The number of people who say they have a religion has plummeted over the last 10 years, new statistics have revealed.
Church leaders have warned against reading too much into the figures saying that they don’t reflect what they are seeing day to day.
However, local atheists have welcomed the findings, adding that they are “no surprise”.
Bill McIlroy, from the Brighton and Hove Humanist Society, added: “Instead of being known as the most godless city in the country, I think we should call ourselves the most enlightened.”
The second major release of 2011 census data yesterday revealed that 42% of Brighton and Hove residents describe themselves as having no religion, up from 27% from the 2001 census.
The 115,954 godless citizens (42.4%) almost match those who now class themselves as Christian.
Just 117,276 (42.9%) selected the national religion as their own - down from 146,460 (59.1%) in 2001.
Mr McIlroy added: “This has been the case in Brighton for well over 100 years. The local branch of the national secular group was set up in 1880 and the movement has been strong here ever since.
“Around the same time hundreds of workers came from the northern counties to work on the railways. As well as their brawn they brought their secularism.”
However, the vicar of St Peter’s Church, Brighton, said today’s figures did not represent what he has experienced over the past few years.
Reverend Archie Coates said: “I came here three and a bit years ago and what has struck me is the spiritual hunger – especially among the younger generation.
“I don’t buy into this belief that religion is on an inevitable decline and will be all but gone by 2050.
“I wouldn’t be doing my job if I believed that.
“Religion has a huge role to play and the Christmas message is as relevant today as it ever has been.”
Street pastor Ian Chisnall, a former candidate for the role of Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner, said the results were more of a reality check than a sign that people were losing their faith.
He explained that the 2001 census was the first time the population had been questioned on religion since 1851.
He said: “I think there was a sense of people selecting Christianity almost because they thought they should. There was a lot of press following the results and I think this time people were more aware of what they were filling in.
“We certainly haven’t seen a 10% fall in people going to church in the city. Churches would be closing down left, right and centre if that was the case.
“For me 117,276 people identifying themselves as Christian is significant. I think the church must now look at how they can be more welcoming to those people.”
The figures released yesterday revealed Brighton and Hove as the most godless city alongside Norwich.
Forty-two percent of the East Anglia city’s population also classed themselves as godless.
New age beliefs
Simon Clare, who has taken to preaching his atheist views in Brighton city centre, said: “I’m not surprised really. I think it has a lot to do with the relatively young population.
“In the past religious involvement was more commonplace, but now, just because you go to a religious school doesn’t mean you will come out religious.
“However, there is a move towards new age beliefs in the city which are far more dangerous than Christianity.
“We can’t afford to take our eye of the ball.”
The census release also reveals the city’s second most popular religion is now Islam.
The population of Muslims is the city has nearly doubled in the last ten years, to 6,095 compared to 3,642 in 2001.
'Fantastic place to live'
Tariq Jung, the chair of Brighton and Hove Muslim Forum, welcomed the news, describing the city as “a marvellous place to live”.
Mr Jung, whose family came to the city in 1908, said: “There are still pockets of trouble but things have improved so much.
“Brighton also has this fantastic vegetarian and vegan culture which is very popular among Muslims.
“It is a fantastic place to live.”
The third most represented religion is Buddhism with 2,742, followed by Judaism fourth with 2,670.
Nearly 25,000 people in Brighton and Hove decided not to state their religion in the census.
Emma Wright, the head of population analysis at the Office for National Statistics, said that yesterday’s release was just “the tip of the iceberg”.
She added: “We will be releasing more information in the spring which will enable us to better analyse the figures.”
Brighton and Hove has been named as one of the UK’s student capitals.
More than 11% of people class themselves as full-time students over the age of 18.
That equates to 27,229 of the eligible 229,024 population of the city.
A 2010 study revealed that the city’s two universities inject more than £1 billion into the UK economy, most of which is spent locally.
The institutions also support some 12,000 jobs.
A University of Sussex spokeswoman said: “The university has plans to continue growing its student numbers, currently from 12,000 to 15,000 by 2015, which is good news for the local economy.
“It is well documented that cities with large student and graduate populations benefit in many ways - from the extra income brought by students to the development of a highly skilled and talented workforce and the creation of a booming, often innovative, business community.”
The University of Brighton is also set to expand, with its current 22,000 students rising to 25,000.
A spokesman added that many of their students go on to work in the community as doctors, nurses and teachers.
Brighton and Hove came 20th highest for student population out of the 348 local authorities.
Oxford was top with 29,952 students for its 126,725 people – 23.6% of the population.
Brighton and Hove has the highest number of couples in a same-sex civil partnership of all England and Wales' 348 local authorities.
However, we were pipped to the title of civil partnership capital by the City of London authority, which has more couples per head.
Some 2,346 said they were in a same-sex civil partnership in Brighton and Hove last year. That equates to 1% of the 229,024 eligible population.
Just 117 of those living in the City of London local authority said they were in a same-sex civil partnership.
That works out as 1.7% of their 6,755 population.
Brighton and Hove City Council leader Jason Kitcat said: “Civil partnerships continue to be incredibly popular in Brighton and Hove.
“It's a great place for a special occasion and we are proud that people consistently choose the city as the place to hold their special day.”
Civil partnerships were granted under the Civil Partnership Act 2004, giving same-sex couples the same rights and responsibilities as those in a civil marriage.
Brighton and Hove has bucked the national trend with a smaller proportion of residents owning cars than ten years ago.
The 2001 census revealed that there were 100,049 cars for the 114,479 eligible to drive.
Last year there were 104,397 cars recorded for the increased 121,540 eligible drivers - a fall from 0.87 cars per person to 0.85 today.
Nationally, there has been a rise from 1.1 to 1.2 cars per person.
Emma Wright, the head of population analysis at the Office for National Statistics, said: “The figures may appear insignificant but when you look at the total cars on the road they are huge numbers.”
Additionally, the city was among the highest for households with no vehicle ownership.
More than 38% of us are without a car compared to 36.54% ten years ago.
That makes the city the eighth highest local authority outside of London for households with no car.
Brighton and Hove City Council leader Jason Kitcat welcomed the news.
He said: “Brighton and Hove is a compact city with good transport links so the fact that we are one of the places with lower vehicle ownership is not a surprise.
“We are committed to supporting and providing practical transport alternatives that are quick and convenient.
“More people are choosing to travel on the city’s extensive bus network, and the council is making significant investment in cycle and pedestrian facilities which will improve transport in the city even further.”
Motoring campaigner Steve Percy added: “The council has made it a nightmare to own a car in Brighton without providing suitable alternatives.”
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