What does the religion question really measure?

There has been some debate about the usefulness of the question in terms of what it hopes to achieve. There are so many aspects to the term ‘religion’ and so many different interpretations of the meaning of the question, that it is difficult to work out if the final figure relates to the number of people who believe in the doctrines of a particular religion, actively practise the religion, personally identify themselves as a member of that religion, or simply have a vague cultural affiliation with a certain religion.

As part of their research for the 2011 Census, the ONS gave examples of how they expected the data to be used. These included resource allocation, meeting legislative requirements, policy targeting, working with what it called ‘faith communities’, identifying and tackling discrimination, meeting equality targets, and policy development.

This all suggested that the need was for high quality, accurate and reliable information on actual religious practice and/or ‘belonging’ to a religion as it might affect the needs of service users.

However, the high percentage of people who ticked the ‘Christian’ box, coupled with falling Church attendance and evidence from other surveys on belief and practice, suggests that the question actually measures a vague cultural affiliation – something that does not affect people’s needs with regard to policy.

And the problem is that sometimes the census data is used exactly as if the ‘religion’ answers were meaningful.

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