Religion harmonised standard

This harmonised standard is under development.

Following the Inclusive Data Taskforce recommendations, we plan to review and update the current harmonised standard. This is in line with the Government Statistical Service (GSS) Harmonisation Workplan.

You can find more information about this in the ‘Further information’ section of this page. If you would like to be involved with this work, please contact us at

Policy details

Metadata item Details
Publication date:10 September 2020
Author:Rhys Fletcher
Approver:Sofi Nickson
Who this is for:Users and producers of statistics
Type:Harmonisation standards and guidance

What is harmonisation?

Harmonisation is the process of making statistics and data more comparable, consistent and coherent. Harmonised standards set out how to collect and report statistics to ensure comparability across different data collections in the Government Statistical Service (GSS). Harmonisation produces more useful statistics that give users a greater level of understanding.

What do we mean by religion?

Religion can encompass different concepts including affiliation, belief and practice. Where a single question on religion is required for data collection in the UK, religious affiliation is the recommended concept.

Religion is a protected characteristic which means it is against the law to discriminate against someone because of their religion. It refers to any religion, including a lack of religion.

Questions and response options (inputs)

The harmonised question on this topic is designed to collect basic information, for use in the majority of surveys. They are not designed to replace questions used in specialist surveys where more detailed analysis is required.

The questions

The harmonised questions and response options for this topic are UK-country specific. This means that there is an individual question for each of the UK countries to suit the demands of that country.

Country Question Response options
EnglandWhat is your religion?1. No religion
2. Christian (including Church of England, Catholic, Protestant and all other Christian denominations)
3. Buddhist
4. Hindu
5. Jewish
6. Muslim
7. Sikh
8. Any other religion, please describe
WalesWhat is your religion?1. No religion
2. Christian (all denominations)
3. Buddhist
4. Hindu
5. Jewish
6. Muslim
7. Sikh
8. Any other religion, please describe
Scotland What is your religion?1. No religion
2. Church of Scotland
3. Roman Catholic
4. Other Christian
5. Buddhist
6. Hindu
7. Jewish
8. Muslim
9. Sikh
10. Any other religion, please describe
Northern IrelandWhat is your religion?1. No religion
2. Catholic
3. Presbyterian
4. Church of Ireland
5. Methodist
6. Baptist
7. Free Presbyterian
8. Brethren
9. Protestant – Other, including not specified
10. Christian – Other, including not specified
11. Buddhist
12. Hindu
13. Jewish
14. Muslim
15. Sikh
16. Any other religion, please describe

Using this standard

Collecting data on cultural identity is complex because of the subjective and multifaceted nature of the concept. It is self-defined and subjectively meaningful to an individual and tends to evolve in the context of social and political attitudes or developments. To allow respondents to properly express their cultural identity, it is recommended that three questions are asked together: national identity, ethnic group and religion. This provides a more comprehensive understanding of an individual’s cultural identity which will in turn allow for a more accurate picture of a population.

We recommend that the topics should be ordered:

  • National identity
  • Ethnic group
  • Religion

Guidance for data collection

It is recommended that the interviewer reads aloud both question and response options where possible.

There are also recommendations about how show cards should be implemented when using the harmonised standard:

  • showcards should be used in interviewer-led surveys in Great Britain
  • showcards should include the instruction ‘please describe’ after the ‘any other religion’ response option; this should be in non-bold font
  • where this is not possible, for example, telephone interviews, the response options should be read out by the interviewer in the same order as the harmonised standard
  • use of a showcard is not recommended in Northern Ireland; it is advised that the interviewer should read the question and wait for a spontaneous response
  • if the response is not forthcoming, the interviewer may prompt using the response options for Northern Ireland in the harmonised standard

Types of data collection this standard is suitable for

This harmonised standard is for self-completion, interviewer led and telephone surveys.

Presenting and reporting the data (outputs)

When presenting data separately for England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, presentation order should be the same as the response options in the religion question.

