A selection of secularist activist groups, including the Australian Atheist Foundation, has succeeded in having the question of religion altered in the national Census.
Question 19 of the 2016 Census will now place the option of ‘no religion’ at the top of the list of possible choices, where previously it featured last, below the grid used to manually write an ‘other’ option.
Secular advocates argue the question contained an implicit bias that skewed the resulting data. This, they say, results in government funding and resources being unduly allocated to religious charities and institutions.
Australian Atheist Foundation president Michael Boyd says the religion question as it existed in previous Censuses made the assumption that every respondent had a religion.
“This puts a preordained answer into their head, which for many non-religious people is simply the religion they were born into,” Mr Boyd says.
“So we perceive that people could be inadvertently answering the question incorrectly.”
In a statement announcing the changes, the Australian Bureau of Statistics says it agrees there is a perceived bias in the religious question. Through a process of consultation and testing, the ABS decided that setting ‘no religion’ as the first response now means the religion question is consistent with other Census questions and the order of their responses.
Australian Rationalist Society president Meredith Doig says the campaign in Australia was informed by practice in New Zealand where the ‘no religion’ option in that nation’s Census is already at the top of the list.
In the 2013 New Zealand Census, 39 per cent of Kiwis identified as having no religious affiliation, which was more than 17 per cent higher than Australia’s 2011 result of almost 23 per cent.
Ms Doig says that, given the similarities of the shared colonial history and current demographic make up, “it indicates conclusively that it’s the structure of the question that makes a difference”.
There are, however, sections of the religious community that are concerned the changes will only introduce a new bias.
Ros Philips, research officer at Family Voice Australia – a national organisation that promotes Christian family values – is concerned the data will be skewed by the donkey vote phenomena.
“We know from elections the person listed at number one always benefits from a donkey vote and it’s reckoned to be worth anywhere from 2 to 5 per cent,” Ms Philips says.
Aside from potential inaccuracies being introduced, she says the changes lack logic.
“Have you ever sat a multiple choice exam where the first answer is ‘none of the above’?” she says.
“It doesn’t make any logical sense to have ‘no religion’ at the top.”
The rationale behind the campaign for the change is more nuanced than a few cranky non-believers trying to raise their standings in the ranks of religious denominations.
As president of the Council of Australian Humanist Societies, Scott Sharrad, explains, the accuracy of Census data can give it considerable influence over politicians, academics and bureaucrats when they decide who gets what and when.
“Secular people and the groups involved in this campaign generate value in evidence,” Sharrad says.
“Having a firm grasp of the number of people who aren’t attached to a religious institution or a religious way of thinking is incredibly important when presenting our views to State and Federal governments.”
Therefore, any increase in the percentage of Australians ticking the ‘no religion’ box in the upcoming Census could have serious ramifications for the allocation of public resources.
Mr Sharrad says there should be a push for greater secularism in areas such as health care, domestic violence and homelessness services, and education and addiction services.
Foundation Beyond Belief Australia is a secular umbrella organisation that attempts to replicate the sense of community found in churches and organised religions while advocating for effective secular charities. FBBA’s executive director Avi Chapman says religion is a great motivator for being generous but it also blinkers the form that generosity can take.
“Everyone wants to give to charity but not everyone gets that extra little push of having God look over your shoulder,” Mr Chapman says.
One of the benefits of secular charities according to Chapman is the ability to make a pragmatic assessment of the best way to spend the money.
“With religious charities it is difficult to be pragmatic,” he says.
“Since there are no ideologies involved in secular organisations you can stand back and make a more balanced assessment.”
This impracticality, according to Ms Doig, shows itself when matters of doctrine interfere with the ability to provide adequate care.
“It is more of a problem when there are issues that are particularly controversial,” she says.
“Abortion, assisted dying, and homosexuality are examples where religious organisations seek to have special dispensation when these services should be available to everyone irrespective of their religious or non-religious stance.”
Ms Philips says a key motivation behind the campaign is funding and she says any money diverted away from religious institutions may have implications for Australia’s national security.
“This question determines Federal funding for chaplains in the defence force,” she says.
“Morale is essential in any battle and chaplains are very important in maintaining morale.
“Fewer chaplains would be very, very sad for Australia and could have an impact on how we are able to defend our borders.”
The assessment offered by Ms Philips is not shared uniformly across the religious community. Father Peter Bianchini, head of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in the inner Perth suburb of Highgate, provides a candid insight as he reflects on declining attendance at his Sunday services.
“Attendance has probably halved in the 12 years I have been here,” he says.
“We are asking the question of ourselves: ‘What are we going to do and how are we going to move forward?’”
Father Bianchini confessed: “we need to be more honest about this”.
“If the honesty reflects facts then there are going to be consequences for the churches.
“What are we doing? Where are we failing?”
Photo by Gareth Thomas