Census Snippets

Combined household and individual questionnaires for the 2011 population census have been dropping on doormats all week in preparation for the official enumeration date of Sunday, 27 March. They can be completed on paper or online.

This will be the twenty-first decennial census in Britain since 1801 (none was held in 1941, on account of the Second World War). It may also be the last in the present form, since Government is investigating cheaper and faster options for collecting data in future.

Anybody interested in learning more about the history of the census in Britain may like to view a current exhibition at The British Library’s Folio Society Gallery. Entitled Census and Society: Why Everyone Counts, it runs until 29 May.

As in 2001, when it was first introduced, this year’s census will include a voluntary question on religious affiliation. Prior to that, the only other official census of religion in mainland Britain in modern times had been of church accommodation and attendance, in 1851.

The question in England and Wales (individual question 20) in 2011 reads: ‘What is your religion?’ The options given are: no religion, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, and any other religion (write in).

Anybody wishing to specify that they are agnostic, atheist or humanist is asked to select the ‘any other religion’ category and to elaborate in the space provided.

Any Christian wishing to identify that they belong to a particular denomination is also advised to tick ‘any other religion’ and to write in their denomination.

The question in Scotland (individual question 13) reads: ‘What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?’ The options given are: none, Church of Scotland, Roman Catholic, other Christian (write in), Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Jewish, Hindu, and another religion (write in).

Nationwide advice is provided by Government to those worried that their child is too young to identify with a particular religion. This is either to select ‘no religion’ or to leave the question blank.

There has been a certain amount of controversy and advocacy surrounding the religion question, and the primary purpose of this post is to provide a selective round-up of some of the stories which have been in the news.

We have already reported – http://www.brin.ac.uk/news/?p=678 – that the British Humanist Association (BHA) launched a campaign on 27 October last to persuade the non-religious to register as such in the census.

The BHA has been concerned that the somewhat leading wording of the census question, coupled with a lingering habit of using religion as a cultural identifier, resulted in inflating the numbers of genuinely religious people in 2001.

The BHA’s initial strategy was to try and persuade the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to rephrase the question. Rebuffed in this attempt (although ONS did agree to offer guidance after the census on the ways in which data should and should not be used), the BHA shifted tactics.

The BHA has been using local leafleting, advertising and online communications with the somewhat tongue-in-cheek campaign slogan of: ‘If you’re not religious, for God’s sake say so’.

However, the BHA has recently been told that posters bearing this or similar slogans are likely to cause widespread and serious offence, to vociferous BHA protests of censorship and, implicitly, reintroduction of the (repealed) blasphemy laws by the back door.

Companies owning advertising space at railway stations have refused to display three different BHA census posters, following this advice to BHA from the Advertising Standards Authority’s Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP).

CAP obviously had at the back of its mind the complaints generated by a previous BHA poster campaign, in 2009, which asserted: ‘There is probably no god, now stop worrying and enjoy your life’.

CAP’s recommendation has likewise affected the BHA census posters being displayed on 200 buses in London and six other cities. They have had to be reworded to read: ‘Not religious? In this year’s census, say so.’

The Pagan Federation has also issued a press notice proclaiming that ‘Pagans are standing up to be counted and coming out of the broom closet for census day’. They are being encouraged to write in their affiliation (the Federation having not prevailed on ONS to include a specific box for Pagans).

The Federation is arguing that the 42,000 individuals who registered as Pagans in 2001 were ‘only the tip of the iceberg’, citing research by Professor Ronald Hutton indicating that there were actually around 250,000 Pagans in the country in that year.

The Foundation for Holistic Spirituality, based in Glastonbury, is pursuing a different line. It is urging people to write in ‘holistic’ at the census, as ‘shorthand for an openhearted, open-minded approach that includes all spiritual paths. It recognises that everything is connected and celebrates diversity.’ This represents ‘a third way beyond traditional faiths and secularism’.

Christian coverage of the census has partly been a response to the BHA’s activities. For instance, writing in the Church Times for 4 March, Paul Vallely, Associate Editor of The Independent, defended the status quo of the census approach in the face of the ‘fundamentalism’ of the ‘new atheists’.

The census, Vallely continued, allows people to define themselves religiously as they feel comfortable with. ‘Religious belief, behaviour, and identity are not necessarily connected’, he added.

In his Daily Telegraph blog for 27 February, George Pitcher also weighed in against the BHA and in defence of people’s right to self-identify as ‘cultural Christians’ and to rejoice in living in a ‘Christian country’.

‘It isn’t religious people who want to control the way that people think’, wrote Pitcher. ‘It looks to me like some secularists are growing ever more desperate to seize that control.’

