ONS admits that the census does not measure religious belief

Yesterday in the House of Commons, MP of Hove Mike Weatherley asked a very relevant and pressing question.  He asked the Minister of the Cabinet Office:

what account the Office for National Statistics took of the proportion of the population who do not follow a religion in preparing the forms for the (a) 2001 and (b) 2011 Census.

The reply came in the form of a letter from Stephen Penneck, Director General for the Office of National Statistics (‘ONS’):

A question on religion was included in the Census in England and Wales for the first time in 2001 following the Census (Amendment) Act 2000. Responses to the question helped provide information which supplemented the output from the ethnicity question by identifying ethnic minority sub-groups, particularly those originating from the Indian sub-continent, in terms of their religion. The wording and design of the question and response categories were determined after extensive consultation with users and other key stakeholders and a programme of question testing. Information from the religion question is used to supplement ethnicity data to gain a general understanding of society; to inform service provision and resource allocations; and for fulfilling legal obligations to monitor inequalities.

ONS recognised that no single religion question could meet all user needs and after a programme of research and testing, ONS decided that religious affiliation – the number of people who identify with a religion irrespective of the extent of their religious belief or practice-was again the most appropriate concept to measure. Affiliation is a socially significant indicator in its own right that relates to a person’s cultural background and values.

This response is important because it lays out the important uses that census data is put to, and makes clear that the religion question does not measure religious belief or practice, but only cultural affiliation.

Yet, data from the last census has been repeatedly used as if it does measure religious belief or practice.  If the policy-makers are going to continue misusing the data in the same was as they have over the last decade, it is vital that we ensure that all those who are not religious tick ‘No Religion’ on the forthcoming census, irrespective of any cultural affiliation they have.

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6 Responses to ONS admits that the census does not measure religious belief

  1. Dawn says:

    “Most people would agree that Christians have a good moral attitude, the attitude that this country was built upon”??????

    Christianity has absolutely nothing to do with morality, religious affiliation (just as with high status professions) is however a handy smokescreen for those with low morals/integrity ans so unfortunately attracts a number of people who wouldn’t ordinarily associate themselves with it except that it suits their own selfish purposes. This country was not ‘built’ upon a moral attitude which came from Christianity. All religious groups try to hoodwink us into thinking that religious affiliation = morals; but morality comes from humans, whether they be Christian, Pagan, Muslim, Jewish, Humanist (the list goes on….).

    As for equal representation, we are indeed a democracy, that means you have to be elected…we don’t want bishops, who may well have dubious morals (they are human after all) weedling their way into politics. Alan Sugar wouldn’t get in unless he was elected, that doesn’t make him the best man for the job but that’s democracy for you I think the church has proved very nicely that it isn’t capable of selecting genuinely good people in appropriate roles often enough for us all to believe that unelected bishopd is a viable proposition for the future.

    Finally, it’s no hoax, if you are not religious you should have the integrity to say so, let’s not forget that if it weren’t for Emperor Constantine we wouldn’t be predominantly Christian in Northern Europe anyway, so let people make up their own minds, that’s all this campaign is trying to do.

    • censustalk says:

      Religion is one of the questions that will allow individual respondents to indicate their identity in the way they consider most appropriate. This question will remain voluntary. The UK Statistics Authority proposes no change to the basic format of the question for the 2011 census
      Please respond. – what do you think

  2. James Edwards says:

    Personally I feel that this census question is perfectly justified.

    ‘Affiliation is a socially significant indicator in its own right that relates to a person’s cultural background and values.’ If people feel affiliated with a Christian lifestyle then surely it is a good enough reason to tick Christian (or any other religion for that matter!) on the census form. Most people would agree that Christians have a good moral attitude, the attitude that this country was built upon, and it would be very detrimental to turn our back on these views and values now.

    In Adam Richardson’s reply he says that: ‘It’s very much like placing questions asking who they voted for on the census, what football team they support, what their favourite sport is, what their favourite colour is…’ Firstly these questions don’t reflect peoples common values, what football team I support has no direct impact on where I think government funds should go; likewise is the question regarding my colour preference. Whereas having a Christian attitude to giving, for example, may reflect what emphasis I think the government should put on third world donations or gift aid. Hnce this analogy is simply ridiculous and has no relevance.

    The BHA flier I was given gives a list of policies the government has suspposedly used the 2001 Census to justify, however several of these are irrelevant (since they do not impact government funds – i.e. ‘high number of hours of religious broadcasting’) and several are unjustified (if anyone wants to discuss them I am more than happy.) The rest sound like they would be beneficial for society rather than reasons to tick ‘No Religion’.
    One of the reasons given by BHA is that the census impacted ‘The public funding of faith-based organisations’. I expect the majority of these ‘faith-based organisations’ are charities which I’m sure most ‘non-religious’ people would agree is a good use of government funds. However if the 2011 census was to come back and the majority religious group was ‘no religion’ then the government may use this to justify government cuts in this area.
    Another reason was ‘Keeping the 26 Bishops in the House of Lords.’ As you all know, our government is a democracy and so there should be equal representation of religious parties. If the government have achieved this by keeping Bishops in the House of Lords then fantastic! The alternative ‘non-religious’ options are the likes of Alan Sugar which is by no means an accurate representation of the population.

    I have yet to see any reasons as to why ticking ‘no religion’ on the census will have any positive impact on the expendure of government funds. If people feel ‘affiliated’ with Christianity and want the government to take this into account when allocating government funds, then imposing your views on others by trying to hoax people into ticking ‘no religion’ on the census form is unjustified and damaging to the government’s census information. That’s not to mention the totally unneccesary blasphemous slogan!

  3. jd says:

    Chris, if you click the link and read the document there are lots of examples given!

  4. Adam Richardson says:

    That’s ridiculous.. “Affiliation is a socially significant indicator in its own right that relates to a person’s cultural background and values.” –

    I don’t believe that it significantly defines itself from simply asking people ‘are you a nice person’ really.. which isn’t a relevant question for the census (I don’t mean anything relating a nice or not-nice character to religiousness I just mean, as an example).

    It’s very much like placing questions asking who they voted for on the census, what football team they support, what their favourite sport is, what their favourite colour is… all of which could give some, like religious affiliation, vague, overlapping and purely statistical (with no evidence for the affiliation being at all causal in these values) relation to a person’s cultural background and values.

  5. Chris says:

    Hi, I wonder if you could give some examples of how “census data from the last census has been repeatedly used as if it does measure religious belief or practice” and how it has been used to justify public expenditure and service provisions, as has been repeatedly suggested by the BHA in interviews (including Naomi’s yesterday with Jeremy Vine). I’m very supportive of the Census Campaign, but would like some explicit examples of the above in order to be better armed in debates on the issue.