Almost more exciting than the fact it is finally cherry blossom season – they spark joy in me – is that it’s Census Eve.
I can’t wait to fill up my census tomorrow. As current Head of the Household (it’s a rotating duty in our house), I take the responsibility very seriously. And there is one box I especially want to tick for the good of my family and other families across the State now and into the future: the box that says “No religion”.
It’s unfortunate that yet again the religion question is not about religious practice. A question about practice would provide a useful barometer of Irish society in 2016.
Instead the question is “What is your religion?”
When faced with this question many will still tick the Roman Catholic box because they associate culturally with that belief system. Not because they go to mass every week, or confession on a regular basis or because saying the rosary is a vital part of their lives. Cultural Catholics will tick the box because it’s the system they were born in to and the system many still use to commemorate important life rituals around marriage, birth and death.
The box will be ticked because when they read Question 12 they don’t really have to think. For many people who grew up in this country, when asked “What is your religion?” Roman Catholic would seem like the obvious, perhaps the only, answer.
The question, for many, doesn’t require pause for thought. But “What religion do you practice?” That’s a whole other question. That is one that makes people reflect and consider their own religious practice and that of their children. It’s a question that keeps us honest.
Two questions below the religion question is another question. Question 14 is “Can you speak Irish?” Good question. But then underneath there is an even better question: If ‘Yes’ do you speak Irish? This follow-up question allows the Central Statistics Office to discover whether saying “yes” to Question 14 means we actually speak it every day, every week or just in school when we are asking to go to the bathroom. It provides a broader picture and tells us much more about ourselves.
The last census in 2011 declared 84 per cent of the population to be Roman Catholic. There were outraged tweets at the time by younger people who said their parents had filled out the form and put “Roman Catholic” instead of “No religion” despite the young people asking their parents to tick that box. Perhaps these inaccurate, you could say fraudulent, forms are inconsequential. Perhaps these census untruths don’t matter. Except of course they very much do.
As former Queens University lecturer Dr RichardO'Leary pointed out in an opinion piece in this newspaper, they matter because the State uses the information gleaned from census forms to figure out where to invest in services: "Millions of careless ticks can be used later to justify the Catholic Church's near monopoly on the State's schools. Similarly, the census data on religion would be an inadequate indicator of the demand for hospital chaplaincy."
Careless ticks cost us. They tell us lies about ourselves. They mean we become complicit in a society where the vast majority of children are educated through a religious system when increasing numbers are clamouring for choice in how our children are educated.
Anybody who ticks Roman Catholic cannot then complain when they are looking for a local multidenominational Educate Together school in which to place their child. If you tick “No religion” you are striking a small but important blow for equality in the Irish education system.
Tomorrow marks exactly 100 years since a relatively small group of people struck out in a bid for seismic change. Ticking the “No religion” box on the census form is no 1916 Rising but it is a peaceful protest against the religious dominance in our education system. It’s a tiny revolution that could mean big change. I hope some of you might decide to join in.
There are many times in life when inner revolution, however scary, becomes inevitable. I felt that way when last year when I wrote my abortion story. Since then the campaign to support women and girls in Ireland, North and South, who are denied their rights has gained momentum. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how being vulnerable and open, which I try to be in this space, takes a lot of strength. It’s not always easy. It sometimes means letting people in and showing them a side of yourself it would be much easier to keep hidden.
I found myself talking for hours recently to a virtual stranger about vulnerability and the conversation has shifted something in me. Sorry to get all Buddha on you but we only have one wild and precious life. Every so often it’s good to slow down and take a look at where we have been and where we might be headed. We need to wake-up and smell the cherry blossom. And that’s another box I need to tick.