In the table [data] represents where data should be inserted. If presenting data for religion in Great Britain and the UK:

Religion Data
No religion [data]
Christian [data]
Any other religion [data]


Outputs that use this standard are comparable with other surveys that also use this standard. However, we would not recommend comparing religion outputs using this standard with other outputs that use an alternative measure.

Surveys that use this standard

A review in 2019 identified surveys that follow the religion standard. These were:

  1. Taking Part: The National Survey of Culture, Leisure and Sport (2015/2016)
  2. Census – England and Wales (2011)
  3. Continuous Household Survey (2016/2017)
  4. Health Survey Northern Ireland (2017/2018)
  5. Household Assets Survey – Wave 5 (2014 to 2016)


England and Wales Census 2021

An initial review of the current harmonised standard on religion and the Census 2021 religion question for England and Wales suggests broad comparability. The first difference is the voluntary statement that accompanies the religion question in the 2021 Census question (“The question is voluntary”). This is not in the harmonised standard, as it may be seen to imply that other questions on the surveys which adopt it are mandatory, which is not the case in many data collections which use the harmonised standard.

The second difference is the wording following the “Any other religion” response option. The Census 2021 self-complete online question explains that respondents can “enter your religion on the next question” when selecting this response option whereas the harmonised standard says, “please describe”. These changes have been made in order to account for different survey modes and do not impact comparability between those who wish to compare data collected via the religion harmonised standard and the England and Wales Census 2021 religion question.

The England and Wales Census 2021 question stem (“What is your religion?”), has not changed from the 2011 Census question stem which underpins the current harmonised standard on religion. As such, the question stems align, and both focus on the concept of religious affiliation. This is how respondents connect or identify with a religion, irrespective of whether they actively practice it (for example by regularly attending services, or not) and is considered as “weak affiliation”.

Northern Ireland Census 2021 and Scotland Census 2022

The current harmonised standard on religion, including the Scotland and Northern Ireland versions, are not comparable with the religion questions for the upcoming Northern Ireland and Scotland Censuses. These Censuses ask the following religion questions.

Northern Ireland question stem:

“What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?”

“What religion, religious denomination or religious body were you brought up in?”.

Scotland question stem:

“What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?”

Although the Scotland and first Northern Ireland question shares similarities with the affiliation aspect of the harmonised standard, it places more emphasis on active or formal belonging to a religious group which is considered strong affiliation. This is different to the harmonised standard, which focusses on “weak affiliation”.

The second Northern Ireland religion question explores a different aspect of religion entirely and is designed to accommodate those who select the “no religion” tick box in the first religion question. This allows respondents to indicate whether they were brought up according to a certain religion and then later transitioned to no religion. This should not affect comparability with Scotland as a question on belonging is still asked.

Strong and weak affiliation

The harmonised standard has opted for a weak affiliationquestion (such as the England and Wales question) as it’s felt that strong affiliation based questions (such as the Northern Ireland and Scotland question) exclude a large undifferentiated group of people who are not practising, including people with different (meaningful) religious identities as well as those with no religious affiliation.

Although the concepts of strong and weak affiliation are similar, there is potential for these questions to elicit different responses. “What is your religion?” implies wide or weak affiliation with a particular religion and as highlighted during England and Wales census testing, includes those whose practising habits vary from none to frequent. This ranges from those who actively practice a religion to individuals who chose to declare an affiliation with a particular religion based on being christened or baptised, being married and choosing to getting married in church, or wanting to get married in a church and wanting their children to be raised in a particular faith.

On the other hand, “What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?” refers to both strong affiliation and regular practicing of religious beliefs. Due to the stronger emphasis on active engagement with a particular religion, testing shows that respondents answer “belonging” based questions according to the religion they have been brought up in or active participation in a particular faith, excluding those with loose religious affiliation in the process. This explains why data produced via the religion harmonised standard will not be comparable with data produced via the Northern Ireland and Scotland Census 2021/2022 religion question.

