Census Campaign in the blogosophere

Guardian religious affairs correspondent Riazat Butt, on the Guardian News Blog, receives the Census Campaign breezily:

The British Humanist Association has launched a campaign to encourage non-believers and the seriously lapsed to tick the “no religion” box on the 2011 census with the aim of challenging religious privilege in Britain.

According to the organisation, public figures have spent the last 10 years claiming that most people in this country are religious to justify the money or attention spent on these communities.

Well, not all the public figures all the time, but yes the data has its consequences.

The beef the BHA has with the census is manifold but, principally, it is that it underestimates the number of non-religious people and inflates the Christian population. The official figures show that in 2001 15.1% of respondents did not answer the religion question (which was voluntary) and 7.8% of the people who did said they had no religion.

… Since the last census was carried out, the BHA believes the numbers of the non-religious have increased. And there have been high-profile campaigns by atheists such as Richard Dawkins and the group behind the Atheist bus.

That group involved us, too, by the way. We do get around.

An important part of the beef omitted here is that compared to most other data the census underestimates the number of non-religious people by around half. Given what other surveys say, it is highly probable that many non-religious people saw the new religion question as inappropriate or inapplicable and so were disproportionately hidden within the 15.1% who didn’t answer the question; and that a great many more non-religious people whose own views are at odds with the churches’ support of ‘faith’ schools, opposition to gay marriage, extra funding for ‘faith’ groups and all the rest of it, ended up duped into answering as “cultural Christians”, a distinction that is blurred completely away in the end results.

The BHA says it is time for people who never go to church or who never think about religion to ‘fess up: ” … what people do not realise is that by ticking the ‘Christian’ box rather than the ‘no religion’ box – which would more accurately reflect their identity – they have contributed to data used to justify an increase in the number of ‘faith’ schools, the public funding of religious groups, keeping Bishops in the House of Lords as of right, and the continuation of compulsory worship in schools.” Yes you fickle and lazy lot, the humanists blame you for all that.

Gee, how embarrassing, did we say that? Well, no. The point about bad data collection is that results are biased in ways that many respondents won’t even realise. And moreover how that data then gets misused is the fault of the people who use that data. In this case it is being misused as if it measured practising and believing religiosity which can be used as a marker for the likely holding of particular views, when in fact it measures (at best) some kind of nominal inherited cultural affiliation. The national statisticians know the data is unrepresentative, remember.

While some might argue that humanists have no more place to tell you what to do than religious institutions, it will be interesting to see what difference a decade of high profile campaigning and posturing front has done to the thorny question of religious belief in Britain.

If a simple recommendation based on careful consideration of the options is “telling you what to do” then it’s a bit difficult to see how anyone with a viewpoint can avoid “telling you what to do”. But we’re not exactly telling non-religious people who they can and can’t marry, how they should think, or feel, or vote, whether they’re allowed to do work on Sundays, whether they should learn a musical instrument or focus on their studies, or any of the other things one associates with “telling people what to do”.

Predictably, the Christian Institute says the campaign is “against Christians”. That the slogan is directed from the outset to those who are “not religious” is immediately forgotten. Instead we’re apparently telling “the public” at large not to select ‘Christian’, according to the Institute.

Archbishop Cranmer undermines the campaign with his own unique brand of reasoning. We don’t need to worry about non-religious representation in the census, he says, because everyone is religious. The Census Campaign is, he says, just an expression of our own religion, which is to go around “evangelising” non-religious people, our dogma being that they should tick “No religion”. We are “like any other religion.” (But also we are atheists and irreligious and therefore wrong about everything.)

Cranmer then briefly exaggerates the claims of the Census Campaign: the religion data is used “constantly” to bolster religious agenda (well, we didn’t say “constantly“). And the handful of well-publicised court cases in which Christians have fought to discriminate against others, enthusiastically backed by a cadre of Christian lawyers, are themselves exaggerated to summon a distorted vision of persecution:

We have just been through a decade of some of the most illiberal, anti-Christian legislation in centuries. Christian beliefs on marriage, conscience and worship were subsumed to an aggressive secularism under the guise of ‘equality’. There were numerous dismissals of practising Christians from employment for reasons that are quite unacceptable in a civilised, liberal democracy.

Are Christians banned from getting married according to their Christian beliefs on marriage? No. But gay people can’t get married, and humanists can’t do it legally on their own terms. Can Christians worship as they please, identify as they please? Yes. But apparently our reminding non-religious people to identify as non-religious in a government survey when asked that specific question, is beyond the pale!

His Grace would also like the BHA to consider the observation of Edmund Burke: “Man is by his constitution a religious animal; atheism is against not only our reason, but our instincts.”

Well, that’s a view. But consider the observation of Bertrand Russell: “I do not think that the real reason why people accept religion has anything to do with argumentation. They accept religion on emotional grounds. One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion, because religion makes men virtuous. So I am told; I have not noticed it.”

We’re then treated to a long list of Big Things that are “religious”.

The study of philosophy is a religious pursuit; the desire for spiritual satisfaction is a religious pursuit; the yearning for freedom and time is a religious pursuit; the search for ultimate truth and meaning is a religious pursuit; the desire to be loved is a religious pursuit;

[etc etc…]

and the accommodation of mystery, paradox and infinity is a religious acceptance, a resting ‘in faith’, of the unknown.

So, it’s not that non-religious people aren’t yearning for freedom or doing philosophy. It’s just that when they do do those things then they’re auto-magically religious!

