Even If You Don't Believe, Your 'Religion' Matters

Marking 'No Religion' on the census does not mean being an atheist.

25/07/2016 1:04 PM AEST | Updated 27/07/2016 12:46 PM AEST
Dimitri Otis
The trend towards secularism in progressive nations has advanced rapidly over recent decades.

When a leading betting agency makes a groundbreaking move to lay odds on the upcoming census, you know something is about to happen -- particularly when those odds centre on the seemingly innocuous question of religious affiliation.

A seismic shift will certainly occur on August 9th, now that the "No Religion" box has been promoted to be the first option for the question "What is the person's religion?", up from last place in every previous census.

Odds are being given by the betting agency that 'No Religion' will now have the highest score and dethrone the Catholics as traditional winners. 'Catholic' topped the pool in the 2011 census with 25.3 percent. Anglicans then followed with 17.1 percent, the Uniting Church 5.0 percent, Eastern Orthodox 2.6 percent and Islam at 2.2 percent. Consistently buried at the end of the list was 'No Religion', which still ran second with 22.3 percent.

The trend towards secularism in progressive nations has advanced rapidly over recent decades. Australia is fully expected to now record similar figures to these countries. England is 48 percent religion-neutral; Scotland stands at 52 percent; and New Zealanders are 42 percent non-religious.

But the true numbers are even higher than this -- over and above those who are proudly religion-neutral. A majority of the population is brought up in households where there is a traditional family religion but, later in life and for a variety of different reasons, they drift away from those traditions and practice no religion at all.

Anecdotal evidence shows these 'uncommitted' people still register their childhood religion at each census, through sheer force of habit, although specific numbers are difficult to verify. The term is to be 'culturally religious'. Many are ambivalent but others adopt a secular or rationalist worldview, based on reason and philosophical ethics. They don't consider themselves religious.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has made this census change to reflect similar amendments in other Western countries. It also brings the Religious Affiliation section into line with other questions in the census -- where the first response is often "No, go to next question". Having 'No Religion' as first option also encourages a more considered response, rather than a reflex action to mark one's past 'family religion'.

Marking 'No Religion' does not mean being an atheist, it simply means one no longer practices a particular religion. There are many Muslims who also reject Islam and they also have the freedom to 'privately' nominate as secular. The new ABS format may also encourage those who mark Spaghetti Monster, Jedi and Santa Claus to think more seriously about their religious affiliation, or lack thereof.

So why is the census important?

Each five-yearly census provides vital information for all three tiers of government to plan for housing, schools, health, social services and transport, as well as economic, business and community infrastructure.

The 'Religious Affiliation' question is essential too, as many of these services are run as private businesses by religious organisations -- not as charitable works -- but as commercial operations that pay no tax.

Historically, Church organisations claim exemptions from tax (and lodging any financial returns) under the provision of "advancing religion" which dates back to the Statute of Queen Elizabeth 1, in 1601, and was inherited from England when Australia was colonised.

This provision has never been challenged, and it's essentially due to the highly skewed census results that have given all churches a position of privilege. The question is still "what is the person's religion", which automatically assumes everyone has one. But that is now negated with 'No Religion' as the first option.

In 2011, the total Christian tally was 61 percent -- and we discussed earlier how easy it was for 'cultural Christians' to mark off their 'family religion'. Churches have fed off this inequitable advantage for a century.

In 1901, the population was 96 percent Christian. It was only in 1991 that 'No Religion' was added as the last option. This still gave the Churches considerable political influence to retain their dominant social position. We have moved from a public education system that was "free, compulsory and secular" to a position today where almost 40 percent of children attend private religious schools.

Australia is constitutionally secular. A true 'No Religion' figure in this census will reaffirm that secular status. Those who framed the constitution were adamant that the nation needed a transparent separation of church and state. But in recent decades, federal parliaments have become increasingly Christianised.

Social issues such as same-sex marriage and voluntary euthanasia (both supported by more than two thirds of a secular public) are consistently opposed by governments and churches. And no progress has been possible on limiting religious school expansion, the Chaplaincy Program, religious instruction (rather that ethics) in public schools, and even the persistence of daily prayers in parliament.

All these, and more, contravene the very essence of a 'secular' society -- they are religious practices that have long been abandoned in the more progressive nations of Europe and Scandinavia.

The ABS has now rectified the structural imbalance of the census and that will enable a more even playing field in the public debate over contemporary secular social policy. While responding to this question on religion is not compulsory, people are encouraged to consider it seriously and to answer it honestly and sincerely.

More On This Topic