Further information

Dimensions of religion

The Office for National Statistics summarises in a Census 2011 development report the different dimensions of religion. It is generally understood that surveys can measure three different dimensions of religion depending on the question that is asked. The three dimensions are affiliation, practice and belief.

Religious affiliation can be defined as “a present or past personal or familial connection” with a religion, and there are two measures of affiliation: weak affiliation (which could be understood as community affiliation) or strong affiliation (which may relate to membership). Thinking of Christianity as an example:

  • Weak affiliation (Christian community) has been defined as being made up of those who positively identify as belonging to a church, even if they rarely attend or were just baptised as a child. Indeed, they may have no current connection with the church.
  • Strong affiliation (Christian membership) is defined in different ways within different denominations. For example, you must have been baptised to be a member of a Christian Baptist church.

Questions on religious affiliation are suitable for gaining a broad understanding of how an individual identifies their own religiosity. They are appropriate for use in the majority of surveys and can output a high-level indicator of religion.

Religious practice includes specific religious activities that are expected of believers “such as worship, prayer, participation in special sacraments, and fasting”. It is a difficult concept to measure as there are no specific measures that will easily apply across all religions. Frequency of attendance at place of worship or frequency of prayer, for example, may not be relevant if this is not an essential feature of a religion. For these reasons, a broad question such as “do you consider yourself to be currently practising?” may offer something that is not explicitly culturally biased but it is likely to be interpreted in different ways. None of these measures will record the significance of the practice to individuals’ lives.

Questions on religious practice are useful if the user wishes to collect data on a concrete reference (such as on a specific activity), or if they want to find a way to understand frequency to infer degree of religiosity. This is problematic, however, as there may be extraneous variables which impact religious practice such as ability or access. These questions would generally be used if a more detailed understanding of religion was required.

Religious belief encompasses beliefs that are expected to be held by followers, but also refer to an element of the importance of religious beliefs to a person’s life. The words “belief” and ”faith” tend to be used synonymously. As with affiliation, there can be strong and weak forms of belief.

Questions on religious belief may be useful to gain greater understanding of specific beliefs. They would generally be used if a more detailed understanding of religion was required.

The term “belonging” is also found in literature on religion, and used in different ways. For example, it can be used in relation to both affiliation (passive belonging based on self-identification) and regular churchgoing (active belonging).

The England and Wales census question, which underpins the current harmonised standard on religion, focuses on the concept of weak religious affiliation. This is how respondents connect or identify with a religion, irrespective of whether they actively practice it (for example by regularly attending services, or not). Conversely, the Scotland and first Northern Ireland census questions focus on the concept of strong religious affiliation. This concept shares similarities with weak affiliation but places more emphasis on active or formal belonging to a religious group.

Inclusive Data Taskforce and GSS Harmonisation Workplan

In October 2020, the National Statistician established the Inclusive Data Taskforce. It was designed to improve the UK’s inclusive data holdings in a broad range of areas. This includes the nine protected characteristics of the Equality Act.

In September 2021 the Taskforce recommendations were published. Some of these recommendations specifically refer to harmonisation.

In response to the recommendations, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) oversaw the publication of an Implementation Plan in January 2022. This gives information about the current and planned initiatives across the UK statistical system. It refers to a GSS Harmonisation workplan, which was published in February 2022. This workplan includes reviewing, refining, and updating harmonised standards.

The workplan shows there will be a small update to the information in the religion harmonised standard. This includes information on philosophical belief. It will also provide more guidance to help people use the standard. We plan to publish this update in summer 2022.

If you would like to be involved with this work, please contact us at

Related harmonised standards


We are always interested in hearing from users so we can develop our work. If you use or produce statistics based on this topic, get in touch:

Review frequency:

This page will be reviewed annually.


Date Changes
2 December 2020

This page was updated with further guidance. This includes the need to use the full suite of cultural identity questions; information about the different dimensions of religion; and information about how different parts of the UK measure religion and the impact of this on comparability.

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