Census August 2011

Meredith Doig / 16 June 2011

The Background

The coming Census in Australia is an important chance to make sure your interests are met in decision-making and funding, and that views you don’t hold are not over-represented in the coming years.

If you don’t actively participate in religion on a regular basis, mark “No Religion”.

As the next Australian Census approaches (9 August 2011), all freethought groups are encouraging individuals and families to think about the impact of their answer to the Census question ‘What is the person’s religion?’

For example, if you were brought up in the Anglican Church and feel a nominal attachment to that faith, we suggest you don’t answer based on where you go to attend family weddings and funerals, but on your actual philosophical leanings.

This is especially important if you feel no religious affiliation now but your parents brought you up in a particular religion as a child. If this is the case, then you may be ‘culturally Christian’ but you are not religiously Christian.

Why is this important?

Because how you answer this Census question will influence decisions by Australian governments and many other entities. Often the transfer of taxpayer money to religious organisations is justified on the basis of the Census results, as are special concessions and exemptions like the right to discriminate against some groups.

Non-theist concerns get marginalised not because there aren’t many of us, but because policy makers don’t realise just how many of us there are. Getting accurate and representative numbers means that when politicians are formulating policies, they have to consider the implications of losing the non-religious vote as well as their usual concern about the religious vote. It means there’s potential to have more influence on issues that typically have a strong support base amongst the non-religious — like dying with dignity, normalising gay marriage, secularising school chaplaincy and replacing Special Religious Instruction with general religious education.

What happens if I write Jedi Knight?

Once it may have been amusing to identify as a Jedi Knight, but we know that these and similar responses (like Pastafarian) are categorised as “Not Defined” and are not counted as “No Religion”. It therefore reduces the “No Religion” numbers and advantages the religion count.

Do I have to answer the Religion question?

No. You don’t have to respond to this question but supplying the government with full and accurate information ensures policy and funding decisions genuinely reflect Australian values and beliefs.

What is the data on religion used for?

Data on religious affiliation is used for planning educational facilities, aged care and other social services provided by religion-based organisations; the location of church buildings; the assigning of chaplains to hospitals, prisons, armed services and universities; the allocation of time on public radio and other media; and sociological research.

So why should I answer at all?
Inaccuracies in the Census data may lead to groups wielding influence within government beyond their true numbers. Using inflated figures, politicians may formulate or disallow laws and policies based on religious precepts.

Government laws and policies should benefit all members of society, not just those who adhere to a particular religious faith — even when that religion holds a majority position. All government decisions should be based on empirical evidence rather than religious beliefs.

If I mark “No Religion”, will this undermine the good work religions do?
While many religious groups perform helpful and much needed charity work, a lack of transparency and accountability makes it impossible to determine exactly how much is spent on charitable works versus spending on church buildings, wages, allowances and businesses. It is estimated that some $30 billion a year remains untaxed due to exemptions enjoyed by religious organisations.

The problem is all religions and all religious works are classified as charities. Even unusual religions like the Church of Scientology get tax exemptions. Classifying all religions as charities is an idea that goes back to medieval times – it’s based on a law that was first promulgated in the time of Elizabeth I in 1601!  Hardly reflective of a modern society committed to democratic principles of transparency and accountability.

How did people respond in the 2006 Census?

In the 2006 Census the top three responses for religious affiliation were Catholic (25.8%), Anglican (18.7%), and No Religion (18.7%). However, 2,223,960 (11.2%) people did not adequately answer the question.  What we’re saying is, only those who are genuinely and actively religious should identify as such.  Everyone else should mark “No Religion”.

What’s the problem with the actual question?
The Religion question in the Census reads, “What is the person’s religion?”

But this phrasing assumes the person has a religious belief.

Then, the options provided list the common religions at the top and places the “No Religion” box at the bottom. This tends to encourage respondents to tick the religion of their childhood, even though they may not hold those religious beliefs any more.

Professional surveys randomly sequence the possible responses to avoid favouring the response listed first.

Does attending church make me Christian?
Not necessarily. According to research, many people attend church and other religious activities for the social aspects of such gatherings, but do not actually accept the tenets of the faith. Conversely, there may be people who accept the tenets of a faith without ever attending a religious service. Only those who accept the basic tenets of the faith (ie, that God made the world, the virgin birth, Jesus rising from the dead, Jesus to physically return to judge the living, etc) should consider themselves Christian.

What if I identify with ‘Christian values’?
Values such as ‘love thy neighbour’ and ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you‘ are shared by many religions, cultures and societies throughout history. Many of our modern values are actually based on ancient Greek philosophies that pre-date the Christian era.

How should I answer for children?
Children should be counted as “No Religion”.

This is because children’s capacity to understand complex concepts only develops around age 12 to 14.  Until then, they are unlikely to understand the full ramifications of religious belief and it’s both unfair and inaccurate to assume they accept the religious affiliation of their parents.

In Australia there are about 4 million children under 14 years of age. That is about 20% of the population that should be marked as having ‘No Religion’.

What can I do to help?

Use this background information to talk to family and friends about the Census.  Ask them if they’ve thought about how to answer the Religion question.  Point out that if they are not really religious (ie, someone who accepts the basic doctrinal beliefs of a religion), then they should mark “No Religion”.  And point out that it is important – data matters!

Also, you can download and print off our pamphlets (colour pamphlet here; black and white pamphlet here) and use them to letterbox around your area.  And let us know if you do!



We would like to acknowlege the Atheist Foundation in the preparation of this information.

All the more reason.