A PUSH for Australians to mark “no religion” in the 2016 Census could see Christianity overtaken as the most popular “religion” and change the way government policy is made and projects funded in Australia.
It’s a subtle change, but overseas experience is that moving the “no religion” option to the top of the list of responses on the question of religion saw a dramatic rise in the number of people identifying with a particular faith.
This year’s Census has done that, with the option moved to the top of the list of possible responses to the “What is the person’s religion?” question for the first time since the “no religion” option was introduced in 1991. The “Catholic” option moves to second on the list.
Among those advocating the “mark no religion” initiative is the Atheist Foundation of Australia (AFA), which says the results could have huge impacts on the way governments spend money on welfare and education.
“Census data is used by governments to make important funding decisions like assigning chaplains to hospitals, schools, prisons and armed services, for planning educational facilities, for aged care and other social services,” AFA president Kylie Sturgess said.
“Many of those services are run by religious-based organisations. Since the government relies on Census data to decide on funding and policy for these things, it’s important the Census data is correct. Accurate Census data matters.
“We are a secular country, and we would like to see whether or not people are actually reflecting upon what we think is a secular country and saying yes, it truly is, and demonstrating it in Census data.”
Crowd-funded campaign: The Atheist Foundation of Australia is ramping up its ‘mark no religion’ push Picture: Michael Findlay
In the last Australian Census in 2011, 4.7 million (22 per cent) picked the “no religion” box or wrote down atheism, agnosticism, humanism or rationalism in the “other, please specify” box.
The “no religion” option appeared last — below the “other” box.
About 5.4 million (25 per cent) chose “Catholic” 13.1 million (61 per cent) of Australians said their religion was some type of Christianity.
Of the single responses, only “Catholic” was higher (25 per cent of the population) than “no religion”. Anglican was third-highest response at 17 per cent.
Ms Sturgess says the 4.7 million figure “no religion” was almost double the previous Census figure and coincided with a 2011 AFA campaign encouraging people to mark “no religion”.
Similar campaigns in New Zealand and the UK revealed rising numbers of people in those countries reporting “no religion”.
In New Zealand’s 2006 Census, Christianity lost its spot as the majority response, with the number of people opting for the “no religion” choice jumping from 35 per cent to 42 per cent.
The change of order came after an Australian Bureau of Statistics called for submissions about the content and procedures of the 2016 Census.
The “religious affiliation” question attracted the highest number of submissions, most of them calling for the question to be modified to better capture information about people with no religion, according to the ABS.
The number of people reporting “no religion” in Australia has risen in the past 100 years from one in 250 people to one in five. In 1911, 10,000 people (0.4 per cent) chose “no religion”.
Ms Sturgess says marking “no religion” doesn’t automatically make respondents atheist.
“It just means you don’t want to be labelled at all — people might find themselves not fitting in any category that is specific to religion,” she said.
“Now that ‘no religion’ is a prominent option on the Census paper, let’s see, really, how many people are really reflecting on the issue and saying to themselves, ‘Honestly, I have left religion behind, I am no longer as observant as I used to be’ or maybe ‘I’ve never really been observant, no religion is for me’.
“It’s entirely possible someone can tick ‘no religion’ and not identify as an atheist. There is scope in the responses for identification as an atheist — in the “other, please religion ‘other, please specify’ box.”
She sees no reasons religions such as Catholicism (currently number one) should be concerned by the change.
“Why would they be upset by people being encouraged to be truthful?” Ms Sturgess said.
“I’ve worked in Catholic schools, Islamic schools, Methodist schools and I’ve actually discovered they’re quite tolerant of people being of no faith at all, I don’t see why they’d be concerned.
“After all they’re after honesty and I’m sure they want honest Catholics ticking the Catholic box in the same way we say, if you don’t find yourself that way, tick something else.”
The AFA’s campaign is backed by a Mark No Religion website and so far has been crowd-funded to the tune of $12,000 by about 140 backers.
The Census question is optional — respondents can choose not to answer it at all.
The Census will be conducted on August 9.