Data from the 2011 Census has been available to the public since late 2012, but internet users can now visualise the geographical distribution of these data across England and Wales, thanks to DataShine, a data visualisation tool developed by Oliver O’Brien at UCL’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis. This tool can be used to see how ethnicity, age, levels of education, deprivation, self-rated health and many more variables are distributed across England and Wales. However, writing for The Guardian, Nick Mead drew attention to DataShine under the headline ‘Where do all the atheists live?’ claiming that the tool shows the ‘godless cities’ of England and Wales.
One of the so-called ‘no religion hotspots’ is Brighton (figure 1).
Maps of other cities seem to indicate striking differences in the distribution of ‘no religion’. For example, the map for Sheffield (Figure 2, below) suggests that there is a large concentration of ‘no religion’ in the western central part of the city.
However, the religious and nonreligious populations are not as segregated as these maps may imply. To understand what these maps show, we need to return to the source of data – the Census. Residents of England and Wales were asked ‘What is your religion?’ and invited to respond by selecting a religion from a list, shown in Figure 3 (below). This was the only voluntary question on the Census, and 7.2% of people chose not to answer it. 59.3% of the population of England and Wales (33.2 million people) selected ‘Christian’ as their answer. 25.1% (14.1 million) selected ‘no religion’. Muslims were the next largest group, with 4.8% of the population (2.7 million people) selecting this answer (Office for National Statistics, 2012).
It is important to remember that people selecting the option ‘no religion’ might not regard themselves as atheists. Some may be agnostic, or ‘spiritual but not religious’, or they might be undecided and exploring their religious options. Deciding how to describe this group of people is always difficult, but in general researchers today prefer the terms ‘religious nones’ or ‘no religionists’ to ‘atheists’.
In claiming that DataShine shows the ‘godless cities’ of England and Wales, Nick Mead’s article in The Guardian draws on a long history of sociological thought which associated the decline of religion with urbanisation and industrialisation. Using DataShine, patterns of religion and nonreligion appear more striking in areas with the greatest population density (cities). Zoom out and rural areas appear largely grey, with only a smattering of coloured points. This is because only residential buildings are coloured – grey areas represent public buildings, parks and undeveloped land (amongst other things).
This map, produced by the Office for National Statistics, shows the distribution of those selecting ‘no religion’ across England and Wales. DataShine users may have the impression that, whilst levels of ‘no religion’ vary within and between cities, it is nevertheless an urban phenomenon. Figure 4 demonstrates that some more rural areas also have high levels of ‘no religion’ – notably large parts Wales, East Anglia and the South West peninsula.
Enclaves of no religion?
Dr. Jerry Coyne, reviewing the DataShine tool on his blog Why Evolution is True, declares that ‘…it’s clear that cities do have enclaves divided by faith’. Does this supposed religious enclaving extend to nonreligion?
Each map of religion (and no religion) is shaded so as to indicate how that area compares to the national average for the religion in question. For example, the overall national level of ‘no religion’ was 25.1%. In DataShine’s maps of ‘no religion’ , red and orange indicate areas where less than 25.1% of the local population selected this answer, whilst blue indicates a greater level of nonreligion compared to the national average. The darkest shade of blue mean that between 39.5% and 100% of local residents selected ‘no religion’ – a range of 60.5 percentage points; while bright red means that fewer than 10% gave that answer – a range of only 10 percentage points. The large range associated with dark blue in this case gives the impression that there could be areas where 100% of the population gave the response ‘no religion’. However, this is misleading: closer inspection reveals that even in the supposedly ‘godless cities’ of Brighton and Norwich, it is rare for levels of ‘no religion’ to climb beyond 55%.
Figure 5 shows the same geographical area as Figure 1 – Brighton, adjusted to show reported levels of ‘Christianity’. Comparing the two maps, we see that the areas of Brighton with the highest levels of nonreligion also have the lowest levels of Christianity. In Figure 5, shades of red and orange show areas where the proportion of people selecting ‘Christian’ was below the national average of 59.3%. However, this means that the bright red in Figure 5, suggesting low levels of Christianity, could include areas where no one selected the option ‘Christian’ as well as areas where 40% of the local population selected this answer.
Since ‘low’ and ‘high’ are relative term in these maps, it is possible that there could be an area with a ‘low’ level of Christianity and a ‘high’ level of ‘no religion’, but where the proportion selecting the answer ‘Christian’ was still higher than the proportion selecting ‘no religion’. In many areas around Hove, which have ‘high’ levels of no religion and ‘low’ levels of Christianity, the proportions selecting ‘Christian’ and ‘no religion’ were quite similar. In one area, 41.3% of the population selected ‘Christian’ and 41.6% of the population selected ‘no religion’. A person living here would have a roughly equal chance of their neighbours being Christian or ‘religious nones’ (and a much smaller chance that they might affiliate with any other religion) – an experience quite different to the enclaves of ‘no religion’ that users might imagine at first glance.
In 1978, Thomas Lee Philpot introduced the term ‘dually segregated’ to describe the distribution of the black population of Chicago: there were areas where nearly the entire population was black and, furthermore, nearly all black people lived in those areas. The Census data for England and Wales indicate that, although there are areas where there are more ‘religious nones’ than the national average, they are not dually segregated. In fact, we might call them ‘dually diluted’. Areas with relatively high proportions of religious nones nevertheless have large proportions of people identifying as Christian (and also smaller proportions of people affiliating with other religions); religious nones also live outside these areas where they are most frequently found.
DataShine enables the public to interact with the data which they provided by completing the Census in 2011. Identifying patterns of colouration is only the first step in understanding these maps – users also need look carefully at what each colour means. Users who interpret these maps with caution are also able to sceptically evaluate media claims about what the maps represent.
Office for National Statistics. (2012). Religion in England and Wales 2011 (pp. 1–12). London. Retrieved from http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_290510.pdf
Philpott, T.L. (1978) The Ghetto and the Slum. New York: Oxford University Press.
Katherine is a doctoral student in the department of anthropology at the University of Oxford. She is interested in the variety of lived experiences of nonreligion in the UK. Before starting her doctorate she lived for a while in Vanuatu and is still interested in religion and religious change in Melanesia. Katherine is also Assistant Editor for NSRN Online, with responsibility for the commissioning and publication of book review and media related blog posts for the NSRN blog.