08 March 2011

UK Census 2011: Tick ‘No Religion’ if you’re not religious

This month the UK is carrying out its 2011 census. The British Humanist Association (BHA) is running a campaign encouraging non-religious residents to tick the ‘No Religion’ box on the census form. Although answering the ‘religion’ part is optional, the BHA campaign aims to raise awareness of why it’s important to tick ‘No Religion’ if one does not follow a religion.

From the BHA website:

Apart from the inaccuracy of the data collected on religious affiliation, there are real, practical problems with the use of such data. The Census data on religion says nothing about the actual religious practice, involvement, belief or belonging of the population. However, both central and local government use such data in resource allocation and for targeting equality initiatives.

Personally, I think that those who identify with a religion more for cultural reasons than faith-based ones, such as cultural Jews, should tick ‘No Religion’ if they don’t actually observe the tenets of their supposed faith. This is even more pertinent if there is a separate section in the census for ethnicity. A non-religious Jew could put down ‘Jewish’ under ‘ethnicity’ and ‘No Religion’ under ‘religion’. The confusion between ethnicity and religion possibly resulted in inaccurate data in the 2001 census. The BHA claims that the figures may have been “distorted by the fact that the question [‘What is your religion?’] appeared immediately after a series of questions on ethnicity, which may well have encouraged people to respond more on the basis of culture than actual beliefs or religious affiliation.”

The 2001 census indicated that around 72 percent of British residents identified as Christians. However this does not accurately reflect the level of religiosity in the UK, since many who identify as Christians are either not practicing Christians or were born into a nominally Christian family but do not subscribe to Christian beliefs and doctrines. Despite this discrepancy between professed and actual religious affiliation, the BHA claims that “the figure stating that 72% of the population are ‘Christian’ has been used in a variety of ways, such as to justify the continuing presence of Bishops in the House of Lords, to justify the state-funding of faith schools (and their expansion), to justify and increase religious broadcasting and to exclude the voices of humanists in Parliament and elsewhere.”

Clearly such inaccuracy in a census has serious political and social repercussions. At the very least, it gives a distorted view of the country’s religiosity (or lack of, as the case may be). The BHA’s awareness raising campaign is thus both laudable and necessary. Still, it hasn’t quite escaped controversy, with ads bearing the original slogan “If you’re not religious, for God’s sake say so” being deemed potentially offensive by timid companies that own advertising space. The BHA had to change it to the less provocative (and less punchy) “Not religious? In this year’s census say so”. Campaign posters with the original slogan can be viewed on the BHA website, while the irreverent Crispian Jago has taken the liberty to produce a far more offensive poster, exhibiting it along with other reader-submitted examples on his blog.

As for those British residents who were among the 390,000 people calling themselves ‘Jedi’ in the 2001 census, while they may have had good reasons for doing so, for this year’s census the BHA are asking them to tick ‘No Religion’ instead. Likewise for those who are ‘followers’ of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or other joke religions. This is serious stuff folks, so please, no goofing around.

The Australian census is planned for 9 August 2011. The Atheist Foundation of Australia is conducting a campaign similar to the BHA’s, since the BHA campaign’s core message is equally applicable to Australians: if you’re not religious, say so because it matters. While Australia is more secular than the UK, having no established church and no unelected religious leaders sitting in Parliament, an accurate census is nonetheless vital to ensuring that policies are not crafted on the presumption that religious Australians number more greatly than they actually do.

Let’s hope that the census carried out this year in the UK and Australia will correctly reflect a decline in religiosity, and a corresponding rise in non-belief.


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