Change to census question on religion
Sir, – The minimalist change to the religion question in the 2021 census will mask, but not stop, the relentless increase in the number of non-religious people in Ireland.
Some change to the religion question was inevitable, as the results were increasingly not reflecting reality, but this is the smallest improvement to the question that could have been made.
The old question was “What is your religion?”; that was a leading question that resulted in a higher figure for religion, by assuming that the respondent is a member of a religion.
Atheist Ireland had argued for the question “Do you practice a religion?”, followed by “If so, what religion do you practice?” That would have been a more neutral question, and would have given a more accurate figure in the census results.
The new question is “What is your religion, if any?” This is slightly better than the old question, but is still a leading question, as it assumes that religion is the default, and that not having one is an aberration.
The new question is slightly better, but it will still underestimate the number of non-religious people in the country. The current number is in reality far higher than the one in 10 non-religious shown in the 2016 census results.
The new question is also slightly better than the old one, in that “No religion” is the first option of the check boxes, instead of the last one.
This means that people are more likely to see it before they have ticked the check-box for their childhood religion or cultural identity.
Atheist Ireland had also argued for the check-boxes to be removed entirely, and for a return to the write-in answer that had been used for a century until the check-boxes were introduced in 2002, and that are now given to the five highest religions from the previous census.
These check-boxes overstate those religions that are given a check-box. Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, and Methodist all dropped consistently from the 1960s to the 1990s. When given check-boxes, they all increased in 2002. Methodist doubled when given the check-box in 2002, then halved when it was taken away in 2011.
During the consultation process, the census office had argued for a minimalist approach to changing the question, because they said it was important to be able to compare results from census to census.
Atheist Ireland had argued that it was more important to get accurate results, rather than to be able to compare one set of flawed results with another.
In any case, the current question has only been there since 2002.
We will continue to publicise the flaws in the census question on religion, despite the new question being slightly better than the old one. We are confident that, despite these flaws, the 2021 census will yet again see a significant rise in the number of non-religious people in Ireland. – Yours, etc,