At last, I was chosen to be in a sample! I always wonder about polls and samples; I know lots of people but so few of them are ever part of a sample. But this time the Australian Bureau of Statistics chose my suburb to test out the 2021 Census.
So dutifully on the 29th of October I, and those in my household, answered all the questions about those who were with us that night (namely ourselves). It was magnificently simple, easy to follow and all done on-line. It collected up the basic information of the community, which will help research and policy makers to understand the nature of the Australian community.
All of this except the question on religion – for whether it’s intended to or not, it will deceive by unjustifiably claiming to present information that it has not acquired. In other words; it’s a sham!
The question on religion gave multiple choice answers organised by ‘no religion’, denomination of choice and religion of choice. The top billing went to ‘no religion’ which was separated by a line before the denominations and religions were listed. The religions and denominations were listed in what seemed a random fashion, though I suspect it was a descending order of popularity from last census. So Catholic and Anglican were the top two and others like Hindus and Baptists were further down the list. With finally a box to indicate any other religion not on the random list.
At one level it can appear that it is a fair question. All the options are available plus an alternative to indicate another religion if they haven’t provided for your religion explicitly. But you don’t need a degree in research science to perceive the biases in the order of the listing. Nor do you need a degree in religious studies to see the inaccuracy of confusing denominations with religions.
Personally, I find census information very useful and I’m glad our nation in its research and policy decision making has reliable and trustworthy information about our changing population. As a person deeply involved in religion, I’m particularly interested in religious statistics, as I’m sure are other ‘religious practitioners’. The decline of the old European denominations of Christianity is important to measure, not just for the political joy of atheists, but for the real understanding of anybody interested in religion or Australia. It may disappoint people to see their community declining but accurate accounting of reality is far more important than feelings of disappointment.
However, half a story is worse than no story – especially when the half that is given comes with the authority and apparent thoroughness of the government bureau of statistics. It leads to falsehood in journalistic writing (fairly common in the area of religion), bad decisions in policy and wrong actions amongst religious communities. Everybody loses when the facts are misrepresented by sloppy collection of data.
The question of religion is not so much which denomination you belong to as to which religion: Buddhist, Christian, Hindu or Islam. To only ask about Christian denominations, ignores the possibly more important distinctions between Sunni and Shia in the Muslim community. Within Australia there is a growing number of active Christians who have no denominational connection or interest.
With 30% identifying as ‘no religion’ in 2016 it is important to clarify the meaning of the term. Some today claim they are ‘spiritual’ but not religious, others that they are agnostic or disinterested and still others are atheists. To lump them together while differentiating Christians down to denominations of less than 1% gives a very distorted view of our society and its recent developments.
A complaint without an alternative is easy to make but not particularly helpful. So, let me recommend to the Bureau the following:
1 That all options, including ‘no religion’ be presented alphabetically.
2 That the basic question be divided between
f No religion
3 That denominations (including Islamic denominations) and no- religion alternatives (atheist, agnostic, no interest, spiritual) be made into sub-questions flowing from these main religious groupings.
It is important in Census work that the stability of the questions enable comparisons from one census to the next, especially to be able to see trends. What I am suggesting would enable those comparisons to be made. But it is more important that we are comparing realistic snapshots of society. Furthermore, when society changes, as religion in a now multicultural society inevitably has, that the questions seek out the new reality rather than archaically repeating yesterday’s concerns.
As a Christian, I am concerned for the truth. Of course, I would like to see Christianity growing in Australia. But that has to be a reality not a wish or a distorted Census report. Reality is what the Census should provide. But at the moment, if the Bureau continues with its sample census, we will not have reality but half-truths and distortions that are impossible to usefully evaluate.