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Census data on religion creates misleading idea we're a 'Christian nation'

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison strongly promotes religion and religious adherence in Australia (image via YouTube)

On Tuesday 10 August, every Australian will be asked to complete the Census, conducted every five years.

A primary objective of each census is to collect accurate data from individuals and households.

This allows the federal government to provide: 

'... better services and infrastructure planning — and to responsibly allocate funding and resources.'

One section of the census – over many decades – has been anything but “responsible”.

New academic research now validates what secular organisations have known for years: that census question 23 on religious affiliation is a loaded question that colours the statistics.

It inflates the status of religion and allows billions in unjustified funding to be granted to wealthy church institutions, to the detriment of secular public health and education.

Costing $470 million in 2016, and tipped to be higher this August, taxpayers expect the census to be reliable and accurate. It is not. It’s crystal clear that on one question in particular, census data is hopelessly corrupted.

Research specialist, Neil Francis, has completed an academic analysis of religion in society to produced a 152-page in-depth study, titled Religiosity in Australia. The findings are stark, with political ramifications that run deep.

Francis writes:

At the 2016 Census, 60% of Australians indicated an affiliation with a religious denomination. This is widely assumed a reliable headline indication of Australians’ religiosity. It isn’t. Bias in the census religion question leads to overstatement of affiliation on weak family historical grounds, rather than actual religious belief and practice.


The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is responsible for every aspect of each census. They should know their published results are misleading. 

The questions to ask are, therefore, why is that so, and how is it that ABS has for decades rejected calls from nation-wide secular organisations for a more “balanced” question?

But what is the census question ABS has been asking for so long and why is it misleading?

The phrase "religious affiliation" helps contaminate the data by arguably extending to the religion one's family adheres to. And the loaded question 'what is the person’s religion?' implicitly assumes every citizen has a religion and it sets up a wrong conclusion that Australia is a “Christian nation".

Following each census since 2006, hundreds of submissions have called for a more "open" question but the ABS has rejected them all. They claim the question should not be altered as it requires “continuity”. It appears their priority is only to test “affiliation” and not a person’s genuine belief or religious commitment.

But the question has, indeed, been modified in the past, and “affiliation” simply skews the truth of whether a person has a current religious conviction.

It evokes a family-induced faith that may no longer be followed or relevant.

The ABS is perhaps not interested in collecting “here and now” data on the religious beliefs of Australians.

In Religiosity in Australia, Neil Francis points to how the data is corrupted:

“When expressly asked if they ‘belong’ to their religious organisation, a majority – 62% of Australians – say they don’t, including 24% Catholics, 44% of Anglicans.”

These are alarming statistics when the ABS recorded the response "no religion" at just 30% in 2016. And Dr Andy Marks, the Vice-Chancellor of Western Sydney University, says that only 7.5% of MPs identify as “no religion". Measured against the realistic public figure at 62%, citizens are a staggering eight times less religious than federal MPs.  

Creating a false picture of religiosity in Australia has allowed governments to hand out billions in taxpayer funds to wealthy churches to run their private religious enterprises in nationwide education, health, welfare and aged care — some of which has little to do with genuine charity or public service.

Over millennia, governments have fostered and supported religion as a means of placating the masses and they continue to do so. It’s the tried-and-true "carrot and stick" philosophy of Imperial Rome: cooperate and prosper, or face the consequences.

Countless philosophers have written on the symbiotic relationship between religion and government.

One of the first was philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who stated: 

'Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.'

So, why has ABS rejected every call for greater transparency?

It is a fair question, given recent events. Church leaders and a host of Christian activists lobby MPs continually for greater religious privileges, and increasingly so since marriage equality was legalised in 2017.

And it’s not unusual that governments, too, influence sections of the public service. Pork-barrelling has a long tarnished history, most recently with rorts in sport and car park funding.

For instance, the ABC’s Insiders program on 4 July saw journalist Karen Middleton refer to the growing concern over the car park rorts, where the Government is said to have signed off on a swag of car park projects in marginal Liberal seats prior to the 2019 Election.

Middleton said:

"... You’re seeing public servants now making a 'political’ defence of the government."

She pointed to departments bowing to projects that were critically flawed.

And on 5 July, Independent Australia published a report that senior figures at the Reserve Bank of Australia had made inaccurate statements in support of the government. Public servants are required to serve the nation without partisan bias.

There’s concern, too, that Australia has lost its top-10 global anti-corruption ranking.

But has ABS come under any pressure to maintain the status of religion?

That is the question. All parliamentarians, and the mainstream media, would do well to read Religiosity in Australia. The report has produced clear evidence that public support for organised religion is not simply “in decline”, it has essentially degraded to half the figure suggested by the 2016 Census.

Primarily it’s a rump of devout Catholics, evangelicals and Pentecostals who believe that only they are qualified to govern, much like Prime Minister Scott Morrison and others who claim they were called to do “God’s work.”

Combining religion and politics has never ended well, particularly when conservative governments enmesh with the new "puritan" strains of religion that are based on the beliefs of biblical literalism. They deny science, climate change, and human evolution. Tragically, these parents often teach their kids the same misinformation.

Regrettably, ABS helps perpetuate this fallacy of a "Christian nation". And they show another bizarre distortion of reality. On August 10, the ABS' Census will now include atheism as an optional “religion”.

Has the ABS completely lost the plot, or been influenced to play religious politics?   

Brian Morris is a former journalist and founder of the National Secular Lobby (NSL) and Plain Reason.

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