Census Day: Why you should answer the religion question truthfully…

There’s a bit of a campaign doing the rounds regarding the answering the controversial religious affiliation question in the 2011 Census. And now there’s a counter campaign. What happened to just telling the truth?

It’s pretty bizarre that the Atheist campaign website is down the night before the census – I can only hope that this isn’t thanks to some misguided Christians thinking it’s a bad thing for people to be honest in their census answers (remember the ninth commandment people…). It was a good website, and a good campaign.

One thing I thought was interesting was their insistence that being able to sign up to the Apostle’s Creed (or maybe the Nicene Creed) was the mark of a Christian, their position was that if you can’t agree with the creed – you’re not a Christian, and you shouldn’t indicate that you are. Which is great. Because now we’ve got a functional definition of Christian and we can do away with the typical internet atheist’s constant resort to the “no True Scotsman fallacy” whenever one suggests that a particular behaviour is not consistent with Christian belief. Because apparently being a Christian does require a particular characteristic, it’s not just good enough to call yourself one…

That’s all well and good. I’d love people to answer the census honestly, because I hate nominalism. It breeds complacency and a bizarre superiority complex when Christians approach social issues. It flies in the face of the human experience. And people should stop feeling like they need to pretend to honour a religious belief they don’t actually live out. The way people live is indicative of their belief system. Anyway.

Here’s the counter campaign, almost the pro-nominalism campaign… from a friend’s Facebook. I quite like the intention here. Because politically correct editing of society is just ridiculous. Take, for example, a school in the US that renamed Easter Eggs “Spring Spheres” – which is pretty bizarre because the word Easter comes from a pagan festival anyway and what Christians are really interested in at Easter is the death and resurrection of Jesus.

“Australia will be holding census tomorrow.
Don’t leave the ‘religion’ part blank.
Be sure to at least tick Christian or (your own faith)
1,000,000 Muslims will tick their box and
10,000,000 Australians will leave theirs blank and wonder why Christmas carols are being banned from schools, not to mention Easter hat parades! It’s not about religion, it’s about keeping our way of life! :)
Repost if u agree!”

I have some major problems with this, because the stats are ridiculously paranoid. 63% of Australians said they were Christians at the last census. The ABS population clock says we currently have 22 million people in our country. Based on figures at the last census people who indicated no religion accounted for around 18% of our population (I’m sure that will increase, that’s the trend. That’s about 3.9 million people. Not 10 million. 13.8 million people said they were Christians last time around. And the real furphy in those figures is the Muslim statistic (again, I suspect this will increase this year). 1.7% of Australians ticked the Muslim box last time around. That’s about 400,000 people. The one million figure quoted above would be a huge increase in proportion of the Australian population – from 1.8% to 4.5%. I just don’t see that happening.

I think we need to look elsewhere for the cause of the removal of Christmas from the calendar, and it’s got much more to do with the decreasing role Jesus plays in the lives of Australians.

So please, atheists, muslim, Christian, whatever your creed – lets get a good picture of the nature of the Australian community, because ultimately it’s going to help the church do its job and think clearly about its mission.

That is all.


Lee Shelton says:

We have similar debates here in the U.S. The census generates controversy every 10 years because many people don’t think it’s the state’s business to know one’s age, race, ethnic group, religion, etc. The argument is that such information will simply continue to divide the country. That’s understandable, as we have countless organizations (many of which benefit from government subsidies) with the sole purpose of elevating their own particular group over others. Personally, I don’t see how answering supplemental questions helps the government do it’s job, which is (or should be) protecting every individual’s right to life, liberty, and property.

Nathan Campbell says:

Hi Lee,

Interesting libertarian framing of the census issue, and while I can sympathise with the not wanting the government to make decisions on an individual based on their profile – there is a huge benefit to businesses, and churches, that comes from having accurate demographic data for regions, suburbs and cities. So if I can drill down into the census data, as a minister, and find that a large proportion of the suburb I’m ministering to are young people on low incomes it’ll frame the way I approach the suburb I’m in. You could argue that this sort of stuff should be fairly easy to observe for anybody who takes the time to understand a suburb, but data is an inroad in that process. So I think the supplemental questions are actually less about helping the government do it’s job, and more about providing a resource to the community to help them do theirs.

