What is happening?

“Numbers have never been so important. On 27 March 2011, the Census 2011 takes place. Taking a snapshot across the nation, on one day once a decade, helps plan services across the whole of the UK.” 
Office of National Statistics, October 2010

The figures on religion produced by the 2001 census gave a wholly misleading picture of the religiosity of the UK. The distorted figures approximately cut the number of non-religious people in half.

This pattern is set to be repeated in the 2011 census, because the same single, flawed question on religion will be used again. The 2011 Census will be held on the 27th March with forms being sent to more than 25 million households.

Ask a silly question…

In 2001, a highly leading question“What is your religion?” was added.

By assuming that all participants held a religious belief, the question captured some kind of loose cultural affiliation, and as a result over 70% responded ‘Christian’, a far higher percentage than nearly every other significant survey or poll on religious belief in the past decade.

Unfortunately, the Office of National Statistics has decided to reuse this same flawed question in the 2011 census. See Our campaign so far.

How the data is used

The data obtained by the census is used by government for policy making, service planning and funding allocation. The disproportionate number of individuals labelled as religious is used to defend a number of policy decisions, from the right of some Church of England Bishops to remain in the House of Lords to the existence and expansion of state-funded ‘faith’ schools.

Importantly, there have been suggestions this may be the last decennial census compiled, with other forms of data collection currently being explored. If 2011 does witness the final census taken, the resulting statistics on religion and belief may be quoted long into the future. See Why does it matter.

The background

In 2001, the census included a question on religion for the first time. The question was “What is your religion?” and has been widely criticised for being too leading.  It resulted in just 14.6% of respondents in England and 18.63% in Wales ticking the ‘No Religion’ box despite other surveys and studies showing a much higher percentage of non-religious people.  The Scottish figure, where respondents were asked about the religion they were brought up in, as well as their current religion, showed significantly more respondents ticking ‘No Religion’: 27.55%, in spite of far higher figures for Church attendance in Scotland.

The BHA worked with the office of National Statistics (ONS) to try and improve the question for the 2011 Census. However, despite agreeing to testing of alternative questions, and admitting that the existing question was flawed, the ONS took the decision to keep the same inadequate question for the 2011 Census. See Our campaign so far.


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