Tuesday 9th of August is Census Night in Australia. Question 19 asks What Is the Person’s Religion? It’s the only optional question.
Skeptics generally do not get involved in mainstream religious matters, preferring to concentrate on pseudoscience, fraud and the paranormal. However, from time to time we react to perceived abuses; examples include teaching Creationism in Science classes, government spending taxpayer’s money on a papal visit, and arguably unconstitutional School Chaplaincy programs at the expense of secular ethics classes.
The Census Form’s Question 19 may well be considered such an abuse. Whether by design or accident, it is almost a text-book example of push-polling in favour of entrenched interest. Our advice, if you believe in the principle of enlightened self-interest, is to answer Question 19 honestly, for yourself and for every member of your household.
The Census is an important source of statistical data. Governments quote Census figures to justify decisions and policy. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that it is appropriate for Government to factor religious affiliations into public policy. As the financial amounts involved are very large, it is important that the methodology be rigorous. But is it?
16.6% of Australians described themselves in the 1996 census as having No Religion. That figure rose to 18.7% in 2006, with a further 11% choosing not to answer the question. In other words, 30% of Australians made no claim to any religious persuasion.
Look at the way Question 19 is presented. There are sixty questions on the Census form, and it requires some navigation, particularly if a number of people are staying overnight on Tuesday 9th. The tendency for a non-religious person encountering Question 19, and the words “this question is OPTIONAL” may well be to think “Bewdy!” and to skip directly to Question 20. That’s a major statistical glitch.
If you tackle Question 19, you’ll discover that it pre-supposes that the respondent will profess some religion, probably Christian. To record yourself as having no religion, you have to mentally scroll down through a variety of stipulated faiths in non-alphabetic and non-random order, from “Catholic” to “Lutheran”. Presumably the order of precedence is more or less the rank order from last Census, leaving out “No Religion”. The donkey vote favours the status quo, skewed against “No Religion”, which otherwise should claim equal third spot with The Uniting Church.
If you are not a true believer, but have historical or cultural affiliations to one of these faiths, you now have to decide whether to continue to identify yourself as such. There is a current campaign originating from the Religious Lobby urging that you should. We urge that you shouldn’t.
Another important question arises over how each faith self-defines its membership. Children of Catholics, Anglicans or Orthodox Christians have been christened, and their church expects them to be registered, regardless of age as followers of that faith. Adherents of Judaism or Islam will similarly be likely to register their entire family as adherents. Baptists or Methodists, on the other hand require a profession of faith and adult baptism to join the fold; if they’re honest, they cannot automatically include minors.
If none of those choices appeals, you can still choose to record yourself in “Other-Please Specify”. It’s interesting that the Census form cites Humanism as an example of an “Other Religion”. You might call yourself a Jedi Knight, as did 75,000 people last census. You may profess Pastafarianism; you may even describe your “Other Religion” as Skeptic. Please don’t do any of those things.
If all the religious options in Question 19 still fail to attract you, your final choice is to place your careful little horizontal mark in the box preceding the “No Religion” option.
Our recommendations, as previously stated, are
(a) to answer Question 19, and
(b) to answer it honestly. If you genuinely profess a religious faith, mark the box accordingly. If not, mark “No Religion”.