In a press statement on 4 March, Theos, the public theology think tank, criticized the BHA’s census campaign as ‘misconceived and unnecessary’, while also paying tribute to BHA for doing ‘a good job of keeping religion in the news’ overall.

Theos argued that BHA’s census campaign ‘grossly exaggerates the extent to which the religious affiliation results of the 2001 census have shaped government policy or influenced spending decisions’.

Theos pointed out that ‘no religion’ is the first option in the census question and ‘this means that people have ample opportunity to deny religious affiliation should they wish to …’

‘If the Archbishop of Canterbury were to launch a campaign pleading for people to tick the Christian box, it would be rightly ridiculed as a sign of desperation’, Theos concluded.

The Theos statement provided the backbone for a lengthy article about the census in the Methodist Recorder for 10 March. This also quoted spokespersons for the Methodist Church as ‘welcoming’ the debate on the census question for providing ‘an opportunity to discuss the nature of faith and religion in contemporary society’, especially beyond the context of conventional Sunday worship (such as through Fresh Expressions).

Otherwise, comment on the census in the Christian media has been limited, although the Church of England Newspaper for 25 February included an article headlined ‘religious question to feature in the census’. By way of introduction, it jocularly reminded the readership that ‘King David was famously punished for counting the people of Israel …’

Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic weekly The Universe for 6 March majored on the hopes of the Federation of Irish Societies that Catholic churches would actively engage with its campaign to get Irish people resident in Britain to register as ethnic Irish at the census. In 2001, 10% of first-generation and 91% of second-generation Irish failed to do so.

The Muslim Council of Britain, which was very supportive of the inclusion of a religion question in 2001, has so far not issued a press release on the 2011 census. An article in the Muslim Weekly for 25 February focused on the need for Pakistani business owners to ensure that their employees knew the postcode of their place of work in order to complete the census form.

The main preoccupation of the Sikh community has been to get ONS to agree to include Sikh as an explicit ethnic as well as religious category (and to do the same for Jews). They have not succeeded in doing so, despite the threat last year of legal action by the Sikh Channel and Sikh Federation against ONS.

The Network of Buddhist Organisations is running a ‘Tick the Box for Buddhism’ campaign in connection with the census. This has a Facebook presence and is advertising in Big Issue.

The Network would actually prefer there to be no religion question in the census, on account of its methodological imperfections. However, given its inclusion, and the influence it is likely to have on Government policy, the Network wants to see ‘more accurate figures for Buddhism’ than it feels were achieved in 2001.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews is encouraging all members of the Jewish community to identify themselves as such in the census. It has created a special census webpage and email box and issued a full set of online frequently asked questions (FAQs).

One of the more interesting is: ‘I’m not religious – should I still tick the “Jewish” box?’ The answer given is: ‘It doesn’t matter whether you are religious or not – if you consider yourself to be Jewish, you should tick the “Jewish” box. If you really don’t feel comfortable doing that, you can still specify “Jewish” for your ethnic group. There is no “Jewish” tick box, so you will need to write it on the form, but it will still be counted.’

In an article in the Jewish Chronicle for 25 February, David Graham, Director of Social and Demographic Research at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, spelled out various policy and practical reasons why Jews should self-identify at the census.

A separate report in the same issue highlighted the efforts of leaders of Orthodox Jewry to ensure their movement participated more fully in the census, following the apparent undercount of the Charedi population in 2001.

This is attributed in part to the fact that Charedis tend to have large families, and that the standard household schedule only has space to accommodate details of six persons, necessitating them to ask for an additional form.

Another potential cause of Jewish underenumeration is flagged up in the Church of England Newspaper for 11 March: ‘there are signs that some Jews are reluctant to identify their faith on the census form in case details are leaked to anti-Semitic groups’.

One of the more surprising (and misleading) outcomes of the 2001 census was the success of the internet campaign beforehand to get people to register as Jedi Knights of Star Wars fame.

Some 390,000 individuals did so, making the Jedis the fifth largest religious body in the country (counting those with no religion as a body). There is a Facebook group to Put Jedi as your Religion in the UK 2011 Census.

The Sunday Times of 27 February reported some support to get ‘Dudeism’ recognized as a religion (named after the character The Dude, played by Jeff Bridges, from the 1998 comedy film The Big Lebowski).

There is a Facebook group called Dudeism for the 2011 Census, dedicated to the Church of the Latter-Day Dude. Another Facebook group is Heavy Metal for the 2011 Census, which has some 35,000 members, all determined to put heavy metal on Britain’s religious map.

Those of us with an objective interest in religious data will naturally hope that the integrity of the 2011 census will not be compromised unduly by too many ‘jokey’ endeavours.

To counteract the tendency, ONS has been utilizing social media, including Facebook, and YouTube, the video site, to make young people aware of the importance of filling out the census forms sensibly.


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