Atheist Ireland to attend meeting of Census 2021 Advisory Group on Religion question

Atheist Ireland will be attending a meeting next Monday of the Census 2021 Advisory Group on the questions of Religion and Ethnicity. The meeting will take place in the Central Statistics Office.

Atheist Ireland has proposed changes to the religion question. Our proposals are that the question should be optional, should ask whether people practice a religion, should not prejudice the answer with preprinted options, and should ask how often people practice a religion if they do so. We also raised concerns about the question on ethnic and cultural background.

This is our submission to the census revision process:


This Question is optional

1. Do you practice a religion?
Answer only if aged 6 years or over

  • Yes
  • No

2. If Yes, what religion do you practice?

  • Write in your answer

3. How often do you practice this religion?
Mark the boxes that apply

  • Daily, within the home
  • Daily, outside the home
  • Weekly
  • Monthly
  • Less often

This is our submission about the Religion question:

The religion question as currently formulated results in misleading statistics, because:

  • The meaning of the word religion is subjective.
  • It is the only census question that asks people about their internal beliefs, as opposed to objective facts about them or about their behaviour.
  • The question gives more emphasis to religious beliefs than it does to nonreligious philosophical convictions.
  • The question begins with a leading question, ‘What is your religion’. This assumes that the person has a religion, and it is more likely to result in people writing down a religion even if they are not religious.
  • The question lists the names of certain religions as check-box options. This prejudices the answers in favour of the listed options over options that are not listed.
  • As a further prejudice, the options that are listed are ordered in the sequence of the most frequently given responses from the previous census. However, when ‘No religion’ is the second most frequent answer, it does not appear in second place in the following census.

Key Recommendation

  • You have already designed the question on the Irish language in a way that captures objective facts about people’s behaviour. This means that you already have a workable formula that can be adapted to the question of religion.

Overall Recommendations

  • The religion question should begin by respecting that some people would prefer not to reveal their religious or nonreligious philosophical beliefs.
  • The census should not be asking people about their internal beliefs. The initial question should be do you practice a religion, not do you have a religion. This will result in statistics that are both more objectively accurate, and more useful for the civic planning purposes that the census results feed into.
  • The question should have a lower age limit, like you already have with the question on speaking Irish. it is not meaningful to ask if infants or very young children are religious or practice a religion.

Recommendations on Listing Selected Religions

  • The question should not list the names of certain religions as check-box options, as this prejudices the answers in favour of the listed options.
  • Instead it should just be a write-in box where people can write in their religion. This would of course have resource implications in counting the answers, but the sensitivity of this topic can justify this.
  • If the question does list selected religions as check-box options, then it should list religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Other) and then have a write-in box for denominations (Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland, Sunni, Shia, Ahmadiyya, etc).
  • If the question does list selected religions as check-box options, then the order in which they appear should be randomised.

Recommendations on Question about Philosophical Practices

  • We are undecided on the merits of including a question on practicing philosophical world views that are not related to religion. The advantage is that the census would respect equally the existence of religious and nonreligious philosophical world views. The disadvantage is that the census question should measure practice not belief, and nonreligious philosophical world views tend to involve fewer formal practices.
  • We will be happy to discuss this in more detail with the subgroup of the Advisory Group.

Concerns about Question Ethnic or Cultural Background

This is a separate submission on the question about Ethnic or Cultural Background. As there is sometimes an overlap between religion, ethnicity, and culture, we would like to have an input into this discussion as well.

We are aware that the Immigrant Council of Ireland has also made a submission about this question, and we share their concerns about the phrasing of the current question.

In particular, we find the following aspects of the current question confusing:

  • What does ‘Background’ mean? Does it mean your ancestral history, and if so, how far back? At some stage back we are all ‘Mixed Background’, which is a later subcategory.
  • Whatever people interpret the word ‘Background’ to mean, most people will fit into several of the listed categories, yet people are asked to choose only one category.
  • Why is ‘White Irish’ treated as a subcategory of ‘White’, but ‘Black Irish’ and ‘Asian Irish’ are treated as alternatives to ‘Black’ and ‘Asian’ within the main categories?
  • The phrase ‘Black or Black Irish’ implies that these are separate concepts. If you are grouping these together, it would be more accurate to say ‘Black including Black Irish’.
  • Why are ‘Black Irish’ people subcategorised on the basis of not being African? Why are ‘Asian Irish’ people subcategorised on the basis of not being Chinese?
  • Why is ‘Irish Traveller’ a subcategory of ‘White’? Are all Irish Travellers White?

Overall, this question is confusing and it seems unlikely to produce accurate, unambiguous or useful answers. We encourage you to take account of the input of the Immigrant Council of Ireland and other groups who work directly in this area, and we would like to also have an input ourselves on the basis of the overlap between religion, ethnicity and culture.

Atheist Ireland