05 August, 2016

I received an email today (I actually received hundreds, but that is another issue), this one was on the census and I include it here for context when you read my ensuing rant.

Subject: Be careful how you answer the Census next Tuesday night

Dear Friends, Next Tuesday night (9 August) is 2016 Census night – where we are required by law to answer all sorts of questions to help governments make decisions about such things as public transport, housing, education and hospitals. There has been little controversy – until now.
 This year, the religion question – and its implications for the funding of school chaplains and faith-based charities, as well as tax-exempt status for churches – is all important. The religion question is the only one that is not compulsory. It lists six Christian denominations and three non-Christian religions, with a space for “other” – but this year for the first time, “No religion” is the first option. That was the result of a quiet campaign by the Atheist Foundation of Australia three years ago. They hope that putting “No religion” at the top before any other option, they would win the “donkey vote” – and ultimately force governments to end any subsidy or recognition for the huge amount of public good done by faith-based community organisations. 
They have also mounted an advertising campaign in supermarket car parks and elsewhere, urging people to mark the “No religion” box. The problem is compounded by the fact that many non-denominational Christians mark “No religion” because they have faith in Christ, but don’t belong to a particular denomination. To them, “religion” means “denomination”.
What can we do? We can:
  • Make sure we answer the religion question – by marking one of the six boxes for Christian denominations, or writing “Christian” or something similar in the space provided for “other” religion.
  • Send this email to other friends and family, encouraging them to do the same.
  • Pray – that the atheist campaign will fail. May the Lord bless and guide you!
FamilyVoice Australia: a Christian voice for family, faith and freedom

To which I reply...
There are some interesting assumptions here. Amongst them: that no religion is on top of the list for nefarious reasons; that the tax status of churches & funding of chaplains is tied to census figures; and that atheists automatically oppose good work done by faith based charities.

I would like to point out that (while this email isn't) there are also some doing the rounds proposing people mark Christian in order that 'Islam can't take over'.

I would like to propose that if any of you are taking part in a conversation about the census, the correct position for a Christian to take is that we want people to answer the question honestly. It doesn't serve the church to promote a dishonest answer regardless of whether our fear is of atheists, Muslims or our own declining influence on policy makers. I say "our fear" because I think that the driver for this (and emails like it) is fear, rather than reality and I don't believe that we (as Christians) should be operating out of a place of fear. This is especially true when the fear is a fear of waning political influence. Our call as The Church is not to legislate morality, nor to take over the government, it is to love the stranger among us and we don't do that through building upon the fear campaigns which are taking over western political discourse.

The last Census showed us that 13,150,673 people identified as Christian and a mere 476,291 identified as Islamic. Likewise 14,871,285 people identified as having a religion while only 4,796,785 gave the answer of no-religion. Neither Atheists nor Muslims look likely to be ousting Christianity from its place of significance in Australia. Not that I would be advocating a campaign to lie on the census, even if Christianity, Atheism and Islam were locked in a three way tie with political influence to the victor.

In a similar vein, the campaign to get people to mark 'no religion' is not about convincing me (or you) to mark that option, rather it is about people who were nominally 'born' to a religion but are not adherents. It is about accuracy of information. Information which we in the church can then use to find out who our community really are and how we can serve them & reach them.

The funding of school chaplains is a political matter, for the government of the day. Likewise the tax status of churches. Decisions will be made based on our votes, not our demographics. (And perhaps on the perception people have about those denominations which are making their preachers wealthy while providing little or nothing for their communities. Or on the quality of the work done by the chaplains).

The good work of faith based charities & their funding, is likewise unrelated to census figures. Rather, as long as they continue in their good work, they will be supported by the public. One only has to look at the public support for the salvos or, conversely, the public distaste for recent foreign-aid campaigns where the money was eaten up by 'admin costs'.

If you look at the old census question you may note that the option of 'no religion' is not obvious. In gathering data, this is likely to skew the results. This is the reason that the format of the question has been changed and while a campaign by an atheist organisation may have brought this to the attention of the Census, the decision was (as it always is in the Census) based on ensuring the accuracy of data collected.

As a librarian, historian & teacher I rely on accuracy of information and, as far as I see it, the census has tweaked this question in an attempt to get the most accurate data (which includes hoping the changes mean less people put Jedi as their religion).  
Image of question 19 from the 2011 Census
The real controversy in the current census, is actually about data retention and privacy, but that is a topic for another manifesto.

1 comment:

Steph said...

My husband who has identified as a Jedi for the last two censuses has decided to come clean and say no religion, as has my son. My daughter, when asked wished to be identified as Catholic. While I can understand the fear of many faiths for any attempt to reduce the number of followers with the selection of a no religion option, I am all for data that is correct and true.
The extension of the retention of names from 18 months to 4 years is far more problematic. I think the ABS has not been as skilled in the selling of the census this time around as in other years. In other years there were census collectors who hand delivered and collected forms and provided a chance for the public to voice their concerns about the need for collection of data such as this.
We don't seem to mind how much Google or Facebook or Twitter knows about us though :)