Government won’t budge on controversial religious question in census

Controversial question

There’s a question that you’ll be asked in next week’s census which has divided people across Australia.

Question 23 has long been a matter of controversy and a lobby group is demanding answers for why it hasn’t been changed since the last census.

Every five years, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) asks every household to fill out a census form at exactly the same time to get a snapshot of the nation as a whole.

Census night is next Tuesday, August 10.

They ask questions including where we live, what our households look like, do we live alone or in multi-generational families and how much do we earn.

But there is one question that is more contentious than the others, and it is about our religious beliefs.

In the form, respondents will reach the religious section which asks: “What is the person’s religion?”

Associate Professor Paul Willis, of the National Secular Lobby (NSL), told it’s a “leading question” so will “give a distorted view of people’s religious views”.

A leading question puts ideas in people’s heads and influences their answer, according to Professor Willis.

“The question as it’s phrased has an implicit assumption that the person has a religion,” he said.

This makes it more likely for people to tick the religion box.

Professor Willis also thought it was strange that there is an option to tick a “no religion” box but there is also an option to pick “other” and then state that your religion, for example, is atheism.

“When has atheism been a religion?” he said.

“How confused would an atheist be when they answer that question? That’s nonsensical.”

If the atheist ticked “other” and then wrote down “atheism” as their religion, rather than “no religion”, they would be counted as religious in the 2021 census.

The census website states: “People who have non-theistic religious beliefs or other life philosophies should record their response in the ‘Other (please specify)’ box.

“Examples of non-religious beliefs include Agnosticism, Atheism and Rationalism. These responses should be recorded in the ‘Other (please specify)’ boxes.

“If the person identifies with no religion at all, select the ‘No religion’ response.”

Professor Willis said it might not seem like a big deal but the question’s phrasing was important.

“You could say, who cares,” Professor Willis said. “However, governments will use these stats on decisions about funding religious schools, religious aged care facilities etc.

“If there is a disproportionate basis for them to thinking there’s greater religiosity, then their funding decision may be influenced.”

The ABS admitted to in a statement that the accuracy of their religious statistics was “reduced” because of the uncertainty around how a lapsed religious person should answer the question.

“The ABS has conceded to the NSL that a lapsed family religion or even a response based on ‘the core values that a person aligns themselves to’ may be included as a religion, further reducing the accuracy and value of the data,” the spokesperson said.

“Listing “Atheism” as an example of religions that may be specified using an “Other” response contravenes the High Court definition of a religion (item 3.3), framed in 1983.

In 2016, non-religious groups also called for the religion question to be changed.

Suspecting the question wouldn’t change between 2016 and now, the NSL commissioned two separate surveys, with the results released on Thursday, to see the difference between a leading and an open question.

The first group was asked, “What is your religion?” exactly like the census, to which over half (56 per cent) of survey participants chose a listed religion or entered a response in the ‘Other (please specify)’ field.

The second group was asked a two-part, non-leading question instead.

The first question was, “Do you currently have a religion?” and then if the answer was yes, survey respondents were asked to specify their religion.

This resulted in a religious figure of only 44 per cent.

“The difference is quite remarkable,” Professor Willis said.

Statistics show Australians are becoming less religious.

In the first census of 1911, for example, the number of people identifying as having no religion was one in 250 people.

In 2011, it was one in five.

In the most recent census in 2016, it was nearly one in three – at 30 per cent.

However, Professor Willis thinks this number is actually much higher.

He said the phrasing would make a formerly practising Catholic tick the religious option box, rather than saying they were no longer religious.