Atheists call for removal of check boxes in census religion question

Atheist Ireland says writing in faith affiliation gives more accurate picture

The 2021 census question on religion should be optional, the Central Statistics Office (CSO) census advisory group has been told in a submission from Atheist Ireland. It also called for the removal of check boxes in the religious question as this was found to greatly exaggerate findings.

The question “should ask whether people practice a religion” and “not prejudice the answer with preprinted options”. It should also “ask how often people practice a religion if they do so”.

The submission also pointed out that on the current census form “the question on religion appears immediately after the question on ethnic and cultural background. This primes people to be thinking about ethnic and cultural background when answering the question on religion.”

The religion question should be moved elsewhere in the census form, “well away from questions on ethnicity, culture, or language. The England and Wales census has already made this change, by moving the question on religion away from the question on ethnic and cultural background,” it said.



It has also asked that “check boxes should not be used, as they bias the results” and led to exaggerated results. As illustration it noted the extraordinary differences in census results for the 14 years between 2002 and 2016, when check boxes were used to indicate a person’s religious affiliation, and the century-and-a-half previous when people wrote in their religious affiliation.

“Every religion increased its figures when given a check box. Apart from Roman Catholic, they all increased by much more than the the national increase in population. While immigration of minority faith members contributes to these figures, it is not enough on its own to explain them,” Atheist Ireland noted in its submission.

As an illustration, it looked at census figures for members of the Methodist Church in Ireland. Methodists were given a check box in 2002 but lost it in the 2011 census.

Without a check box the Methodist population gradually decreased from 6,676 in 1961, to 5,646 in 1971, to 5,790 in 1981, and to 5,037 in 1991. When given the check box in 2002 it almost doubled to 10,033. That represented “an increase of 99 per cent, compared to a national increase in population of 11 per cent,” it said.


Methodist numbers went up “to 12,160 in 2006, an increase of 21 per cent compared to a national increase of 8 per cent. When Methodists lost the check box in 2011, it went back down to 6,842. That’s a decrease of 44 per cent that census, compared to a national increase in population of 11 per cent.”

In its submission, Atheist Ireland illustrated how using a check box, rather than having people write in their religious affiliation, or not, led to increases where all faiths in Ireland were concerned.

With the introduction of the check box in 2002, Presbyterian numbers went up by 56 per cent on the previous census; Church of Ireland numbers increased by 30 per cent, Catholic numbers by 7 per cent, Islam by 390 per cent, and Orthodox by 117 per cent.

It also said that “software recognition of handwriting has improved considerably since 2002”, while “40 per cent of the census questions already involve a write-in box for some or all of the answers, that the existing software has been proven to be able to handle”.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times