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If you're not religious, tell the census so

When the results of the 2001 census were published, we were asked to believe that 72% of people in England and Wales were Christians. But in the same year, the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey measured only 51.2% of the population as Christian: a difference of a fifth of the population. Subsequent surveys agree with the BSA, and its 2009 survey indicated that more than 50% of the population are now in fact non-religious.

Those who take the time to investigate the census results see clearly that they are ridiculous. If we believed them, we would believe that there are more Jedis in England and Wales than Jews, Buddhists or Sikhs. We would believe – contrary to government research that showed 65% of 12- to 18-year-olds were not religious – that in fact 62% of them (along with 58% of under-4-year-olds) were Christian.

The reasons why the data from the 2001 census was so aberrant are simple and well known. They mostly have to do with the fact that the question is a closed and leading one: "What is your religion?" This question is demonstrated to produce a much higher number of "religious" responses than non-presumptuous questions such as: "Do you have a religion?" and much higher than questions that ask about belief or practice. Faced with the closed and leading census question, people who do not believe in God, and who, if asked: "Are you religious?" would say "No", nonetheless tick "Christian" or "Sikh" or whatever.

Perhaps this would be tolerable if the census data on religion was accepted as measuring nothing more than a weak form of cultural affiliation rather than as a proxy for strong religious belief, and only used with this in mind. But the results from the forthcoming census will not just give us an interesting overview of the demographic of England and Wales for academics to critique when the results are released and for our descendants to pick over in future centuries. They will constitute a basis for policymaking over the coming years. Over the past decade the census data has been repeatedly misused. Its figures have been cited in parliament as evidence that faith is on the increase; that greater public resources should be granted to religious organisations; that the state should fund yet more faith schools. Major public policy developments have occurred and resources allocated on the back of these erroneous numbers.

Read on (including links to supporting data)

Access the Census Campaign website here



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