Naomi Phillips strikes again on Radio Oxford

Head of Public Affairs, Naomi Phillips, has been out and about representing our cause once again: this time featuring on Radio Oxford’s Sunday morning show with Phil Mercer.  You can listen to her appearance by clicking here, and skipping forward to 1hr 09.  Once again, Naomi put forward a clear case for ticking ‘No Religion’ in the forthcoming census, pointing out that:

‘As it stands, the census question is a deliberately leading question that only captures a very weak form of cultural affiliation. …  The census data is used to do things like justify an increase in the number of state funded religious school or keeping a number of reserved seats for Bishops in the House of Lords.  So, it is not just a matter of the data being interesting: it is actually used to justify and legitimate public policy.  This is why accurate data is important.’

Naomi’s points were supported by Benita Hewitt (1hr 35), the Director of Christian Research:

‘As [Naomi] said, there are differences between practicing of faith, belief, and affiliation: [the census] is asking about affiliation.  The question itself is leading: it is “What is your religion?”, so it assumes you have a religion.’ 

However, Reverent Mike Belmont from Kings Centre in Oxford didn’t seem to agree that the census question is particularly loaded, claiming that (2hr 24) :

‘What [the 2001 census data] does show there is more interest in Christianity than their atheist opponents would suggest, and it does show that spirituality cannot be marginalised.’

While we admit that we were rather surprised by the high number of individuals who identified as ‘Christian’ in the last census, we do not believe that this reflects a corresponding high level of interest in Christianity of the British public.  Indeed, the dropping number of church attendees seems to indicate the exact opposite.  Rather, a more reasonable explanation for the high 2001 result is that a) the question is highly leading and b) people put Christian as a default option.

We hope to create more accurate results by making people aware of the importance of their answer to the religion question on the census, and encouraging them to think very carefully about how they answer it.

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ONS and the relevance of religion to people’s lives

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?

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Are your answers on the Census confidential and safe?

If your nearest or best local school is a faith school, religion can be the key to admittance -But your Census data won't keep you out

While out campaigning, a number of people have asked about how safe their data will be.  “If we tick ‘No Religion’”, we’ve been asked, ‘will that damage my child’s chances of getting into a faith school, if those are the only schools in my area?’. Another consideration for the less outspoken non-religious person is whether family and friends will be able to learn your ‘real’ views if you tick ‘No religion’.

The answer to this is ‘No’.  Your answer to the religion question – and all personal information on the Census – is thoroughly protected by a number of different laws, including the Data Protection Act of 1998 and the Census Act of 1920.  No personal information can be shared for 100 years, and all analysis is at a group level. You can, then, feel safe in the knowledge that your data is securely locked away and inaccessible to prying eyes.

An anonymous person - Your personal details are hidden

Some of you may, however, have seen a recent article in the Guardian, which highlights the fact that the Office of National Statistics (ONS) have contracted the Lockheed Martin to collect and securely handle the data.  The apparent problem with this is that “as a US-owned company under the post-9/11 USA Patriot Act, Lockheed Martin can be forced to hand over any private data in its possession to the US government and/or the CIA” … “which doesn’t make the government’s promises to keep our data safe sound quite so reassuring.”

According to Office of National Statistics (ONS), however, this is not quite correct.  When they originally awarded the contract to Lockheed, they made clear that the Patriot Act would have no effect, stating that:

No personal census data will be handled or seen by any American-owned company… All data processing will be carried out in the UK and no data will leave or be held outside the UK. The data are the property of ONS and only UK/EU owned companies will be involved in processing personal census data.

So, if you aren’t a ‘shout it from the roof’ kind of humanist, you don’t need to worry about your personal data: it should be thoroughly protected by the UK laws.

Of course, we think that ticking ‘No religion’ could help to tackle problems like worrying about ‘faith’ schools admissions from the start. Census data on religion is often used to justify public policy – including building more ‘faith’ schools in response to perceived need of religious groups. The more people that accurately report themselves as having ‘no religion’ on the Census, the less justification for building more ‘faith’ schools, and so the less need in the future to obscure your view on religion.

As an aside, surveys show that only a minority of adults who practice their religion say that this influences the school to which they sent or would send their child. See government stats (PDF) and the YouGov poll (PDF).

Thanks to Jeck Crow for the image “Faith”, used with permission.
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Happy Australia Day as Australian Census Campaign Launched!

AFA Census 2011It’s Australia Day, so we’d like to give a big shout out to the The Atheist Foundation of Australia (AFA), who have recently launched their own Census Campaign focussing on their Census taking place on the 9 August.  The campaign highlights the fact that around the world, non-religious people are wanting their voice to be heard in national policy and legislation. 

We wish AFA the best of luck with their campaign!  For further information, check out their website.

