Think carefully before answering census question on religion

 

RITE AND REASON:THE CENSUS looms and included in it we have Question 12, which deals with religion. “What is your religion?” it asks boldly, assuming everyone has one. It lists the options: Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland, Islam, Presbyterian, Orthodox; it then gives a space, two rows of boxes, for “Other, write in your religion.” Then, under these two rows of boxes, comes option 7: “No religion.”

One would have thought a more sensible way of framing the question might have been to start by asking: “Do you have a religion?” This could have been followed by a number of options for those marking the Yes box whereas those opting for No would go straight to the next question. But this suggestion, made by the Humanist Association of Ireland (HAI) following an invitation by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) for suggestions regarding possible improvements in the census, was rejected on the basis it would make historical comparisons difficult. This must certainly mean not many suggestions would be adopted.

Anyone who has spent time looking at the 1911 census on the web will tell you how fascinating and absorbing this can be. But quite apart from simple statistics and general interest, the census performs an important and valuable function: it provides information that is used to help plan for the future. As it says on the census website: “When you fill in your census form on Sunday, April 10th, you’re giving us the information we need now to understand what Ireland needs for the future.” What information is this and how will it be used? One piece of information must be that of religion. And how it might be used must surely be in providing appropriate schools for the future.

The vast majority of primary schools in this country are run by one or other church, mainly Roman Catholic. Archbishop Martin has said this should change to reflect the Ireland of today. In order to plan what sort of schools are most appropriate for the future, it would be useful to have an accurate picture regarding the population’s religion, or lack of it. And so we have question 12 on the census form. But will this work?

People who come from a religious background but no longer practise any religion and have no religious belief would most likely answer No to the question “Do you have a religion?” But when asked “What is your religion?”, followed by a series of options including the one the person was born into, that person may tick the box of the religion they were brought up in but no longer practise.

But if people are in doubt, won’t they be helped by their enumerator, the person hired to distribute and collect the forms and answer questions about the census? Well, they’ll be helped all right; but on the question of religion the enumerators have been instructed to guide people to fill in the form to reflect their background rather than their current position. How does this help us plan for Ireland’s future?

Now I know people’s religion is not the only determining factor when it comes to schools. Many religious parents send their children to Educate Together schools because they believe it’s better than separating children. Some non-religious parents send their children to religious schools for academic or other reasons. Many would argue that a good “all children together” education system should be a basic right. Having said this, it would seem that the more people who truthfully state on their census form that they have no religion, the stronger the argument for a shift towards a more secular approach to education. And it is likely that the way the question is framed will not deliver as accurate a result as it should.

I’ll use an analogy: imagine a survey on car ownership. The question “Do you have a car?” is not asked; the survey goes straight to “What type of car do you have?” And then, someone who has no car is encouraged to say they have a Morris Minor because, way back, it was the traditional family car. What use would this information be?

The HAI is running an awareness campaign with advertisements on Dart carriages to make this point. The message is simple: if you don’t practise any religion, then mark the “No Religion” box. It’s important.


Brian Whiteside is director of the Humanist Association of Ireland. Census day is April 10th

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