On religion, the Census is asking the wrong questions – ABC Online

I was finally chosen to be in a polling sample. I was elated. I often wonder about polls, and I know plenty of people but so few of them have ever been part of a sample. But this year, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) chose my suburb to test run the 2021 Census.

So, dutifully, on 29 October, those in my household answered all the questions we were asked to address. The process was straightforward, easy to follow, and all done online. We were glad to be part of a process which will help researchers and policy-makers to understand the nature and composition of the Australian community.

All except when it came to the question concerning religion. I presume the sample was produced because the Bureau wants to get this right. If so, the questions that are asked about religion must change. Researchers and policymakers need an accurate picture of our religious landscape. Without significant improvement, the Census will give poor quality, confused, and — worse — misleading information. Whether intentional or not, the question elicited information that is necessarily misleading or unrepresentative.

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The question on religion provided multiple choice answers organised by “no religion”, denomination of choice, and religion of choice. The initial (perhaps, the default?) position went to “no religion”, which was left in a category of its own and separated by a line before denominations and religions were listed. The religions and denominations seemed to be listed in descending order according to their number of adherents as per the last Census. So Catholic and Anglican were at the top of the list, while others like Hindus and Baptists were further down. Finally, there was a box to indicate any other religion that did not appear on the list.

I find Census information to be most useful and I’m glad that our nation devotes the time, attention, and resources to gathering accurate information about the population. As a person deeply involved in religion, I’m particularly interested in religious statistics — as, I’m sure, are other “religious practitioners”. It is important to measure the steady decline of the old European denominations of Christianity, and the increase in both non-Western, non-Christian religions and “no religion”.

But a partial picture can be worse than no picture at all — especially when the part that is provided comes with the authority and imprimatur of the ABS. Such a partial picture can lead not only to the perpetuation of inaccuracies and outright falsehoods in journalistic reporting (which is far from uncommon when it comes to religion) and polemical lobbying, but also to bad decisions in the area of public policy. Our national life suffers when the make-up of the nation is misrepresented due to sloppy census data collection.

The right question to ask is not which denomination you belong to, but which religion — Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism or Islam. Furthermore, to ask only about Christian denominations ignores important distinctions between, for instance, Sunni and Shi’a within the Muslim community. The way the question was framed, moreover, ignores or elides the reality that within Australia there is a growing number of active Christians who have little to no denominational affiliation or interest.

With 30 per cent of Australians identifying with the description “no religion” in the 2016 Census, it is important to clarify the meaning of “no religion”. So, for example, some Australians claim they are “spiritual” but not religious; others say they are agnostic or largely disinterested in religion; and still others insist they are convinced atheists. Lumping all those who describe themselves as having “no religion” together, while differentiating Christians down to denominations that make up less than one per cent of the population, cannot help but produce a distorted picture of Australian society and the ways it is changing.

It is easy to make a complaint and not offer an alternative, but not particularly helpful. So, let me recommend to the Australian Bureau of Statistics the following:

1. That all options, including “no religion”, be presented alphabetically.

2. That the basic question be divided between:

  • Buddhism
  • Christianity
  • Hinduism
  • Islam
  • Judaism
  • No religion
  • Other

3. That one’s belonging to particular religious denominations or sects (including those within Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and so on) and more precise specifications of what one means by “no religion” (atheist, agnostic, no interest, spiritual) be offered as sub-questions beneath these more basic religious groupings.

For the sake of continuity and the discernment of emerging trends, it is important that such questions allow for comparisons from one Census to the next. What I am suggesting would allow such comparisons to be made, but it would also give us a more accurate picture of a vital aspect of Australian society.

As a Christian, I am concerned for the truth. Of course, I would like to see Christianity growing in Australia. But that has to be a reality, and not a wish or a distorted Census report. A picture of reality is what the Census should provide. But at the moment, if the ABS continues with its sample Census, we will not have reality but half-truths and distortions that are impossible to usefully evaluate.

As our society changes and grows increasingly multicultural and religiously diverse, it is vital that the questions we ask about religion keep pace with those changes and not keep repeating anachronistic or unrepresentative categories. The changes that a regular Census shows must change the Census itself. The growth in the number of, say, Muslims and Hindus in Australian society warrants finding out more about their particular religious adherence.

The growth of “no religion” — since being moved from the bottom of the list to the top in the Census — also warrants clarification. At its most basic level, it is important to understand whether this represents a growth in atheism or a rejection of organised religion. Likewise, differentiating between Christian denominations at a time when such differences are diminishing, but leaving the far more differentiated category of “no religion” as a single entity, strikes me as ridiculous. If the “no religion” category has grown over recent decades to nearly one third of the population, it is archaic and anachronistic for the Census itself to remain unchanged.

Phillip Jensen is an author, preacher, and the former Anglican Dean of Sydney. He now works at Two Ways Ministries in Sydney.


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