Census campaign calls for the non-religious to be counted

By staff writers
October 27, 2010

A campaign is being launched today (27 October 2010) calling on people who are not religious, including atheists, agnostics, sceptics, and ‘cultural Christians’, to be counted and included in the 2011 Census by ticking the ‘No religion’ response box.

Under the tongue-in-cheek banner, ‘If you’re not religious, for God’s sake say so!’, the campaign, initiated by the British Humanist Association (BHA), is being promoted exactly five months ahead of the next Census in England and Wales, which takes place on 27 March 2011.

It seeks to raise awareness of the dangers and "real damage" that can be done by the non-religious population not being accurately recorded by the Census.

The BHA says the previous Census in 2001 in England and Wales – the first to ask a question on religion – produced inaccurate and misleading data on religion, grossly undercounting the number of non-religious people and greatly inflating the number of Christians.

Speaking on the question about religion, Census expert and Professor of Population Studies at the University of Manchester, Professor David Voas, commented: "We have good data from sample surveys about the amount of religion and non-religion in the country, but the Census receives far more attention. In 2001 people tended to treat the Census question on religion as a question about ethnic heritage. Their answers were interpreted very differently, though, by churches, journalists and policy-makers. Which box you tick on the Census form may seem trivial, but the results do make a difference in public life."

The Census Campaign is backed by a fundraising appeal through www.justgiving.com/Census to support a national advertising campaign aimed at public awareness carrying the slogan "If you're not religious, for God's sake say so".

Announcing the new campaign, BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented: "There were more Jedis than Jews counted in the 2001 Census, but just as inaccurate a result was the conclusion that 77 per cent of us are religious and only 15 per cent of us are not. These misleading statistics are used to support policies that entrench religious privilege and increase discrimination on grounds of religion in our society and it is vital that the 2011 Census results in accurate data for that reason alone."

He continued: "The flawed wording and the positioning of the religion question in the Census in the context of ethnicity encourages people to respond as if they have a religion, and especially over-inflates the 'Christian' category. People are counted as Christians who may never have been in a church, who don’t believe in god and who, if asked, 'Do you have a religion?' would say, 'No'."

"That would be fine if policy-makers accepted that the results from the Census are merely an indicator of broad cultural affiliation," said Mr Copson. "But what people do not realise is that by ticking the 'Christian' box rather than the 'No religion' box – which would more accurately reflect their identity – they have contributed to data used to justify an increase in the number of faith schools, the public funding of religious groups, keeping Bishops in the House of Lords as of right, and the continuation of compulsory worship in schools."

"The flawed Census data on religion is used to justify these and a whole host of other such policies that are damaging, divisive and, importantly, do not reflect the real demographics of our society," he said.

The BHA Chief Executive added: "2011 may be the last Census and so it is more important than ever to make sure that the data it produces on religion is as accurate as possible. We want everybody to be talking about this and encouraging others to tick 'No religion' when they fill in the Census, and we’ll be supporting people to do this in different ways as the campaign proceeds over the next five months."

The Census Campaign was launched with a new, interactive website (www.Census-campaign.org.uk), and with a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/Censuscampaign) as well as appearing on Twitter (www.twitter.com/CensusCampaign).

The Census Campaign website sets out what its organisers believe are the key arguments why people who are non-religious should respond to the voluntary question on religion, and why many of those who responded as Christians in 2001, so-called ‘cultural Christians’, should respond by ticking ‘No religion’ in 2011.

Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, commented: "The formulation of the question on religion in the last Census for England and Wales was extremely unhelpful and needs changing. It leads to people treating the issue of religion as a question about ethnic heritage and culture, rather than belief, and produces misleading results that confuse public policy makers and civic bodies (faith and non-faith based) alike."

"From the perspective of the churches," added Barrow, "it is also unhealthy that Census data which underestimates the character of an increasingly mixed-belief society, in which non-belief is a significant and growing factor, should be used to prop up a partial, functionalist and complacent account of the place and status of organised religion in public life - such as that embodied in the propagation of an Established Church, rather than faith bodies free of the state."


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