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Naomi Phillips and the Census Campaign on Radio Essex

Bright and early on Sunday morning, Head of Public Affairs at the BHA Naomi Phillips was busy spreading the word about the Census Campaign on BBC Radio Essex.  You can listen again to her appearance (1hr 09).

She said:

The whole question ‘What is your religion?’ is actually geared to encourage people to answer with a religious answer; it presupposes that people have a religion …Our campaign is to encourage the many people who ticked the Christian  box last time to really think about what they do in their lives, whether they actually believe and whether they practice: and if the answer is ‘no’, we hope that those people will tick the ‘No religion’ box.

The uses that this Census data is put to is to help your local authority or council do things like how to allocate resources or design public services.  If they are given answers like 72% of their local population are Christian, it encourages this like building more state funded schools for example … Most people don’t want these things, so what we want is to have a more realistic and accurate figure: we want people who aren’t religious, to tick ‘No religion’.

Don Cardy, Chairman of the Budget Sub-Committee of the Chelmsford Diocese, offered an  interesting response (1hr 23 onwards).  Mr. Cardy rightly drew attention to the fact that the way that the religion question is worded greatly affects the number of people who call themselves religious. But he claimed that our campaign would cause confusion, saying, ‘If the Humanists do lobby, they are in effect changing the wording, and not all people hear what they say, so they’ll all be answering a different question.’ In reality, of course, the ambiguity is already there and everyone isn’t hearing the same thing anyway (including policy makers!).  Our campaign can’t literally “change the wording”.  We have, in fact, been lobbying for a change to the question over the last few years to make it less ambiguous.   Alas, our efforts were to no avail.  However, we can and should still draw attention to the fact that, as it stands, the wording already encourages a very vague kind of answer which inflates the ‘religious’ responses, and that these responses are then used to privilege religion.

A further concern with the Census Campaign raised by the presenter is that we want to “coerce” the public into ticking the ‘No Religion’ box.  This is certainly not our objective.  We are running a public awareness campaign to make clear the role that the data from the Census is put to in discussions about the country and even policy, and to encourage those who are non-religious to stand up and be counted. However, we agree that the decision of which box to tick is personal and an important one: indeed it is precisely because it is so important that we believe that everyone should be fully informed about the potential consequences of their decision.

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Official survey finds most Brits non-religious

The latest British Social Attitudes Survey (BSA), published at the start of this month but conducted in 2009, shows 50.7% of people surveyed claim to be non-religious.  Only 43.7% say they are Christian, while the remaining 5% belong to non-Christian religions.

These are of course radically different results from those of the last Census, which measured over 70% of the population as Christian, and a tiny 15% of the public as non-religious.

The BSA results provide further evidence that the particular wording of the religion question on the Census distorts its results.  Rather than asking ‘What is your religion?’, the BSA asked, ‘Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?’.  This is not a leading question and, unlike the Census question, will not tempt cultural Christians into defining themselves as religious.  Whereas the Census question seems to measure a weak form of cultural affiliation, the BSA measures something much closer to actual religious belief.

We believe that it is vital that everyone who fills in the Census understands how a tick in a religious box will be used.  The Census isn’t a vote on cultural affiliation (what would be the point in that?). Rather a religious tick can be used as a vote for the proliferation of faith schools, for the continued existence of unelected religious peers in the House of Lords, and for state resources to be poured into religious organizations.

If you haven’t already done so, join the Census Campaign to help us spread the word: Take the Pledge now, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

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Atheist Ireland launches “Be Honest to Godless in the Irish Census” Campaign

The Census Campaign is honoured that a similar campaign has begun in Ireland ahead of the Irish Census on 10 April, the message: “Be Honest to Godless in the Irish Census on Sunday 10 April. Think before you tick. And if you’re not religious, please tick the no religion box.”

From the campaign page:

Why is this important?

The Census results are used to predict future demand for State services and other policies. Knowing the true number of nonreligious people strengthens the case for secular schools and hospitals, and for a greater separation of church and state generally.

So be honest to Godless in the Irish Census on Sunday 10 April. Think before you tick. And if you’re not religious, please tick the no religion box.

Please don’t tick a religion you don’t actually practice.
Please don’t tick your childhood religion out of habit.
Please don’t let someone else fill in your answer.
Please don’t write in ‘Atheist’. It’s not a religion.
Please don’t write in anything that’s not a religion.
Please don’t ignore the question. Answer it honestly.
If you’re not religious, please tick the no religion box.

And the non-religious in Ireland may like to Like them on Facebook.

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Treating “religion” as a proxy for ethnicity causes real damage to the non-religious

Originally published at on Wednesday

Naomi Phillips

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

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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 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!


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New site features

There are a few new features on As well as a little countdown to Census day over there in the sidebar…

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