Atheist Ireland asks CSO to improve census question on religion in 2027

The Central Statistics Office is asking for submissions on improving the census questions for 2027. Atheist Ireland has made the following submission. If you agree with our arguments, please make a submission yourself supporting them.

We recommend the following changes to the religion question: 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 recommend that the religion question should be moved well away from the ethnicity question, as the UK census has already done, because it primes certain answers. This submission explains our reasons. We will make a further submission when the results of religion question for the 2022 census are published.

Contents

Priority 1 — the question should seek to measure the practice of religion
1.1 The place of nonreligious philosophical convictions

Priority 2 — The answers should be written in, not selected from a list of options
2.1 Methodist Figures with and without Check-boxes
2.2 Other Denominations and Religions with Check-boxes

Priority 3 — Other Recommendations
3.1 The religion question should be optional
3.2 The question should have a lower age limit
3.3 The question should ask about frequency of practice
3.4 The Irish language question should be less ambiguous
3.5 The question should be located neutrally

Priority 4 — The issue of continuity of questions for comparison

Priority 1 — the question should seek to measure the practice of religion

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.

There are three ways of measuring religion: affiliation, belief, and practice. The most useful measure for the purposes of the census is practice, and in particular frequency of practice.

This can help public authorities to make appropriate decisions in areas like the influence of religion on schools and hospitals, and planning issues related to religious buildings and events.

The Roman Catholic Church in particular uses the census figures to describe the number of Roman Catholics when lobbying on issues such as denominational schools.

1.1 The place of nonreligious philosophical convictions

Focusing on beliefs rather than practice highlights another prejudice in the question. To be consistent with the Constitution and human rights law, you should incorporate nonreligious philosophical worldviews into the question on an equal footing as opposed to being an alternative to religion.

The 2016 census showed more people with no religion than people with all minority faiths combined. Why are the diverse positive philosophical convictions of the larger number of nonreligious people not recorded, while the diverse religious beliefs of the smaller number of minority faith people are recorded?

In the High Court in 2011, in the case of AB v Children’s Hospital Temple Street & CD & EF, Justice Hogan stated that:

“35. There is thus no doubt at all but that parents have the constitutional right to raise their children by reference to their own religious and philosophical views.”

“27. Along with the guarantee of free speech in Article 40.6.i, Article 44.2.1 guarantees 
freedom of conscience and the free practice of religion. Taken together, these constitutional 
 provisions ensure that, subject to limited exceptions, all citizens have complete freedom of 
philosophical and religious thought, along with the freedom to speak their mind and to say 
 what they please in all such matters….” (emphasis ours)

To address this prejudice, a hypothetical question could be something like: ‘What is your worldview?’ with an explanation that this could be philosophical, religious, atheistic, spiritual, ethical, political, or other.

To stress, we are not proposing this. We are highlighting what you would have to do to accurately, and fairly, incorporate nonreligious worldviews into the question. The more appropriate approach would be to explicitly record levels of religious practice, not religious belief.

Priority 2 — The answers should be written in, not selected from a list of options

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, as was the case in the century and a half before the leading check-boxes were first introduced in 2002.

The resources should there to implement that return to traditional practice, as 40% of the questions already involve a write-in box for some or all of the answers. Also, the religion question would be easier for the software to handle than existing questions, with fewer words to recognise and repeated more frequently.

More importantly, the resource implications in counting the answers are constantly decreasing with the accuracy of scanning technology, which will be even more reliable by 2027. Also, there are effectively no resource implications in the online census form that you are working towards. There is no reason at all for this online version to include leading check-boxes.

Since the check-boxes were introduced, every religion increased its figures when given a check-box. Apart from Roman Catholic, they all increased by much more than the the national increase in population. While immigration of minority faith members contributes to these figures, it is not enough on its own to explain them.

2.1 Methodist Figures with and without Check-boxes

The figure for Methodist most clearly demonstrates this effect, as it was given a check-box in 2002, then lost it in 2011. We can therefore compare its figures before, during, and after.

The increase, and particularly the later decrease, is larger than can be accounted for by coincidental immigration then emigration of large numbers of Methodists.

  • Without a check-box, Methodist gradually decreased from 6,676 in 1961, to 5,646 in 1971, to 5,790 in 1981, and to 5,037 in 1991.
  • When given the check-box in 2002, it almost doubled to 10,033. That’s an increase of 99%, compared to a national increase in population of 11%. It increased again to 12,160 in 2006, an increase of 21% compared to a national increase of 8%.
  • When Methodist lost the check-box in 2011, it went back down to 6,842. That’s a decrease of 44% that census, compared to a national increase in population of 11%.

There is a further anomaly here. The five check-boxes seem to be based on the five most frequent answers from the previous census. However, Orthodox outnumbered Methodist in 2002 (by 10,437 to 10,033), so it should have got the fifth check-box in 2006. However, Methodist retained the check-box for the 2006 census, and Orthodox only got it in 2011.

