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Census 2011 religion data due for release tomorrow

Tomorrow morning the Office for National Statistics (ONS) is releasing the ‘Religion’ data from the 2011 Census survey. Available will be statistics showing either the rise or decline of religiosity for England and Wales. Through its high-profile Census Campaign, the British Humanist Association (BHA) argued in 2011 that census data on religion produced by the 2001 Census gave a misleading picture of the religiosity of the UK.

The results of the Census question on religion say nothing about the actual religious practice, involvement, sense of belonging or beliefs of the UK population. However, both central and local government have frequently used the 2001 results in justifying allocating resources to religious groups. The 2001 figure stated that 72% of the population are ‘Christian’, which has been used to justify the continued presence of Bishops in the House of Lords, the state funding of ‘faith’ schools (and their expansion), an increase religious broadcasting, and to exclude the voices of humanists in parliament and elsewhere.

The 2001 Census asked the question ‘What is your religion?’, which resulted in a far higher figure for the answer of ‘Christian’ than all other surveys. 71.4% ticked the ‘Christian’ box in England and 71.90% in Wales. The figure for Scotland showed significantly fewer respondents ticking ‘Christian’: 65.08%, in spite of far higher Church attendance. This is because respondents were asked both about the religion they were brought up in and their current religion. The figures for the answer of ‘None’ were 14.6% in England, 18.63% in Wales and 27.55% in Scotland.

Other surveys tend to find 30-50% of the population is non-religious, rising to 60-65% for young people. The way that the question was asked by the 2001 Census assumed that respondents have a religion, and inflated the number of respondents ticking a religious box whilst reducing the number of those ticking ‘None’. It was a leading, closed question. The question also appeared after a number of questions about ethnicity, which may have encouraged people to respond on the basis of cultural affiliation, than actual religious beliefs or belonging.

The 2011 Census asked the same questions in the same way, meaning the same flawed results.

BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, ‘For ten years Christian lobby groups and activists have made extensive use of the 72% Christian result of 2001 to argue for more influence in public life, more state-funded faith schools and greater privilege for religion. This is in spite of the fact that all serious researchers agree that the biased census question gives a measure mainly of cultural identity rather than religiosity. If the proportion of Christians now goes down, we might hope (probably in vain) that the special pleading the last results engendered will not be repeated. My fear would be that – with the same biased question used in 2011 as is 2001 – we will be in for relatively little change in the results.’

Tomorrow the British Humanist Association will be releasing a statement on the findings of the 2011 Census, with comparisons to other surveys to highlight why the Census data on religion should not be used for policy formulation, and is not truly reflective of the UK’s levels of religiosity.

Notes

We will be responding to the data upon release and can be contacted for comment or informtation. Please contact BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson on 07534 248596 or at andrew@humanism.org.uk.

Visit the Census Campaign website: http://census-campaign.org.uk/

Read more about why the Census questions were an issue in 2001, and why they continue to be in 2011: http://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/census-2011/census-2011-results/

Read other surveys and statistics on religion or belief: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/religion-and-belief-surveys-statistics

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

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