Hey UK readers! What’s it like to be an atheist there?

In February, I will be talking about my poetry book at the Nottingham Secular Society Darwin Lecture. (Virtually of course.) I have never been to the UK and I’m really curious to learn what life is like there as an atheist. I’m guessing it’s pretty different from my life in Ohio.

So fill me in — what’s it like there?


  1. cartomancer says

    Almost entirely unremarkable from my experiences. Day to day it never really comes up. We tend not to talk about religion in polite society here – whatever weird things you believe in the privacy of your own head are your business and yours alone. The vast majority of us are either actual atheists or functional atheists, and the vast majority of those with religious convictions tend to be of the culturally religious sort who take it more as an ethnic identity than a set of belief propositions.

    In fact, there is no surer way to mark yourself out as a suspicious weirdo who shouldn’t be taken seriously than to try to get your religion, whatever it is, up in other people’s business. Because of this the opposite is also true – going around making a big thing of your atheism is also a peculiar thing to do. It would be like making a big thing of not speaking German.

  2. says

    Being an atheist in the UK is entirely unexceptional. Religion is mostly a private affair, and the religion of public figures, including politicians, rarely comes up.

    There was a question about religion in the 2011 census. In England and Wales, about 25% of the population ticked ‘No Religion’. (59% Christian, 5% Muslim, 1.5% Hindu, 1% Sikh, 0.5% Jewish, 0.5% Budddhist, 0.5% Other, 7% No response).

    My city had 42.5% reporting ‘No religion’.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    In my experience, it doesn’t come up. Note : in parts of the UK (certain bits of Glasgow or Northern Ireland) I imagine it might, but I don’t have experience of that.

    Openly religiously observant people are the exception, not the rule. Functionally, the vast majority of the country is atheist. Sure, they’ll get married in a church – I did – for cultural reasons… But everyone there (including the celebrant) is under no illusions anyone actually believes the stuff.

    There are over 2 million Muslims here, and they’re much more openly observant, but they have no cultural power. Same with the Hindus and Sikhs. UK colonial history means there’s a lot of all those guys.

    There are more people in Toledo than there are Jews in the whole UK. I’m reluctant to comment on their cultural influence. As in other countries, ostentatiously observant Jews are VERY geographically limited – certain parts of London, North Manchester, a few other places.

    I’ve never been asked to pray anywhere but school or church. No employer has ever given a shit about my imaginary friends. A couple of my neighbours have been observant, and I know some happy – clappy born-agains, but they all know and like me well enough to keep me as a friend despite knowing I think they’re deluded.

    Its just not an issue. It’s like asking “what’s it like to be a fan of York City?”. Nobody cares.

  4. ccwright says

    We are certainly not seen as abnormal or evil as may be so in parts of America.
    And i suspect religious people here aren’t as fundamentalist as in the US.
    To be honest being an atheist here is absolutely no issue. It never even occurs to me unless i go to the US when my sister in law warns me that some of her friends i might meet are religious so be careful what i say.


    And in the land of free speech, or at least the land of free speech until you speak freely!

    If you were here you might find your atheist views as so mainstream as to be totally unremarkable.
    I hope your poetry reading goes well.

  5. sarah00 says

    It’s quite a hard question to answer as it’s really a non-issue most of the time. We are culturally Christian – the queen is the head of the Church of England (CoE), there are churches everywhere, we have bank holidays for Christian holidays (Easter, Christmas) and I know a lot of my cultural touchstones have Christian roots but I’ve never faced problems from not being religious.

    I went to CofE schools and we’d have daily assembly where we’d sing a hymn and say a prayer but there was never any pressure to believe it (or if there was it completely washed over me!). It certainly never crossed my mind to ask to be excluded from them as a non-believer, though I would have been allowed. Tbh I quite enjoyed some of the hymns and still sing my favourites at times.

    We had Religious Education (RE) classes but they were pretty much comparative religion and “this is what people of this faith believe and these are the practices they follow” rather than indoctrination into one form of Christianity. I really enjoyed these lessons and found them really valuable as an adult. Particularly as I learned about Islam pre-9/11 and so got a much more unbiased view of the faith.

    You get street preachers in town centres preaching fire and brimstone but most people give them a very wide berth. For the most part religion is a private matter and proselytising really isn’t done. The CoE in particular seems to be more about tea and cake, and providing community and charity hubs for people. You’re far more likely to know someone’s political leanings than you are their religious ones ime.

  6. KG says

    Unremarkable, on a personal level. While people who would say “I’m an atheist” are probably still a smallish minority, so are the aggressively religious. We do still have Church of England bishops sitting as of right in the House of Lords – where they take a leading role in preventing the legalisation of assisted dying, despite a clear majority of public support; and the BBC still truckles to the religious to a certain extent. I wolud not join the National Secular Society (to which I assume the Nottingham Secular Society is affiliated) as it is distinctly Islamophobic.

  7. blf says

    I used to live in the UK (I’m now in France via Ireland (the Republic)), and concur with the previous commentators… nothing remarkable, albeit there are potentially-annoying historical vestiges, such as (but not limited to) the previously-mentioned reserved for teh CoE(-only! (I think)) seats in the House of Establishment Privilege.

    I do not know if this is the case in the States, but I know that in the UK, in court, you do not have to swear on a certain book of mythology and fictions. From memory, there are multiple options, including a completely non-religious statement.

  8. lucifersbike says

    It’s mostly not an issue in the UK, although I resent the fact that our unelected head of state is also the unelected head of the state church. Sorry, Liz, I don’t believe in god or the monarchy.
    I was raised in a non-religious family and even in the 1950s it was rarely an issue, although my parents preferred to avoid confrontations when it came to attendance at school services (still a legal requirement) and RE lessons. I think my parents just found the whole thing rather embarrassing.
    blf@8. I have never appeared in court as a witness or defendant, but I used to be a court interpreter. Religious colleagues had a choice of holy books. I got a slip of paper with the affirmation, which needed a deep breath,
    “I do solemnly declare that I will well and faithfully interpret and true explanation make
    of all such matters and things as shall be required of me according to the best of my
    skill and understanding.” No judge or barrister ever criticised my work on the grounds that I wasn’t in awe of a supernatural agency that would smite me if I did my job badly.

  9. sonofrojblake says

    @Kate King, 9:
    “for some, identifying as atheist does still have consequences”

    Without wishing to stereotype, I suggest most of that organisation’s “customers” are apostates – escapees from “high control” cultures… Which is a politically correct way of saying “non – British”.

    Even the most rabid fundamentalist CofE people don’t tend to set their own kids on fire for disobeying them.

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