Census 2013: That religion question

Ben Heather, at Stuff, made some comments on the religion question in the NZ Census (see Census 2013: Taking Stock Of New Zealand Society) which need slightly deeper analysis.

He said:

“Atheism is tipped to continue its rise in this year’s census results, while those identifying as Christian will fall below 50 per cent.

In the 2006 census, just over two million people, or 55.6 per cent of those answering the religious affiliation question, identified with a Christian religion. In the 2001 census, the figure was 60.6 per cent.

Those ticking “no religion” rose from 29 per cent in 2001 to 34.7 per cent.”

Firstly, using data only for “those answering the religious affiliation question” can give the wrong impression if you extrapolate to the whole population. It assumes those who didn’t, or refused, to answer the question have the same distribution of affiliations as those who did. That’s unlikely to be the case.

Safest to express these figures as a percentage of the total population. In my 2008 article, God’s not as popular as we thought, I used that approach and said:

“In the 2006 Census 51% of New Zealanders described themselves as Christian. A total of 3.8% described themselves as Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim (the next three largest religions) and 32% declared no religion.”

However, I went further. In Is New Zealand a Christian nation? I mentioned the problem of double dipping by Christians:

“Apparently some Christians are so enthusiastic that belong to several different churches. I can believe that as I have a relative who used to attend two different churches each Sunday because it gave him two different experiences.

In 2006 140,000 New Zealanders claimed to be adherents of more than one Christian religion. This caused an overestimation of the proportion of Christians. When corrected for double dipping the 2006 census showed that:

53.1% of those answering the religious affiliation question were Christian, or

49.5% of the total population described themselves as Christian.”

So, true, “those identifying as Christian will fall below 50 per cent” in this census. But when double dipping was removed those identifying as Christians had already fallen below 50% in 2006.

What do you mean by “Christian?”

The article also quoted research by Victoria University religious studies teaching fellow Will Hoverd who is involved in the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Survey, which began in 2009. It concludes:

“The research suggests half of those ticking “no religion” are not atheist, and three-quarters of them believe in a god or spiritual life force.

I am keen to see results from this survey and don’t question that observation (although reference to a “spiritual life force” is problematic and can – usually does – give the wrong impression). However, it does give a misleading message as it ignores the beliefs of those who do tick a religion box. Because religious affiliation does not necessarily say anything about beliefs, including belief in gods.

The results presented in the Ispos MORI survey Religious and Social Attitudes of UK Christians in 2011  show the problem. This survey questioned people who recorded their religion as “Christian” in the 2011 UK Census.

One question was “Which is the one statement that best describes what being a Christian means to you personally?” Nine choices (including “prefer not to say” were provided. The figure below shows the responses.

I discussed the survey in my article  Belief and morality.

One cannot quibble with the Dr Hoverd’s main conclusion though:

“What we’re finding is a demographic shift away from organised religion.”

But that indicates the problem with the census religion question. Many people will tick “Christian” (or a denomination) purely because they think it’s what’s expected. Not because they belong to any church or religious community. And not because they have a specific religious belief.

That distorts the results. I think religion still has a lot more influence in our society than it should because of the assumptions made in surveys like the census. After all the census results will be used to argue for Christian privileges (eg. taxation exemption, local body rates exemptions, state ceremonies and lobbying of parliament).

Tick the “no religion” box if applicable

Here’s an idea – what about being honest. If you have no religion, or have stopped belonging to the one you inherited from your family, tick the “no religion” box.

Why does this matter? Well a more accurate census of religious affiliation will encourage policy makers and planners to produce social policies more in line with the population. Maybe if the true figures for religion were available our government might be more willing to remove religious ceremony from parliament and state functions. Or not be so lenient with dishing out public money purely on the basis of religious claims.

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One response to “Census 2013: That religion question

  1. Pingback: Why I’m ‘no religion’ on the technology census | Bill Bennett

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