Census Night and that pesky religion question

Tonight is Census Night. I’ve been to more than a few census dinner parties in my time, all of which were a good excuse for hanging out with friends and sitting on the floor after dessert with a wheel of brie and some crackers. One of us would be the designated census-taker, and the rest would call out responses to the various questions.

Recently, though, the Census has become something of a battleground. It entirely revolves around Question 19 – Religion. Interested parties make vehement pleas for us all to write a particular result. This year, that militant rhetoric erupted into outright conflict.

There are two major campaigns: a plea to mark your religion as ‘Christian’ in order to prevent the government building mosques in your neighbourhood; and a plea to mark ‘no religion’ in order to prevent the government privileging the religious over the non-religious.

(That’s by no means a comprehensive list. For example, the ‘Pagan Dash’ campaign is aimed at having ‘Pagan’ included as a category of its own rather than being filed under ‘Nature Religions’.)

Now, the religion question is flawed. Horribly so. For a start, if you practise a religion with very few known adherents in Australia, you’re confined to the ‘Other’ category. The wording of the question also suggests being a member of a religion is the default, or ‘normal’ state of affairs. Finally, if you enter your particular sect in the ‘Other’ category (say, Theravada), it doesn’t count towards the total ‘Buddhist’ number.

All in all, it could do with a serious overhaul, if only to make it more representative of the likely diversity of responses. But let’s examine the assumptions behind these two campaigns.

First the ‘Christian’ campaign. This is scare-mongering, pure and simple – ‘tick Christian or the Muslims will take over!’ And like most scare-mongering, it’s utterly without foundation. The government isn’t about to start building mosques willy-nilly based on census numbers (and wildly inflated ones at that: only around 340,000 people identified as Muslim on the 2006 census, and 2 million rather than 10 million marked ‘no religion’). In fact, the government isn’t about to start building mosques at all – any more than they’d build a church. Why? Because the government doesn’t provide religious infrastructure. That’s the job of private organisations.

It tries to panic people into providing a false response, and sweeps away any concerns that this may not be a true result. Even if you’re not Christian, you’d be doing the right thing by marking your ‘upbringing faith’ (and note the assumption that you were probably raised a Christian. Never mind that it is an offence to knowingly lie on the Census. The cause is too important to worry about such things.

Then there’s the ‘no religion’ campaign. This one starts with a false claim: that governments use census results to privilege the religious, at the expense of those who do not subscribe to a religious belief system. On the face of it, this looks like a strong argument: we have chaplaincies in our public, supposedly secular schools, and government funds are allocated for religious instruction (which is in reality little more than recruitment and indoctrination). But is this really because of the census?

Or is it a cultural blind spot based on the idea that Australia is a white, Anglo, Christian country – always was, always will be?

Never mind the wealth of religious tradition amongst indigenous peoples. Never mind the immigrant workers, especially the Chinese, who brought Buddhism, Taoism and ancestor worship with them. For that matter, never mind the atheists who eloquently defended their right to non-belief in English writings of the period. Early Australia suffered from ‘dominant culture’ blindness and that still hasn’t gone away.

If this were really about the census numbers, then the religion question would likely be compulsory, instead of the sole optional one.

If this were really about the census numbers, the government would be tripped up by a few basic statistics. Even a quick perusal of census results shows a steady decline in Christian religions – dropping almost 30% since Federation – and an increase of almost 600% in those who select ‘no religion’. Hardly a case of the government relying on numbers to justify their programs.

And again – the government doesn’t build religious infrastructure. City planners might look at census results to decide whether a proposed church is warranted in a given area, but they don’t pay for it.

What’s important to remember is that the census is a tool, and like all tools it can be wielded both well and inappropriately.

Census data on religion contributed to the abolition of archaic anti-witchcraft laws in Victoria. Those who identify as witches and pagans may now safely practise their religion without risking prosecution for vagrancy or fraud.

The proliferation of new religious movements (so-called ‘minority religions’) has brought about a serious blow-out in the ‘Other’ category. Although this is broken down into broad groupings in detailed results, strong arguments are now being made for rephrasing the question to be more representative of Australia as it is today.

For that matter, census data such as that quoted above forms part of the current argument against the near-total monopoly of certain Christian groups over school chaplaincies.

