New polling confirms bias in census question

The National Secular Lobby, one of the pro-secular groups involved in the Census21 – Not Religious? Mark ‘No Religion’ campaign, has this week released the results of two polls run during July which attempted to analyse the census’s measurement of religiosity in Australia.

In a media release, NSL ambassador Associate Professor Paul Willis stated that the approach taken by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) of asking for a person’s religion without first asking people whether they had one will suggest to some that they are expected to respond with a religion, even if it’s one they were only exposed to in childhood and with which they do not currently identify.

“The census question on religion collects data which is distorted and unfit for being used as the basis for policy and funding decisions,” says Associate Professor Willis.

The Essential Research polling, which was conducted in two consecutive periods throughout July, compared the responses from two different questions:

  1. The question on religion as asked by the ABS in the national census; and
  2. An alternative two-part question designed to be non-leading by first asking people whether they currently had a religion, before (in the case of a positive response) asking which one.

In the 2016 census, the ABS reported a ‘No religion’ figure of just 30 percent and a religious figure of 60 percent.

The NSL’s reproduction of the ABS’s question, designed to model the increase in the ‘No Religion’ demographic in the five years since the last census, returned a ‘No religion’ figure of 41 percent and a religious figure of 56 percent.

Their non-leading alternative question resulted in a ‘No religion’ figure of 52 percent and a religious figure of 44 percent.

The NSL’s conclusion was that removing the leading nature of the question resulted in a highly significant difference in the results.

Full statistics and data on the surveys are available on the NSL’s website.

“From these statistics, it’s apparent that the census question leads people towards supplying particular responses by implying that everyone has a religion, even if it’s only a loose cultural or historical affiliation,” says Associate Professor Willis.

“The inflated religiosity figures allow the federal government to justify granting billions of dollars in funding to private religious institutions at the expense of cash-strapped public schools and hospitals.”

“The big question is why the Australian Bureau of Statistics is unwilling to take action to fix it.”

This polling compounds the research contained in the recently released Religiosity in Australia report, written by statistician Neil Francis and published by the Rationalist Society of Australia.

“These two national Essential Research polls from the NSL verify the exhaustive academic research referred to above – all of which illustrates the need to correct this ongoing census bias,” Associate Professor Willis said.

Clearly the question cannot be changed for this census.  But the Census21 – Not Religious? Mark ‘No Religion’ campaign recognises the role that the question will play in understating the ‘No Religion’ count in this year’s census.

This flawed question will provide inaccurate data that will inform the allocation of billions of dollars for years to come.

That’s why the campaign is asking people to reflect honestly on their current connection with religion and if they do not believe in or practise a religion, they should mark ‘No Religion’.