Well, if all you mean by “religious” is some mixture of deep, important, meaningful, then fine. In that case we’re all “religious” whenever we think or feel Big Things. But in reality that doesn’t seem to capture the whole meaning of ‘religious’, with its divine and supernatural connotations, or its doctrinal and theological underbelly. Under the Cranmer definition everyone is “religious” and the word is meaningless. Cranmer tells us, “To live is to hope, and to hope is to have faith”, in which case just to live is to have faith, and we all have “faith”, and there’s nothing special or unique about it.

If the BHA are concerned that the 2001 census produced inaccurate and misleading data on religion (in that it grossly undercounted the number of non-religious people and greatly inflated the number of Christians), they must equally be concerned that the 2011 census accurately measure the amount of ‘religion’ and ‘non-religion’ in the country.


But of course, we’re not allowed this liberty of accuracy, because we are “religious” too, and we must be conceptually assimilated, leaving no room for inconformity:

Insofar as the BHA are keen to identify themselves patriotically as British, philosophically as humanist and by disposition associative, they are all actively involved in the affiliative pursuit of the ‘religious’.

So being – not necessarily patriotic, but just in Britain – and having a philosophy at all, and because we sometimes like to associate with other human beings, we’re necessarily religious, despite all the mystical and doctrinal implications of ‘religion’ which we disavow. It’s a strange feeling, being defined by others in hostility, having your grievances denied, blurred away.

The Census Campaign is concerned to increase the figures on non-religious people, for whom faith-friendly policies are undesirable, to a point of greater accuracy; meanwhile Cranmer seems to want to remove the option to define as “non-religious” altogether.

(This tactic isn’t uncommon. A donor on the justgiving.com/census pages had anticipated, “I reckon that if this campaign had £1 for every time I’ve heard the old “Atheism is a religion” chestnut, you’d already have reached your target.”)

What are we worried about though? Church Mouse seems to believe that the census data has no effect at all, and our Campaign’s evidence that the religion data is used to justify and argue for policy is a nonsense. (See also Examples of Census data use – PDF.)

Church Mouse actually agrees that the data is unrepresentative. But, to employ Mouse’s own kind of exaggeration, Mouse seems to think that the census data is ignored entirely once it is collected and that even when it is mentioned in parliament everyone is selectively incapable of hearing it, or something. On Twitter, Mouse went further, squeaking bizarrely that “BHA census campaign claims faith schools are the result of the 2001 census #thisistotalrubbish #censuscampaign” and that “BHA census campaign claims Bishops are in the Lords due to the result of the 2001 census #thisistotalrubbish #censuscampaign“. This is total rubbish, indeed. Mouse was mildly taken to task by Simon Sarmiento of Thinking Anglicans for the exaggeration.

Like Simon Sarmiento, Curate Lesley Fellows is much more understanding of the campaign, and of its really very understated message, writing:

I am please[d] – the truth will set you free and all that. It is better for everyone to be free and honest about their religious beliefs…

But she concludes by complaining that, according to the headlines she’s read anyway, the Census Campaign (or some other humanist campaigning) is “attacking religion”. It’s not necessarily Curate Lesley who is doing this, rather it’s perhaps the newspaper she reads, but it’s a shame that honest campaigning for positive principles and accurate representation are so easily distorted into “attacking religion”.

Meanwhile, over 1,200 people signed the Census Campaign pledge on the day it launched, leaving comments such as:

I’ll talk to my friends to raise their awareness too

I was tempted to put “Jedi” until I read your cogent explanation as to why we people of no religion really must make our presence felt.

An excellent and relevant campaign. I hope it’s effective – I’ll be spreading the word!

Would have done so anyway. If there’s anything I detest it’s an assumption that religion should be imposed on my life and predominant in our society.

Donors on the JustGiving pages have been saying:

Really glad that this is being highlighted. Keep up the good work

Worthy cause, currently struggling with the amount of indoctrination in primary schools.

Thank you for taking the initiative, raising awareness and being the voice of many like me who want a better society.

This is important. Honesty makes the best policy. Let’s hope people realise this.

Good work BHA.

The wording of the census question is a disgrace – & also perfectly, cynically calculated. Good luck to all in fighting this worthy & honest campaign.

This is more important than the Atheist Bus Campaign. Give, give, give!

Go BHA! I’ve met dozens of non-religious people who ticked ‘Christian’ in 2001 just because of their family background or religious schooling.

I have five totally non believing,non religious friends, one half Jewish, who all last time ticked Christian. One explained,’Well, I’m not a Hindu!’

Well done for raising awareness and giving intelligent non religious people a voice. It’s a first step towards us all becoming kind, rational human b.

What’s the point of deliberately collecting misleading statistics?

Here’s to the campaign for honest and accurate Census results!


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Census Campaign in the blogosophere

  1. How lovely to have been noticed. But what a shame that we seem to have found grounds for argument in an area where we should so easily agree! People should fill in the census accurately. This should not be a difficult argument to make.

    Mouse will brush aside the many innacuracies you have made in reporting his position. Your readers can click through and read my critique for themselves (amd already I can report that my web analytics tool says that three people have taken the opportunity).

    Mouse will, however, take this opportunity to ask a question to which the answer should be a simple one.

    Of all the issues you list, which have had the policy outcome influenced by the 2001 census question on religion? In other words, which would have seen a different policy outcome if the result of the 2001 census question on religion had given the result which you now seek?

  2. Next Canadian census, if there’s a question like this, I will be sure to do my own campaigning for people I know choosing “No Religion.” But why does it feel so dirty? I am very firm in my beliefs, but the stigmas against non-religious people really suck, for lack of a better word. Just because you graduated from a Catholic high school does not make you a practicing Catholic. And neither does getting water poured on your head when you’re one year old.