Crikey: ‘Religious privilege’: Showdown looming between atheists and church groups over census question

Religious organisations are pushing back to a proposed question change in the 2026 census.

A battle is brewing between Catholic Church leaders and secular groups over the religion question in the Australian census.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is currently testing whether it would be better to ask “Does the person have a religion?” rather than “What is the person’s religion?”, after 9.8 million people (approximately 40% of responses) indicated in the 2021 count that they had no faith.

The new question would have a mark box for both “No” and “Yes (specify religion)”. The bureau is also testing the use of a write-in box for respondents who wish to indicate more detail on their faith, rather than simply picking from a small list of common religions.

Sparring campaigns

The choice to reconsider the religious question follows Census21, a 2021 campaign by several secular organisations that featured figures such as comedians Adam Spencer and Tim Minchin encouraging respondents to mark “no religion” if they no longer had any faith in that year’s census.

Testing took place after a review and consultation process of that year’s results, during which the ABS received almost 200 submissions from groups and people who felt the religion question produced what’s called “acquiescence bias”.

But Catholic Church leaders began lobbying the Albanese government to reject the ABS’ proposed changes after concerned parties received the proposed layout of the religion question in February, writing to the bureau and the prime minister, as well as launching a media campaign in the Murdoch press.

In an April 30 op-ed in The Australian, archbishop of Perth and president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) Timothy Costelloe SDB said the church was alarmed about the impact the changes would have on the data gathered and called on the government to reconsider them.

“Reformulating the question as ‘Does the person have a religion?’ effectively destroys the measure of culture and identity as it changes the question to whether a person holds religious beliefs,” he wrote.

“The new format attempts to divorce religion from culture and tradition, presuming these are no longer significant. Such a change would mean results from the 2026 census would not be comparable with results from earlier censuses.”

One day earlier, The Australian ran a news story quoting Costelloe, the Anglican bishop of South Sydney Michael Stead and Federation of Islamic Councils chief executive Kamalle Dabboussy, who said they also oppose the changes.

In a May 21 news story, former prime minister John Howard also waded into the debate, echoing their sentiments: “You’ve got to worry that the anti-religious lobby in the public service is quite strong,” he said.

Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP said the changes would make the question more difficult for non-native English speakers to record their identity, the Catholic Weekly reported, saying the “resultant paucity of data will limit the ability of governments and faith communities to be able to direct assistance where it will be most needed”.

A motion by South Australian Liberal MLC Jing Lee for the government to reject the proposal for change has been put forward. Lee told Crikey that a question on religion had been included in all Australian censuses since 1911 and that answering it had always been optional.

“The Liberal Party in South Australia believes the religious affiliation question is an important measure of an individual’s culture and heritage and allows people to respond with secular or spiritual beliefs, or indicate if they have no religious affiliation at all,” she said.

“We hold concerns that the proposed census changes will be more confusing for people with English as a second language, and could result in the inaccurate collection of data on minority religious groups.”

In response to questions, the Archdiocese of Sydney and the ACBC referred Crikey to the recently published op-ed.

‘Religious privilege’

The campaign to have the question changed comprises the Rationalist Society of Australia, the Atheist Foundation of Australia, the Sydney Atheists, Humanists Australia, the National Secular Lobby and Humanists Victoria.

Last week the campaign wrote to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Andrew Leigh — the assistant minister with responsibility for the ABS — to stress the Catholic Church’s concerns were misplaced and would work against the interests of all users of census results.

“Please do not undermine their expertise by allowing political interference in the census process,” said the letter signed by Michael Dove, chair of the Census21 Group.

Dove told Crikey the census data was seen by many organisations, not least of which the government, as the “gold standard of evidence” for allocating funding to determine policy. But he said the current question leads many people to talk about their cultural background rather than what religion they align with.

It was in the interests of bishops and the church that the “cultural Catholics get counted so the Catholic Church can overstate its relevance, and continue to enjoy the privileged funding, policy, and media access benefits”, he said.

“There’s an awful lot of religious privilege that flows from the census stage and that needs to be changed.

Dove also claimed the fact that the campaign had incurred the wrath of the Murdoch newspaper and Howard was a sign that the secular groups were achieving results. He also said that the “weak and confused arguments of Archbishop Timothy Costelloe reflect the actions of a desperate man”, and stressed that the campaign, made up of many different collective organisations, was “pro-accuracy, not anti-religion”.

A spokesperson for the prime minister did not respond to requests for comment.

Improving data quality

The ABS has also updated the Australian Standard Classification of Religious Groups (ASCRG) — which hasn’t been significantly updated since 1996 — to reflect the country’s diversity, after the 2021 results and public and stakeholder consultation. This has included adding three distinct religious groups below the broad group of Buddhism and five distinct religious groups below the broad group of Islam.

Georgia Chapman, as ABS director of 2026 census content, told Crikey the bureau was “running a significant and rigorous public consultation and testing program on all topics for the 2026 census”, including submissions from three public consultation processes and other correspondence.

She said they had heard feedback that expanding the ASCRG list would make the census more inclusive and reflect Australia’s diversity better. Chapman added that changing the wording of the religious affiliation question and response options would improve data quality.

“We’re considering all feedback, seeking further views and continuing testing to determine the best approach for the 2026 census,” she said. “This includes analysing the data from a large public test in September 2024.”

The final decision on the questions will be published on the ABS site in late 2025.

The 2021 census results revealed that for the first time Christians made up less than half of Australia’s population — just 43.9% of respondents to the 2021 census chose it as their religion, compared to 39% who said they were non-religious. About 2.7% of respondents chose Hindu, while 3.2% chose Islam. In 1911, 96% were Christian, while in the mid-1960s less than 1% said they had no religion.

The number of Australians identifying as being not religious is forecast to reach beyond 40% at the 2026 count.