bit of further digging on the Office for National Statistics website reveals a wide variation in the prevalence of people with ‘No religion’ across London, as you might expect. And right down at the neighbourhood level (‘Lower Super Output Area’ if you want to be technical) I found the only two neighbourhoods in London where more than 50% of the population described themselves as having ‘No religion’. Where were they? Stoke Newington and Shoreditch. Also two of the trendiest parts of Hackney.
So what are we to make of this? Are these London’s foremost “Atheist Neighbourhoods”? Or perhaps they are the vanguard of a “Post-Religious Britain”?
Hmm. A bit of further digging suggests that very few people who have ‘no religion’ describe themselves as ‘atheists’. In fact in London, of the 1.7 million people with ‘no religion’, only 5,439 people chose the label ‘atheist’, easily outnumbered by the 21,337 Jedi Knights. Yes, you are four times more likely to meet a Jedi Knight in London today than you are to meet an atheist. Atheists did at least outnumber those 732 people relaying on Heavy Metal to get them through life. (The smallest group? ‘Realists’. But I guess they won’t be surprised by that.)
So, these aren’t Atheist Neighbourhoods at all. Nor are they likely to be Post-Religion Neighbourhoods either –i.e. full of people who have rejected formal religion – as the stats suggest that these are more likely to be younger people who have never been part of any formal religion to begin with but who may be quite open minded about spiritual matters. A recent report by Theos, The Spirit of Things Unseen, provides some interesting evidence on this – highlighting how many people in Britain today have strongly spiritual beliefs and practices, even when they don’t belong to any formal religion.
Maybe a better label for these neighbourhoods then is “Pre-Religion Neighbourhoods” – areas full of young people who have perhaps never thought much about religious faith, but who may be rather open minded about life, its meaning and where they are heading. So churches which take the trouble to reach out and love their neighbours may find them surprisingly receptive?