And then there’s the Australian Christian Lobby. They claim the right to speak on behalf of every person who nominated some form of Christianity on their census form. But the census isn’t what drives the ACL – it’s simply a way for them to represent themselves as more important than they really are.

The data is valuable. There’s no other way to provide such a comprehensive picture of religious belief and atheism in this country. And if we answer the question honestly, it’s a true picture.

With that data we can mount counter-arguments to the ACL and similar groups. We can demonstrate the diversity of Australian life. We can thoroughly shred the racist claims of those who see the spectre of sharia law lurking around every corner.

It’s in everyone’s best interest to answer the question without trying to frame our responses to serve an agenda. We don’t need to bring up accusations of ‘privilege’ or exaggerated fears of ‘a mosque in every neighbourhood’ (and I’m still not sure why people who think that was a bad thing, in any case). We should focus on the positive aspects and simply encourage everyone to answer honestly.

And if you truly don’t like even the idea of the question, or want to be completely private? Leave the question blank.

Nothing bad will happen. I promise.


7 Responses to Census Night and that pesky religion question

  1. Murray says:

    So what IS the purpose of that question for? There are other questiosn to help with planning infrastructure, population growth, housing etc etc

  2. Also:

    Finally, if you enter your particular sect in the ‘Other’ category (say, Theravada), it doesn’t count towards the total ‘Buddhist’ number.

    This is not correct. You can view the Australian Standard Classification of Religious Groups here: http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/DetailsPage/1266.02011?OpenDocument (download as XLS).

    Tables 1.1 through 1.3 show the classification options, from coarsest to finest-level schema.

    Table 3 shows how various responses are interpreted within that classification – e.g. “Zilch” is coded to 7010, a subcategory of 701 “No religion”.

    Scrolling down to “Theravada”, it’s coded to 1011, i.e. Buddhism, and would be counted as such.

  3. Jo says:

    Good to read a reasoned argument that deals with the scaremongering about the Moslem mosques! For me, the census is about getting an accurate picture of our country as a whole, and of course providing descendents in the future information about my family.

  4. vryohpah says:

    Interesting read!

  5. cefiar says:

    I know I’m putting down No Religion.

    My reason is pretty simple. I’m not religious. No gods, no faith as such.

    Anyone who does fill out the question, and puts in the WRONG answer, is just being stupid.

  6. Travis did a bit of research into how answers to the Religion question get categorised (http://travisjhall.livejournal.com/85541.html) and you are slightly off in some of your observations.

    The broad categories listed on the Census form are just that: broad categories. If you select Other and write in a religion, the answer is then categorised based on the Broad, Narrow and Religious Groups as defined by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. You can download the full list as a Excel workbook from their website (http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/DetailsPage/1266.02011?OpenDocument) which shows how it’s all broken down.

    As a result, your example of “Theravada” not counting towards “Buddhist” is actually wrong.

    Broad Groups are a single digit classification, defining the broad group the religion belongs to. There are 7 Broad Groups.

    1 – Buddhism
    2 – Christianity
    3 – Hinduism
    4 – Islam
    5 – Judaism
    6 – Other Religions
    7 – No Religion

    From there, you have two, three and four digit codes, narrowing down the religion even further, if necessary. According to the Excel workbook from the ABS, Theravada is code 1011, meaning it’s a subset of Broad Group 1 – Buddhism.

    Another example: Paganism is code 6133. This means its Broad Group is 6 – Other Religions, and it’s a subset of Nature Religions, which is code 613, along with Animism (6131), Druidism (6132), Pantheism (6134), Wiccan/Witchcraft (6135) and Nature Religions, nec (6139).

    “nec” = Not Elsewhere Classified.

    Even the Christian denominations get broken up in this manner if the person writes in more details than just “Christian”.

    I would recomend grabbing the Excel workbook and having a look at it, as I think you would find it interesting and educational.


  7. Geoffrey says:

    Clarifying one issue – the classification scheme for religions is multi-level. At the mid-level (3-digit) code, Paganism is lumped into “Nature Religions” (613) alongside Animism, Druidism, etc. But at the fine level (4-digit), each of those has its own code – 6133 is specifically for Paganism.

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