Naomi Phillips, head of public affairs at the British Humanist Association, writes for ePolitix.com about its new campaign to ensure non-religious people accurately record themselves as so in the 2011 Census.
Today, exactly five months before the next (and possibly final) Census takes place in England and Wales, the British Humanist Association (BHA) has launched 'The Census Campaign'. The Census Campaign calls on people who are not religious, including atheists, agnostics, sceptics and 'cultural Christians', to be counted and included in the 2011 Census by ticking the 'No religion' response box.
The 2001 Census grossly undercounted the number of non-religious people and gave a hugely inflated religious figure, especially for the number of Christians. The Census actually encourages people to claim a religious affiliation without recording whether they practise or believe in a religion.
It's quite clear that 72 per cent of the population are not practising and believing Christians as the Census data might suggest, and that there are many more than 15 per cent of the population who are not religious – those figures are not replicated in any other significant social survey.
The 2010 British Social Attitudes survey found that 43 per cent of us are happy to self-identify as non-religious, that an even higher number of people do not describe themselves as religious, and that only a tiny minority of people regularly attend church services.
However, policymakers, politicians and those in control of the public purse nationally and locally all use the Census data on religion to inform policy, action and resource allocation. So much public policy, from the state-funding of 'faith' schools to the hours dedicated to religious broadcasting, is partly justified using the false picture of religiosity in England and Wales that the Census provides.
Under the new Equality Act, local authorities will also be using the data to inform all sorts of decisions, including those on funding. It is not only the non-religious who are affected by discriminatory and divisive policies and public services, having themselves been largely excluded from the national picture, but all of us.
Despite the ONS itself admitting that the Census question on religion, 'What is your religion?', is a leading question designed to capture the weakest possible religious affiliation (making it a ‘reasonable proxy’ for an ethnicity question), it still recommended the question's inclusion in 2011. Yet it is quite unfit for uses such as resource allocation and the monitoring of discrimination.
Although it might seem strange, part of the reason for using a question that measures the weakest possible affiliation (including a cultural connection) was in order to 'capture' the large proportion of non-religious people who may consider that they are Jewish or Sikh by ethnicity (as seen in law since the Race Relations Act) but not by religion.
Not 'losing' the secular Jewish and Sikh populations in statistics might help government to meet its duties in terms of monitoring race equality. But ‘losing’ millions of non-religious people by encouraging them to tick the 'Christian' box (even if they have never been to a church or don't believe in a god) has serious consequences, not least for equality issues.
Moreover, it is the greatly inflated figure for 'Christian' that has a particularly negative impact for non-religious people, as it is the figure that is most influential and most frequently cited by those seeking to retain privileges, such as reserved seats for Church of England bishops in the House of Lords, an increase in Christian 'faith' schools and a privileged dialogue between government and the churches.
Under the banner, 'If you're not religious, for God's sake say so!', the Census Campaign seeks to raise awareness of the dangers and real damage that can be done by the non-religious population not being accurately recorded by the Census. This may the last-ever Census, so it's especially important that people who do not consider themselves to be religious make 2011 the year to stand up and be counted.
The Census Campaign's official website is at http://census-campaign.org.uk/