Promoting science, reason & critical thinking with a rational A-theist perspective to advance the secular political agenda

ABS Census Submission for 2016

SUBMISSION to the Australia Bureau of Statistics (ABS) re 2016 Census on “Religious Affiliation”.


Q1, Q2 and Q3 refer to personal details.

Q4. What is the name and address of your organisation?*

Name of organisation: Atheism SA Incorporated
Address of organisation: GPO Box 1890, Adelaide SA 5001

Q5. What is your position in the organisation?

Position Title: President

Q6. Which sector best describes your organisation?

Other (please specify):               Non Profit

Q7. Does this submission relate to*:

Please select a response below:
A new topic?
Change to an existing topic?         YES
The exclusion of a topic?
Some other aspect of the Census?

Q8.          What is the name of the topic?*

Note: Please use the topic names listed in Census of Population and Housing: Consultation on Content and Procedures, 2016

(cat. no. 2007.0), if appropriate. Please specify other topics.

“Religious Affiliations”

Q9.          Please define the topic and/or describe modifications you are proposing to this topic for the 2016 Census.*

The Problem:

(a) Question 19 of the 2011 Census reads: ‘What is the person’s religion?’. There are inherent objections to this question.

(b) This is a leading question and assumes the person HAS a religion. It discriminates against an estimated majority of the population who are agnostic, atheist, or who have never PRACTICED the religion they we were taught as a child — this latter category itself forming a large percentage of the population.

(c)   Historically, and faced with this question, the tendency has been to ‘comply with the ABS prompt’ by: (i) nominating a ‘religion’ the respondent was taught but has never practiced   (ii) referring to their ‘baptismal religion’ (iii) concocting an entry in ‘Other – please specify’ that they feel might comply with the question.

(d) ‘No religion’ is buried last, almost as an afterthought, and obscured by the 36-cell panel of ‘Other – please specify’.

(e)   Those with an actual (statistically significant) belief in a particular religion will have no problem scanning the list for that particular religion which is significant to them, or in naming that religion in the ‘Other’ space provided. Whereas, those who identify with religion based only on familial or societal pressure, or upbringing, will be more prone to simply selecting the faith of their upbringing, and set out in the list of options.

(f)   In the 2011 Census 22.3 percent claimed ‘no religion’. Anecdotal evidence indicates that Australia is increasing secular, but many people still feel compelled to accede to the ABS request for a ‘religion’ when they have ‘lapsed’ long ago, or they take a rebellious option and give contrived answers in ‘Other – please specify’.

(g)   ‘Examples’ to the 2011 question are incorrect. Humanism is not a religion, it is popularly identified as a philosophy which rejects religious concepts such as ‘revealed knowledge’.

The Current Outcome:

The problems identified above lead inevitably to grossly inaccurate results: an outcome the ABS would surely strive to avoid. People are led through a series of recognisable religions, well before the ‘No religion’ option. While the national trend away from organised religion grows, there remains an element of social pressure to conform — particularly among all those who no longer practice the faith they were taught as a child but who do not see or label themselves as agnostics or atheists. ABS data is therefore grossly distorted.

Evidence from New Zealand shows a similar demographic to Australia, yet their 2006 Census showed 34.7 percent with no affiliation to any religion. With current trends, the figure will exceed 40 percent by the time of the next Census. This number is significantly higher than Australia — with 22.3 percent in 2011 — and we believe this is primarily due to the more balanced manner in which the question is posed.   While the New Zealand question is ‘What is your religion?’, the clear distinction is that “No religion” is given as the FIRST option.

Under Section 116 of the Australian Constitution, it is clear that our country is intended to be a ‘secular’ democracy. While we enshrine ‘freedom of religion’, we must avoid producing Census data that distorts the nation’s view on religion. In this 21st century, the ‘No religion’ option requires more prominence. But, also, the word ‘religion’ needs to reflect a faith that people actually ‘practice’ — however infrequently — rather than citizens being guided to a religion they have long since abandoned.   In spite of this, some will clearly feel obliged to nominate a religion, simply through the framing of this question.

The Solution:

Option 1.

‘Does the person believe in, and practice*, a specific religion?’

‘No religion’ Placed as the FIRST option (as is the case in New Zealand) followed by the list of recognised formal religions, plus space for ‘Other – please specify’.

  • *Practice. Meaning more than attending weddings, funerals, and church services.
  • ‘No religion’.   May include ‘lapsed’ or ‘non-practicing’.
  • Examples of ‘Other’ may include religions such as Judaism and Hinduism.

Note: The brief explanation of ‘practice’ is quite clear. Even atheists attend family weddings and funerals. And a person attending only an Easter or Christmas service cannot be described as ‘practicing’ a religion.

Option 2.

Change the format of the question to:

‘Does the person believe in, and practice, a particular religion?’   YES   NO

  • For the NO answer, go to the next Census question.
  • For the YES, WHICH RELIGION?   Catholic, Anglican, etc.

Q10.       Criteria 1: The topic is of current national importance.*

               Note: What specific purposes will the data be used for? Please consider the following when addressing this criteria:

  • Uses in policy-making, long-term planning, social and economic applications.
  • What benefits will flow from this data.
  • The consequences if this topic was not included in the 2016 Census.
  • In particular, please consider what activities could not take place or would be significantly reduced or degraded in quality.
Current anomalies in the data affects policy decisions and have broad ramifications in relation to social legislation (both state and federal) which are influenced by perceptions of religious affiliation and adherence. Issues affected include planning applications for the development of religious facilities and accompanying traffic considerations. Issues of funding and taxation also become distorted.

The current bias in the question favours religion and its attendant influence on the Australian political process. One example is the degree of access religious bodies have to government funded education facilities and the government policies which facilitate this access. Religious lobby groups base many of their submissions on ABS data relating to religious affiliation.

Accurate census data reflecting the actual proportion of the population practicing particular religious beliefs is required to ensure the equitable distribution of substantial government funds among both religious organisations on the one hand, and public secular resources and services of broad community benefit on the other hand.

Q11.       Criteria 2: There is a current need for data on the topic for small population groups and/or at the small area level.*

               Note: Please consider when addressing this criteria:

  • At what geographic level will data from the topic be required?
  • For which population groups will the data from the topic be required? Please specify why the data would be useful at this level.
There is a need to organise and provide information and events at the community level — as well as at state and national levels — to facilitate services and support to secular charities and community organisations. The opportunities and forums for harnessing the efforts of such secular individuals, to the benefit of the broader community, are currently limited (especially when compared with religious forums, which receive the vast majority of government support). We often speak with socially-minded individuals who are reluctant to have their community work ascribed to a particular religion in which they do not believe. Improved statistics for the number of non-religious people in the country will help us, and others, to develop programs to actualise such individuals to the benefit of the broader community.

Q12 to Q20 not applicable.