Atheism and the census


Sir, – Barry Walsh and William Murphy (July 18th) ask why Atheist Ireland wants the census question on religion to ask “Do you practise a religion? rather than “What is your religion?”

You can, of course, have religious beliefs without practising them. But the purpose of the census is not to categorise the inner beliefs of the people. That is frankly none of the State’s business.

The census has a practical purpose, which is to assist the Government and local authorities in planning the allocation of resources, as well as the size of constituencies for elections.

The CSO website says that the census statistics are essential for planning the provision of education, healthcare, and employment, including likely demand for schools and health care facilities, and areas of relatively high unemployment.

It is the practise of religion, not people’s inner beliefs, that is relevant to this purpose.

For example, where is the best place to build a new place of worship, and what are the traffic and resource implications of likely religious ceremonies, etc.

Mr Walsh also cites the low figure of people identifying as atheist. This is a result of yet another flaw in the question. There is no tick-box on the census form for atheist. There is, however, a write-in box that says “Other religion, if any.”

A small number of atheists write the word “atheist” in that box, either as a result of misreading the question or for some personal reason. But most atheists do not do this, because atheism is not a religion.

So most atheists tick the “No religion” box. It is likely that most people of no religion (about 10 per cent in the last census) are atheists, but the census format does not allow an accurate calculation of the number of atheists in Ireland.

Also, some self-identified Catholics are atheist. At the time of the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, an opinion poll showed that 15 per cent of Irish Catholics don’t believe Jesus was the son of God, and 8 per cent don’t believe in God, which should be a low hurdle for being a Catholic. – Yours, etc,



Atheist Ireland,


Dublin 9.

Sir, – One aspect of the current controversy over the “religions” question in the census is the obvious obsession of Atheist Ireland with religion.

In psychological terms it has all the hallmarks of “religion-envy syndrome”. If you profess to be an atheist, why would it concern you whether an individual practises their religion or not?

Can our atheist friends please chill out in this regard? – Yours, etc,



Co Meath.

Sir, – Two of your letter writers used the word “lack” in their definition of atheist. Atheists do not lack religion in the same way a fish does not lack a bicycle. They just think that Thor, Apollo, Yahweh, Allah, Vishnu, etc, are as likely as a fish on a bicycle. While I cannot prove that fish ride bicycles I think it unlikely enough and if a group of people told me they believed in them, without proof, I could not be described as lacking belief in cycling fish. – Yours, etc,



Dublin 14.

Sir, – Those who believe that it is acceptable to declare in the census that they adhere to a religion without actually practising it, like a number of letter writers on July 16th, have a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of the census.

Legislators and others who rely on the census as the primary source of data for formulating policy can only cater for people who practise.

Conversely, they of necessity must assume that if a citizen declares to be an adherent of religion then, for the data to form any useful basis for planning, those people must also require facilities to allow them, or their children, to practise.

Ticking the religious box in the census for reasons of nostalgia or romanticism, or just plain carelessness, is tantamount to engaging in anti-social behaviour. – Yours, etc,



Windy Arbour,

Dublin 14.

Sir, – It is ironic that the chairman of Atheist Ireland wants to ensure that people are actually practising their religion. I thought that that was the preserve of pulpit-bashing parish priests. – Yours, etc,



Dublin 15.