The Census not only fails to measure whether people actually practise ‘their religion’, the Office of National Statistics also knows full well that most people who say they are religious don’t base any of their life decisions on those beliefs. So what on earth are we measuring ‘religion’ for?
As the Census Campaign argues, the data produced by the religion question on the Census says nothing about religion’s importance in the lifes of UK citizens: at best it measures something closer to nominal cultural affiliation. This is why we think the various citations of the Census data to justify things like ‘faith’ schools and religious broadcasting are illegitimate, where the data is used as if it measures something much stronger than cultural affiliation.
A very recent report by the ONS provides further support for the Census Campaign position. The ONS cites a survey carried out by the Department for Local Schools and Government, which measures that all-important dimension of religious belief: how important one’s beliefs actually are to one. This was measured by asking participants how much religion affected four life decisions: what school they would send their children to, where they live, who their friends are and where they work.
There was an enormous disparity between the number who identified as being religious and those who thought that religion should influence these life decisions. Of the 82% of respondents who claimed that they were religious (the question, once again, encouraged a widely encompassing definition of being religious), less than 30% felt that religion should affect their choice of schools; 83% claimed that their religion has no bearing on where they live; 86% responded that religion did not affect their choice of friends and 90% thought that their religion doesn’t affect their choice of workplace.
We can see from these results that although, when faced with a leading question, many people may respond that they are religious, their religious beliefs are in the great majority of cases entirely incidental to their views on education, work, friends and community. The implication is clear: data showing a broad affiliation to a religion cannot and should not be used to defend policy which would require more than this. So why collect such data? And if we must collect it, then why doesn’t the ONS use its own research to advise government that it can’t actually use the ‘religion’ data for any viable purpose?