Non religious in Australia and New Zealand

Australian-New Zealand CensusHere’s an interesting question?

New Zealanders and Australians have a lot in common. We think of ourselves as sibling nations. We often tell jokes about each other (I must say, however, that Australian jokes about Kiwis usually involve sheep and don’t seem funny to me).

But look at the figures for religious affiliation taken from census data. Why are the “no relgion” results lower in Australia than New Zealand? And the “Christian results correspondingly higher?

NZ Religion question

(OK, we may have jokes about this – but seriously).

Well, have a look at the actual census questions about religion asked in the two countries.

Notice that the “no religion” choice is at the top of the list in New Zealand question (number 18 – grey) but buried at the bottom in the Australian question (number 19 – orange).

Do Australians opt for a religion in their census answers because they don’t , at first glance, notice the “no religion” option?

Does the Australian census overestimate religiosity?
See also:
Christianity – a declining population.

Similar articles:
Religious diversity includes “non-believers”
Trends in religious belief in New Zealand
New Zealand supports evolution
God’s not as popular as we thought

15 responses to “Non religious in Australia and New Zealand

  1. Interesting. Somehow these demographic questions also seem to skirt the issue I wonder about most. How many of these people actually believe in God/s. That being a somewhat different issue to religion per se.


  2. Good point Emily. In his book Breaking The Spell, Daniel Dennett suggests that more people believe in believing (not necessarily in a deity as such) than statistics suggest. And I can sort of see how that might be true; there was a time where I was ticking the “Christian” box but no longer truly believed in a God.


  3. Bad survey design! I think you caught a really basic problem, Ken: The results could be due to an ordering effect. If they had wanted to avoid that (or even test it), they should have randomized the order of the answers on different forms (like they do on election ballots at least here in the U.S.). Also, I noticed that the “no religion” option on the Australian ballot is hidden below the write-in box. I wonder how many people simply missed it! Granted, it was referenced in the instructions but how many people actually read those…?


  4. Emily, I agree that the census question really doesn’t tell us about belief. In my post God’s not as popular as we thought I look at the UMR Research data from an August 2007 survey of religious and moral beliefs in New Zealand. This showed the effect of framing. When a number of options were presented traditional belief in a god dropped to 46% (from 56% which was more in line with Census results).

    There does seem to be a “belief in belief” effect Damian refers to. I remember my parents always ticked Church of England for Census and hospital admission. They weren’t C of E, had no church affiliation, but obviously felt that they had to tick something (In those days we were often not presented with a no-religion choice anyway). I suspect that there is still a lot of that attitude around.

    Also, I think it would be interesting to somehow classify theist beliefs in a survey to the nature of the god people say they believe in., Dennet found in background researching for his books that when people from the same church who regularly worshiped together were asked this sort of question there was a huge variation in the “god” they believed in.


  5. The NZ census question is much better, It’s a pity the Australian government reduced funding to the ABS as many of us submitted suggestions to change the question for the next census (2011). Did you notice one of the other problems with our question? They list Humanism as one of the types you can put in the Other religions box. Last time I checked Humanism isn’t a religion.

    There are a lot of people who just tick the box of the religion they were born into. Even the church admits this, today’s SMH cites Pell as wanting to “increase the number of ‘census Catholics’…”! According to our census about 25% are Catholic, this equates to about 5 million Catholics. However, only about 14% of those actually go to church. So does that mean there’s really only 700,000 Catholics in Aus?


  6. once again, the word ‘religion’ is unhelpful…


  7. Dale, I think the problem here is the question order.
    But, how would you change the census question to replace the word “religion?”


  8. Certainly, the question order helps none…

    My problem with the word ‘religion’ is seen in the entire scenario of ‘ticking the box’; as if ‘choosing’ what to have for dinner, or what you’d like from the available selections on a buffet or menu.

    Worldview, is, I think, still a much more helpful word (and concept) to work with; though it would take it’s own entire survey, and couldn’t be reduced to ticking a box from one list of label-words…

    The ‘worldview survey’ would have all kinds of questions to ask, like ‘what story would you tell to explain reality’, ‘is there a problem or problems with reality’, ‘what are they, or why are there none’, etc.

    But hey, the government might not be so interested in what people actually believe, and maybe we taxpayers don’t want them to be?


  9. Interesting. I wouldn’t have expected a difference between Australia and NZ.

    I can see the logic in putting ‘no religion’ right at the bottom, but for the sake of clarity it would be better at least above the ‘other’ box.

    I’d love to see some worldview questions on the next census, perhaps as well as the religion one? The answers to that would be more useful as well as more interesting, I think. Might encourage more thought than just ticking the box you always tick.


  10. A census question on “world view” is interesting. However, should we allow governments to ask such questions? They will be asking us what political party we support next – OK for an election of private poll, but I think most people would be unhappy about a government question on a personally identifiable form.

    In fact, some would judge a question about religion inappropriate – and we do have the right to object to the question. It’s interesting to speculate on why we have such a question. They don’t in the US – but then they have formal separation of church and state. I think that we don’t have that formal separation here, in Australia or the UK.

    Perhaps the religion question had more use in the past when the formal connection between church and state was more real. But it must be considered to have a purpose if it is being retained.

    Perhaps it helps inform government policy making on things like public state ceremony, education, cemeteries, taxation policies (exemption for promoting religion),etc. The government wouldn’t be interested in beliefs, as such, but in formal ties to a tradition – and the question goes some way to providing that.

    As far as beliefs or world view go (in contrast to formal connection to a tradition) polls are probably the best, and safest, way of ascertaining these. I think the UMR Research Survey: Morality, Religion and Evolution provided some good information on beliefs which the census didn’t.

    Mind you – the questions have to be presented in a useful way, and there is a lot of room for bias in this, and in interpretation.


  11. In the old testament it is explicitly forbidden to count the people of Israel. A census of sorts does take place in the desert, under special circumstances, but the main point seems to be that counting people by religion has something problematic about it, according to the Judeo-Christian founding text.

    Worth juxtaposing with these attempts to count people by religion.


  12. Matjew; really? I wasn’t aware of this. Do you have the particular verses at hand?


  13. I see no problem with asking these questions. They are demograohic questions that help us understand the nation. They give empirical, albeit aopproximate, rebuttals to assertiosn that ‘most every Kiwi is Christian’ and so forth. Besides, they are completely optional. they only problem I have with the census is all the trouble I had when working as a census taker because people don;t properly confine their dogs! p.s. I would very much expect NZ and Aus to differ a lot–there are some pretty big political and cultural difference aparent even at the level of who these countries elect.


  14. For the moment, Australia is stuck with a leading question, which is prone to elicit a baptismal answer even though that may no longer be the case, and with having the ‘No religion’ response at the bottom of page.

    The Atheist Foundation of Australia has just commenced a campaign to have people answer the question on religion in a truthful way and not robotically.

    If the ‘No religion’ numbers increase significantly, the Government will have to take such a response into account with future Census’.

    Tell your family friends, acquaintances and those you work with about the AFA Census Campaign. It would make for a very entertaining dinner conversation. Thanks



  15. Pingback: Australian census confirms healthy trend | Open Parachute

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