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Opinion: Sydney Morning Herald – 2.8.16: Census demands Honest Response

Opinion by Brian Morris: Sydney Morning Herald on 2.8.16
Rebuttal of Opinion by Rev. Michael Jensen – same edition:

Census demands Honest Response:

One of the basic tenets of secular ethics draws on an old adage: “honesty is the best policy”.  Together with other aphorisms, flowing from the Age of Reason, it is why the “Religious Affiliation” question in this census must be addressed with integrity.

Honesty is a factor in every census.  It’s vital that data is factual as it underpins so much planning for services and social infrastructure to cope with a changing demographic in a dynamic society.

And it’s no less relevant in the changing secular/religious equilibrium where funding and resources need to be channelled equitably — based on evidence, not historical religious privilege.

This fact will be drawn into sharp focus on 9th August.  Census Question 19 will ask every Australian: “What is the person’s religion?”  The inquiry has not changed, and some people and students of ‘Journalism 101’ will recognise the loaded question, which immediately assumes everybody has one.

But in this census, Question 19 has historic implications.  The ‘No Religion’ option has been moved to top spot — up from last place in every previous census since 1991, when the Australian Bureau of Statistics first introduced this option.

Certainly, there’ll be a dramatic re-alignment across the religious/secular divide, and one that is overdue — on the basis of honesty.  At the 2011 census the total ‘Christian’ tally was 61.1 percent, with the ‘No Religion’ figure at 22.3 percent — buried under the ‘other’ box, where people listed Jedi and Santa Claus as their faith.

This 61-to-22 ratio is artificially high, but it’s been badly skewed since federation.  And it’s due to three basic factors.  (1) a ‘loaded’ Question 19  (2) ‘No Religion’ buried as last option  (3) the reflex action of ‘Cultural Christians’ to mark one of the first-option religious boxes — even though they have long-abandoned the ‘family religion’ of their childhood.

Church hierarchies continue to use this inflated religious/secular dichotomy for sheer political expediency — to cement their position of prestige and influence and to claim social and funding privileges based on an illusion.  This census will finally rectify that imbalance.

To ensure accurate data, and fairness of representation, the ABS decision on ‘No Religion’ is fully justified — and we are likely to see changes similar to other countries.  England is 48 percent religion-neutral; Scotland stands at 52 percent; and over the ditch, New Zealanders are 42 percent non-religious.

But racist rants and religious retaliation threaten census integrity!

A national email and social media scare-campaign has burgeoned over the past two weeks in retaliation to the ABS decision.  Rationalist and secular organisations have reported hateful emails received by members and their families.  Feeding on misinformation and fear, citizens are being warned not to mark ‘No Religion’.

Network emails urge people to mark Question 19 with “the religion you were Christened or born into”.  There are dire warnings that “Australia will officially be declared a Muslim country” if people don’t nominate as Christian.  They are goaded to keep circulating the tirade to family, friends, and personal networks.

One chain-email — emblazoned with the Australian flag — seems to originate from a racist group.  The blatant reality is that the Muslim population is just 2.2 percent, at the 2011 census — and unlikely to rise above 2.5 percent in August.  And ABS is not setting an agenda for building mosques and enshrining Sharia Law.

Also of great concern are Christian organisations seemingly content to ride on this alarmist bandwagon.  They too advocate that “lapsed” Christians must avoid the ‘No Religion’ option — and for a variety of self-serving reasons.  It’s at least disingenuous, and at worst dishonest.  They fear their privilege and influence in politics, education and the broad sweep of contemporary social policy will be compromised.

So ‘honesty’ and integrity are crucial.  Racists and self-interested church hierarchies should not be permitted to pervert the national census.  Mark the religion that you genuinely and actively practice.  But if not, mark ‘No Religion’.  The sky will not fall.

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