Submission: The religion question

Meredith Doig / 15 August 2014

The RSA, in consultation with a number of other freethought groups, has made a submission to the Australian Bureau of Statistics concerning the “Religion” question to be used in the 2016 ABS census.  This question has been contentious for many years because its current structure suggests that a religion is  expected, and the “No Religion” option is located in an obscure position after a table of “Other Religions”.  The concern is that this approach leads people who are not actually practising any religion to answer with a religion that they previously adhered to, or that they think is appropriate to their situation.   The online RSA submission to ABS read as follows:

The structure of the current Census question with regard to Religious Affiliation does not reflect the current breakup of data nor the apparent trends in responses seen in previous censuses. Because of the way it is structured it is likely to give a misleading result as to the numbers of people actually observing a religion (or no religion). It may therefore lead to inappropriate decisions on the provision of services, the allocation of resources, or the assumed influence of religious (or non-religious) groups. As the ABS itself has said – information on religious affiliation is widely used in the religious (and non-religious) community, and by government agencies which provide services complementary to those provided by religious organisations.

The question, as it stands, assumes people have a religion which they observe, and the non-religious are supposedly covered by a ‘No religion’ box at the end of the list of religious faiths. At the 2011 Census over 22 percent of people identified themselves as having ‘No religion’, and a further 9 percent did not nominate a religion. The “No Religion” figure has been trending upwards for several censuses now, and we expect it will continue to do so. Not only is it inappropriate for this large group to be listed as an apparent “afterthought” on the question, but by doing so we believe census respondents may be misled into selecting an answer that is familiar, such as the religion they grew up in, rather than the religion (or lack of religion) they currently observe. We believe the structure of the question needs to be altered to reduce the likelihood of that occurring. A restructure such as we propose might also reduce the number of people not responding to the question at all, thus improving the quality of the data.

We note that in the New Zealand census the question asked is ‘What is your religion?’ and the first option is ‘No religion’.

This seems a much more satisfactory and realistic (but not ideal) structure.

Ideally we would like to see the question asked in two parts as follows:


For the NO answer, go to the next question

For the YES answer, ask

b) WHICH RELIGION? Catholic, Anglican, Hindu, Jewish etc.

However if this amount of change is problematic for the ABS, we would consider (for 2016 at least) the New Zealand option to be a significant improvement. That is, retain the current question but with the ‘No religion’ option at the top of the list.”

Unless our proposal above is accepted, the RSA intends to further lobby the ABS and Government on this matter after the 2013 Federal election is completed and after ABS recommendations are made to government in the lead up to the 2016 census.


All the more reason.