Daniel says:

I agree with you here. I saw similar posts on facebook which I had similar issues with. I tried to explain exactly what you said but I don’t think anybody listened.

Where I disagree is about the atheist campaign. I have issue with it in exactly the same way I would have with a Christian campaign (like the facebook one!) if it was trying to boost its own numbers artificially for its own agenda. The target of this campaign isn’t the people who are committed atheists, it’s the ones who don’t really care – and they’re no more interested in atheism than they are in Christianity. They may be noncommitted, but if you hold a census paper to their head and ask “what’s your religion?”, and force them to consider it, and they want to answer with Christian or whatever, rather than blank/atheist/whatever – that’s how they identify themselves. I think it’s a bit insulting that any group is telling people how to fill out a census form.

The AFA’s agenda goes beyond merely desiring truthful stats – it’s right there on their website: “take religion OUT of politics”.

askegg says:

The census question is not aimed at your cultural values or identification, but asks “what is the person’s religion”. To claim you are Christian because you have some vague affiliation with “Christian values” is somewhat dishonest. Luckily, the Nicene Creed spells out what many Christians consider the tenets of the faith to be.

Of course, the AFA wants personal religious beleifs to be irrelevant in political circles. No one want to live according to the relgious beliefs of others. Secular values protect the religious as much as everyone else.

Nathan Campbell says:

Hi Askegg,

I wonder if you’ll be comfortable with a reference to this definition of Christianity next time you trot out a reference to the No True Scotsman fallacy. And I hope you’ve articulated this position in response to those in your camp who have trotted out the line that Anders Breivik claimed to be a Christian so he should be treated like one…

Nathan Campbell says:

Also, just read your post on the viral campaign. Nice to see that we are in such agreement on why that viral campaign is bad. Our arguments are almost identical, and I hadn’t read yours beforehand…

Nathan Campbell says:

Hi Daniel, I have some sympathy with the AFA’s agenda. I’d like to see the politics taken out of religion too. A true separation of church and state, with the church free to do its job (ie proclaiming Jesus) is a good thing in my book. As is a decline in nominalism, because nominalism creates an unhealthy malaise when it comes to doing that job. I think it’s fair enough to praise the AFA for asking people to answer truthfully and providing a functional definition of Christianity (their website is back up for people following at home).

I think you’re right that people should be free to answer based on how they identify themselves. But I’d like people to know what identifying themselves as Christian actually means, which is why I prefer the timbre of the atheist campaign to the cultural argument from that Facebook meme. Why should we protect vestiges of Christian culture like Easter Eggs when the thing they symbolise has been completely lost.

Nathan Campbell says:

Also, I don’t see the difference between “non-committed” and “non-religious”…

Daniel says:

Thanks for replying. Good reply.

I agree and am immensely frustrated by the nominalism we see not only society generally but even within the church a lot of the time. Nominalism can be more of a problem than bare atheism.

I too would like to see a truthful representation. If somehow the percentage of Christians (or any religion) could accurately reflect the number of people who sincerely subscribe to [e.g. the Nicene Creed], that would be a good thing. (It’d also mean a number much less than 64%.)

But when you go up to someone and ask “religion?”, if they’re nominally something, that’s how they’ll answer. That’s all the census purports to do and all it can do.

I’m just suspicious of the AFA’s motives. They’re asking all the nominals to sign up with their side, and they don’t hide that it’s for political reasons. Atheism is a positive belief system/worldview as well – a “nominal” atheist is as genuine as a “nominal” Christian. Unfortunately, a large proportion of the population doesn’t really care one one way or another so they’ll be a nominal [insert religious/non-religious tag here]. (Uncommitted to their non-religion?)

Anyway, we certainly agree that individuals should be answering truthfully.

Arthur says:

“Currently we are under maintenance due to a malicious attack on our server. Currently The AFA Census Campaign website is restored and we hope to have both the main AFA website and the Global Atheist Convention websites up shortly. Thanks for your patience.”