Thursday, August 4, 2011

Census 2011

Next Tuesday, the 9th of August, Australians will take a census. As you may have noticed, given the advertising the Atheist Foundation of Australia has put up around the nation, this year there is a campaign to ensure the question about religion is answered accurately.

In the past, people have put “Jedi” or “Pastafarian” or any other number of joke answers (admittedly some people actually do consider themselves Jedis or Pastafarians, but the majority of people who give this answer do not) as a sort of protest/laugh at the census. The thing is, though, census data affects a lot of things, from which areas require funding for schools or other infrastructure, to the amount of sway religious lobby groups have - the answers people give do have real-world consequences.

And therein lies the problem. Despite the fact that only 8.8% of Australians attend church weekly, in the 2006 Census 69.5% of Australians self-identified as belonging to some religion or other. Now, obviously, some people might consider themselves to be religious but not see the point in attending church regularly, but there still seems to be quite a big gap between the reported number of religious and the actual number of religious.

Part of this is probably due to the leading nature of the question. Instead of “Does the person have a religion?” and then an “If so, what?”, the question reads “What is the person’s religion?”, with several common religions being listed as options, followed by an “Other - please specify”, followed by “No religion” at the very bottom. The Atheist Foundation suggests (and I agree) that this formulation of the question is likely to lead people to answer according to the religion they were raised in, or baptised in, instead of their current religious identity - it assumes as the premise of the question that the person has a religion and must specify what it is. “No religion” is just an afterthought.

Another reason may be due to campaigns by certain religious/political elements - it turns out that some have been telling people to mark “Catholic” or another form of Christianity in an attempt to prevent Mosques from being built nearby. The census-taker in the link may be an aberration but there have certainly been emails and so on circulating to that effect - “Mark Christian, even if you aren’t, to keep away the scary Muslims!”

That’s not what we want to do - we think that kind of thing is reprehensible. We just want the data to be accurate - to give a clearer picture of the true nature of the population than it otherwise would. People who say marking “Jedi” will get it recognised as an official religion (whatever that means) as they said in emails that circulated before the last census are wrong - it gets counted as a non-response.

These figures do matter, so it’s really not good to have a heap of non-responses, particularly from people who (in the case of protest-answers) do at least somewhat care about their answer. These figures determine where religious buildings are built, they influence how much power religious lobby groups have, they influence the funding of religious schools. Inaccurate figures make it harder to argue against the enormous waste of taxpayer money that is the National School Chaplaincy Program. They make it harder to argue against the indoctrination of children through SRI programs throughout the nation. They make it harder to argue against religious institutions being automatically classified as charities - despite not using much of their income for charity work - costing Australian taxpayers over $20 billion per annum.

Media narratives are built around our nation’s values, and these figures reinforce the idea that those values are uniformly Christian. Furthermore, the Australian Christian Lobby is now campaigning on precisely this premise - that if you hold typical Australian values, those are Judeo-Christian values and you should therefore indicate some form of Christianity on the Census.

This is ridiculous - some of these values may have come to us via Judeo-Christian traditions but they are absolutely secular values now, and are held by many atheists and religious non-Christians. Nobody owns these values, and in most cases these religions simply adopted them from other traditions that were around when they were forming. Marking “Christian” because you hold these values would be like marking “Greek Pantheon” because you value democracy.

So, don’t mark “Jedi” as a protest, or a joke. Don’t mark “Christian” if you were baptised, but no longer believe. And don’t mark “No religion” just because some dude on the internet tells you to, either. Answer according to whatever belief you actually have right now, so we can get a clear look at what Australia really believes.

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