‘Census21 – Not Religious?’ campaign welcomes proposal to amend religion question

4 August 2023

The coalition of community organisations behind the Census21 – Not Religious? campaign welcomes the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) consideration to removing the bias from the religion question.

As part of its public consultation process to review questions and make amendments for the 2026 Census, the ABS revealed in late July that it could introduce a filter question to establish whether someone has a religion before asking about their religious affiliation.

On its website, the ABS said that feedback it had received during the first phase of public consultation included that “the way the question is currently asked assumes you have a religion”.

As part of the second phase of consultation, the ABS is now seeking public feedback on the potential impacts of introducing the filter question. The public has until Friday 8 September to provide feedback on this proposal via the ABS Consultation Hub.

In a submission to the ABS late last year, the Census21 – Not Religious? campaign, comprising national and state pro-secular organisations, argued that changes were needed to the current wording of the question – “What is the person’s religion?” – to remove the unacceptable bias which presumed the person had a religion..

The Census21 – Not Religious? campaign said that, at a minimum, the ABS should insert ‘if any’ at the end to make the question: “What religion does the person belong to, if any?” However, it said the preferred approach would be to use a two-part question: a) “Does the person have a religion?” b) “What is the person’s religion?”

As reported earlier this year, the ABS listed the problematic wording of the religion question among key concerns raised among 193 submissions during the first phase of the public consultation.

Michael Dove, spokesperson for the Census21 – Not Religious? campaign, said revising the wording of the question, especially with the inclusion of a filter question, would provide governments and policy-makers with a much more meaningful measure of Australians’ relationship with religion.

Mr Dove said the biased nature of the religion question meant the Census continued to overstate Australians’ relationship with religion, leading to government institutions and society continuing to privilege religion.

“Because governments rely on the Census data to inform policy-making and the allocation of public funds, it’s time for the ABS to fix the fundamental problems with the religion question,” he said.

“While almost 40 per cent of Australians told the 2021 Census they were not religious, we believe, based on other reputable surveys, that the real figure would be over 50 per cent.”

On its website, the ABS warned that changes to the religion question could mean that the data would not be comparable with data from previous Censuses.

Mr Dove said taxpayers expected the Census to provide accurate data about the Australian population.

“The ABS has a simple choice here: it can continue with flawed data for the sake of comparison with previous censuses, or ensure that the data it collects is accurate and reflects current best practice in questionnaire design,” he said.

“We would ask the ABS: what is the point of collecting the data if it is not accurate? The ABS has a duty to ensure the data it collects is accurate and the proposed change – supported by the research community – will help meet that responsibility.”

The Census21 – Not Religious? campaign is encouraging its supporters to make a submission, under the phase 2 consultation process, supporting the introduction of a filter question.