Real ‘no religion’ figure well above what Census says, RSA Webinar told

Si Gladman / 26 August 2022

Research that suggests over half of all Australians are already not religious adds weight to the need for the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) to redesign the Census religion question, the latest RSA Webinar has heard.

At Wednesday’s webinar, social scientist and RSA Fellow Neil Francis (pictured) argued that the new Census figure for ‘no religion’ – about 39 per cent – greatly understated the real figure, which he showed should be about 55 per cent.

Mr Francis, the author of the Religiosity in Australia series, said a much more accurate measure of the non-religious in Australia would be achieved if two significant issues were properly addressed. They are: (a) the issue of the “black hole” – the significant number of people who did not answer the religion question; and (b) the “rose-coloured glasses” issue – the presumptive bias of the religion question.

If these two issues were properly addressed, he estimated the ‘no religion’ count would rise to 55 per cent (over a half of all Australians), the ‘total religion’ count would fall from 54 to 45 per cent (less than half), and Christianity would decline from 44 to 34 per cent (about a third). Such estimates align with the actual results of a 2020 study by the Australia Survey of Social Attitudes which asked the religion question in an unbiased way.

“We’re not splitting hairs and saying it’s a fraction of a percent or something fairly insignificant; we’re talking about really significant differences in the numbers,” said Mr Francis.

At the webinar, Michael Dove, the spokesperson for the Census21 – Not Religious? campaign outlined the activities the campaign would now undertake to ensure more accurate data on religious affiliation in the future.

In recent years, countries such as Ireland, Scotland and Northern Ireland have introduced changes to the religion question in their censuses to make the question less biased and to encourage more accurate responses. The fact other countries saw the benefit of redesigning their religion question provides some hope the ABS might also be open to redesigning the question in the Australian census.

Mr Dove said the campaign would call on the ABS to remove the presumptive bias from the question, which, by asking ‘What’s the person’s religion?’, assumes every respondent has a religion.

“I believe there’s also a contextual bias which is created by the preceding questions which encourage people who are responding to the census to think about their cultural background – which country are they from, are they citizens of Australia, are their parents born here or overseas, what are their ancestry,” said Mr Dove.

“All of those things, I think, condition the respondent to think in terms of their cultural background and a cultural religion. So, surprise, surprise, a very large number of people, in my mind, would be choosing a religion which coincides with the one they were brought up with.”

Based on the rapid growth in Australians identifying as not religious, Mr Dove said the campaign would now also focus on lobbying for fairness on funding – challenging privileged tax concessions and funding for religious organisations – and fairness of voice and influence for non-religious people.

If you want to support our work, please make a donation or become a member.

Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at sigladman@rationalist.com.au or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman

All the more reason.