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Opinion (short): Daily Telegraph 28.6.17 – Only ONE census error corrected

Published in the Daily Telegraph 28.6.17:  Brian Morris

Why the Census remains biased

Despite a calamitous collapse of the census computer last August, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has now released a flurry of fascinating facts and figures on who we are and what we do.

But righteous rancor will undoubtedly arise from the outcome of Question 18 – on Religious Affiliation. Up from 22.3 percent in 2011, the ‘No Religion’ count has leapt to 30.1 percent.  While this option was moved up from last place to top spot – in line with most western countries – it does explain why the ‘secular’ score has produced such artificially low figures for decades.  It’s given Churches a huge advantage, both financially and politically.

Three distinct benefits may well flow from ABS finally confirming Australia is ‘religion-neutral’ – with ‘No Religion’ now being the largest social demographic.  Catholic affiliation is down to 22.6 percent, Anglicans to 13.3 percent, and Islam stands are just 2.6 percent of the population.

But in reality, the secular figure is far greater than this raw statistic of 30.1 percent.  Surveys show there is also a hidden 20 percent of ‘lapsed Christians’ who – through sheer force of habit – continue to record a religion given them as a child.  And Christian parents still allocate their own religious beliefs to their children at each census.

Australia is, in reality, more than 50 percent secular.  That figure will be confirmed once ABS follow other nations by asking; “Does the person practice as religion; yes or no?” – rather than the leading question; “What is the person’s religion?”, which assumes we all have one!

One outcome, of Australia being mostly religion-neutral, may well lead to greater funding equity for public schools and public health.  In 2011, all Christian denominations claimed an embellished 61 percent, with ‘No Religion’ a deceptively low 22 percent.  That anomaly existed for decades, providing Churches with leverage and a sense of authority to claim huge government tax breaks, and $12b in annual grants for religious schools in 2016.

Correcting the error of religious advantage will not only lead to fairer public funding, but it will also put pressure on politicians to recognise many secular policies which are routinely defeated on religious grounds.  They include voluntary euthanasia and marriage equality, both of which have overwhelmingly public support.

An IPSOS poll in 2016 showed 78 percent of people want the separation of Church and State – where religion still influences social policy.  This undue influence keeps an unpopular Chaplaincy Program in public schools, and outdated abortion laws on statute books in some state – just two legislative repeals also supported by the public.

A third benefit in being recognised as secular – rather than a Christian nation – comes with the real and present danger of Islamic extremism.  While many parts of the West, including Australia, have experienced attacks, there is an ameliorating factor that comes with religious neutrality.

This is particularly evident in Scandinavian countries where strongly secular communities have far less religious violence.  Secular neutrality is a more stabalising principle than Christianity – which claims spiritual superiority over Islam.  Secularism is neutral to all religions – it does not favour any faith over another – it does not inflame tensions between Sunni and Shiite, or Protestant against Catholic ; it simply opposes all hostility based on religious belief.

Australia is a signatory to the United Nations charter for Freedom of Religion and Belief – with a full definition that also includes non-belief.  The constitution is a secular document – based on Section 116 – and we should respect that.  Historical records show those who framed it, prior to federation in 1901, intended parliament to be free of religion – as distinct from Britain where the monarch swears to uphold the Church of England.

Since federation, however, Christian Churches have sidestepped Section 116 and instead played heavily on their supposed congregational strength.  In 1901 the population was allegedly 96 percent Christian.  As with centuries prior, it was both socially and politically unwise to be seen as anything other than a God-fearing churchgoer.

In 2017, governments continue to defer to religious practices, rather than the secular constitution.  They open each parliament with church services and a daily ritual of saying prayers.  And there is a persistent concern among MPs to defer to a perceived Christian majority – while only 8 percent of the public now attend church regularly.

Recognising Australia as a fully secular nation will not create an immediate seismic political shift, but eventually it will have an impact.  As with Scandinavia, a more secular worldview will progressively serve to calm religious rhetoric that continues to inflame social division – and to advance legislative change that is more equitable.

But, in the shorter-term, the wishes of a religiously-neutral public may gradually draw politicians to a conclusion that supporting secular policies does not incur political risk.  Australia continues to uphold Freedom of Religion and Belief – where people have the right to believe what they wish.  But that is quite different to the current circumstance where religion unduly influences the politics of education, health and the full sweep of social policy.

Plain Reason: Promoting science, reason, and critical thinking.