MEDIA RELEASE: Census21 – Not Religious? campaign urges the Australian Bureau of Statistics to fix problems in the religion question

29 October 2022

The coalition of community organisations behind the Census21 – Not Religious? campaign is now urging the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) to fix the problems with the religion question to ensure greater accuracy of Census data.

In a submission to an ABS review of the religion question, the Census21 – Not Religious? campaign has recommended, as its top priority, that the ABS re-word the current question – “What is the person’s religion?” – to remove the loaded bias that assumes each respondent has a religion.

Read the full submission here.

The Census21 – Not Religious? campaign has urged the ABS to, at a minimum, re-word the question and insert ‘if any’ as a qualifying suffix – to make the question: “What religion does the person belong to, if any?”

However, the submission also said that the preferred approach would be for the ABS to use a two-part question: a) “Does the person have a religion?” b) “What is the person’s religion?”

“The current question presumes that the person has a religion. This results in a serious form of research bias known as acquiescence bias. While not addressing all deficiencies with the question, adding ‘if any’ is the simplest way to remove some inherent bias in the current question, while maximising the continuity of question wording in relation to longitudinal data and analysis,” says the submission.

The Census21 – Not Religious? campaign also noted that other respected social surveys, such as the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, already include the rider “if any”, or a similar conditional clause, in their question on religion. The Irish census, conducted in March 2022, also adopted this qualifier.

With the review of the Australian Standard for the Classification of Religious Groups (ASCRG) and Religious Affiliation Standard (RAS) open for submissions until the 18 November 2022 deadline, the Census21 – Not Religious? campaign is urging more Australians to take part in calling for change to the question.

Michael Dove, spokesperson for the Census21 – Not Religious? campaign, said the biased nature of the religion question meant the Census continued to overstate Australians’ relationship with religion.

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

“These problems result in confused respondents and inaccurate data. Accuracy is so important when it comes to Census data. We urge the ABS to make a commitment to producing accurate data on the religion question and making the necessary changes.”

Among the other major recommendations in the submission, the Census21 – Not Religious? campaign has urged the ABS to align the definition of religion to the definition in the 1983 High Court decision – that is, having a belief in a supernatural being, thing or principle, and the acceptance of canons of conduct which give effect to that belief.

Currently, the Census classifies ‘Atheism’ as a religion, even though atheism is, by definition, the absence of any belief in the supernatural; logically, atheism cannot be a religion.

“Atheism, Humanism and Rationalism are philosophies that have nothing to do with religion and should not be suggested as examples of a valid response,” says the submission.

“Similarly, ‘Secular Beliefs’ has no place in a classification of religions. It is primarily a term used to describe a view about the role of religion in government decision-making. It makes no logical sense as a religious category because it is a term that could equally apply to religious people as well as to non-religious people.”