England and Wales are becoming ever more mixed in belief, identity and culture, the 2011 census data released today (11 December 2012) reveals.
The proportion of those broadly identifying as Christian has fallen from 72 per cent to 59 per cent.
This amounts to a decline of four million to 33.2 million in the past decade, alongside a growth in other faiths and an increase of those describing themselves as having no religion from 15 per cent to 25 per cent of the population.
Results from Scotland are expected next week, and are likely to show a similar trend.
Other detailed sociological research shows that people who respond to the 'What is your religion?' question in the census, which assumes a normative religious frame, do so for cultural or ethnic reasons rather than purely religious ones.
Those identifying as 'Christian' do not necessarily assent to the doctrinal, ethical, worshipping or lifestyle beliefs associated with the different branches of Christianity, researchers point out.
The census shows a seven per cent rise, to 56.1 million, in the number of people living in England and Wales since 2001.
Some 14.1 million people identify themselves with no religion, compared to 7.7 million ten years ago. Christianity remains the largest identifier at nearly six out of 10 people. There has been a rise in the number of Muslims, with the proportion of the population in 2011 standing at 4.8 per cent, or 2.7 million, up two per cent from 1.5 million in 2001.
The Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish and Sikh faiths all registered increases. There are now 817,000 Hindus, a rise of 264,000 since 2001. The Jewish faith also rose by 3,000 over the last decade from 260,000 to 263,000.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society thinktank Ekklesia commented: "The new census data from England and Wales confirms what we have been saying for some time. Britain is increasingly becoming a mixed society in terms of culture, identity and belief."
He added: "The key issue for people of all religions and none in plural settings is to learn to develop their own values and practices in a way that recognises difference and seeks to make a beneficial contribution to society through good example rather than compulsion."
"Seeking commonality is positive. On the other hand, differences can also be necessary and instructive. We should not try to pretend they do not exist, or simply wish them away. Mature skills of listening, learning, adapting, holding fast in a non-aggressive way, and working at conflict transformation are all vital in a globalising world. This is the agenda we have to get to grips with, underwritten by compassion," said the Ekklesia co-director.
* Office of National Statistics (ONS) census data: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/index.html