The census and religion


Sir, – Michael Nugent, the chairman of Atheist Ireland, objects to the inclusion in the 2021 census of a question asking “What is your religion, if any?” His organisation suggests this should be reworded to “Do you practice a religion?”, followed by “If so, what religion do you practice?” (Letters, July 17th).

Amusingly, he describes this as “a more neutral question”. In fact, it is an example of what the polling industry would describe as a “push poll”.

Mr Nugent’s wording takes it as a given that practising a religion is a prerequisite to having a religion in the first place. In other words, if a person were to respond “No” to his first question on practising a religion, then they would be precluded from answering the second question, which would allow them to elaborate on what specific religion they believe they subscribe to.

This seems to belie a curiously blinkered view that religion is a binary matter: that one either actively practises a religion, or has no religion at all. Such a neat formulation may suit an atheist, who would happily fall into the latter category, but it is not the reality for huge numbers of people in Ireland who consider themselves to be adherents to a particular religious faith which they do not actively, or regularly, practice. Under the wording proposed by Atheist Ireland, their religious beliefs would be set at nought in the census and they would be categorised as having no religion at all.

Far from leading to “a more accurate figure in the census results”, as Mr Nugent claims, this would amount to a staggering distortion of the true religious make-up of the State and its inhabitants.

And this leads to another issue: for the purposes of the Census, how would Atheist Ireland define what it means to “practise” a religion? It would be most interesting to hear an organisation which eschews all organised religious practice to elaborate on what precisely this would entail. (For the purposes of comparison, it might also be useful if they could clarify whether, in order to be an atheist, one most “practise” atheism, or whether some other arbitrary litmus test is applied.)

Its position on this issue, as on many other things, appears to be borne out of a deep frustration that the number of people in Ireland who declare themselves to adhere to a religious belief remains stubbornly high. In the 2016 census, 78 per cent declared themselves as Catholics, with a further 8 per cent identifying as other Christian and minority faiths. Just 0.14 per cent identified themselves as “atheist”.

The sole aim of this proposal appears to be to dramatically cull these numbers by stacking the deck against those who have a religious faith, but do not practise it on a regular basis, so is not difficult to see why the CSO has rejected it. – Yours, etc,




Dublin 3.

Sir, – As a professing Christian, I strongly agree with Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland regarding religion in the census. Atheist Ireland correctly argues for the neutral “Do you practise a religion?” and “If so, what religion do you practise?” The new question, “What is your religion, if any?”, is meaningless and insulting.

I’m close to many sincere atheists. Their worldview informs several aspects of life – their own lifestyle choices, their support for separation of church and state, their views on divisive social issues, etc. I respect all that. The Apostle Paul forbids Christians from sitting in judgment on people outside the church (1 Corinthians 5:9-12).

What I cannot find after 32 years of studying the Scriptures is any mention at all of “cultural” Christianity. There’s no record, for example, of a religious funeral for anyone with a track record of opposition to church teaching on morality. On the contrary, the Apostle John asserts that only “those who continue in the teachings of Christ” have a relationship with God (2 John 9).

The Irish census asking the nominal religion of someone’s childhood is like asking who won the Eurovision in the year they were born. – Yours, etc,




Dublin 18.

Sir, – Attendances at church may have fallen, but the vast majority of people regard themselves as being in a religion of some kind. I regard myself as typical: I do not “practise” a religion but I was baptised and confirmed a Catholic, married in a Catholic Church and will probably have a Catholic funeral (hopefully not for a long time yet). As it happened, my mother was Church of Ireland but she “converted” in order to marry my father in Enniscorthy Cathedral. Anyhow, I tick the “RC” box in the census. What is wrong with that? Does it really matter whether one “practises” or not? Religion was a great help to people in Ireland in the past, given the poverty and history of the majority of the population. It is not so essential now, but “we keep the past for pride”. – Yours, etc,




Co Dublin.

Sir, – All this concern about the new wording of the question on religion in the census reminds me that the late, great Seán Mac Réamoinn once humorously observed that he was, like the census, broken down by age, sex and religion! – Yours, etc,





Sir, – In his otherwise excellent analysis of the changes to the religion question on the next census form, Michael Nugent misses the biggest cause of overstatement of religious affiliation – one census form covers up to six people. In how many households does the person filling in the form ask each member how they want that question answered? – Yours, etc,




Co Donegal.