2.2 Other Denominations and Religions with Check-boxes

  • Church of Ireland decreased every census from 104,016 in 1961, to 97,739 in 1971, and to 95,366 in 1981, to 89,187 in 1991. When given a check-box in 2002, it increased to 115,611. That’s an increase of 30%, compared to a national increase in population of 11%.
  • Presbyterian decreased every census from 18,953 in 1961, to 16,052 in 1971, to 14,255 in 1981, and to 13,199 in 1991. When given a check-box in 2002, it increased to 20,582. That’s an increase of 56%, compared to a national increase in population of 11%.
  • Roman Catholic has a different dynamic, because of its numerical and cultural dominance and gradual decline. Its numbers increased in every census, but by under the national increase in population, from 2,673,000 in 1961, to 2,795,000 in 1971, to 3,204,000 in 1981, to 3,228,000 in 1991. When given a check-box in 2002, it increased to 3,462,000. That’s an increase of 7%, compared to a national increase in population of 11%.

We do not have the same historical data for Islam and Orthodox. Nevertheless:

  • Islam was at 3,875 in 1991. When given a check-box in 2002, it increased to 19,147. That’s an increase of 390%, compared to a national increase in population of 11%.
  • Orthodox was at 20,798 in 2006. When given a check-box in 2011, it increased to 45,223. That’s an increase of 117%, compared to a national increase in population of 8%.

Priority 3 — Other Recommendations

3.1 The religion question should be optional

The religion question should begin by respecting that some people would prefer not to reveal their religious or nonreligious philosophical beliefs.

3.2 The question should have a lower age limit

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.

3.3 The question should ask about frequency of practice

For people who say they practice a religion, the census should then ask about frequency of practice, using the methods that the CSO has already decided on for the question about the Irish language.

This can help public authorities to make appropriate decisions in areas like the influence of religion on schools and hospitals, and planning issues related to religious buildings and events.

3.4 The question should be located neutrally 

The question on religion appears immediately after the question on ethnic and cultural background. This primes people to be thinking about ethnic and cultural background when answering the question on religion. The question should be moved to elsewhere in the census, well away from questions on ethnicity, culture, or language.

The England and Wales census has already made this change, by moving the question on Religion away from the question on ethnic and cultural background, based on arguments made by Professor Abigail Day of the University of Sussex, a member of the Office of National Statistics Academic Advisory Board for the 2011 Census.

Priority 4 — The issue of continuity of questions for comparison

We understand that one consideration in designing the census is maintaining continuity of questions for comparison of figures from one census to the next. While this is useful, it should not be at the cost of accuracy.

In any case, the question on Religion has never been dealt with in a way that allows for continuity in comparing the results. This is because the question has repeatedly evolved in the following six areas: (a) headings, (b) instructions, (c) method of entry, (d) language, (e) compilation, and (f) obligation to answer. See details below.

The area that comes closest to having continuity is that, for over a century and a half, people chose their own words to describe their answer to the question, and for the last 16 years this has been changed to include tick-boxes that favourably weight some answers above other answers. We can remove this aberration by returning to the write-in answer format.

Given the illusory nature of comparing historical results, the priority for this census should be to design the most accurate method of gathering and analysing the data for this and future censuses. That would enable future historians to compare accurate results, as opposed to continuing to compare inaccurate results.

As a separate project, in order to enable historians to seriously compare historical results, as accurately as is possible given the evolution of the question, the CSO should seek funding to apply that best-practice method retrospectively to the historical data about religion, along with an explanation about the limitations of the evolving question.

4.1 Evolving Headings of the Question

  • 1901-1926 Religious profession
  • 1926-1946 Religion
  • 1946-1961 No question on religion
  • 1961-2002 Religion
  • 2002-2016 What is your religion?
  • 2022 What is your religion, if any?

4.2 Evolving Instructions Written on the Form

  • 1901-1926 State the particular religion or religious denomination to which each person belongs. (Members of Protestant denominations are requested not to describe themselves by the vague term ‘Protestant’ but to enter the name of the particular church, denomination, or body to which they belong).
    1926-1946 State the particular religious denomination to which each person belongs. (In the case of Protestant denominations, state name of the particular religious body or community).
  • 1946-1961 No question on religion.
  • 1961-2002 State the particular denomination. If none write “None”.
  • 2002-2022 Mark one box only.

4.3 Evolving Method of Entry

  • 1901-2002 One space for people to write in their response using their own wording.
  • 2002-2011 Five check-boxes for four selected Christian denominations (Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, Methodist) and one selected religion (Islam), then a space to write in Other Religions, then a check-box for No Religion.
  • 2011-2016 As above, but with the Methodist check-box replaced by Orthodox.
  • 2022 Six check-boxes for no religion, four selected Christian denominations (Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland, Orthodox, Presbyterian) and one selected religion (Islam), then a space to write in Other Religions.

4.4 Language on Irish and English Versions

  • 2016-2022 (+others?) People completing the census in Irish are answering a different question. The Irish language version asks about ‘belief,’ not ‘religion’. (‘Cén creideamh atá agat?’ not ‘Cén religiún atá agat?’)

4.5 Evolving Compilation and Presentation

  • 1901-1946 The following were grouped together as ‘Protestant Episcopalian’: Episcopalian, Church of Ireland, Church of England, and Protestant
  • 1961-1991 The following were grouped together as ‘Church of Ireland’: Church of Ireland, Anglican, Church of England, and Protestant. Lapsed Catholics were grouped together with Roman Catholic under the heading Roman Catholic.
  • 1991 People who wrote ‘Protestant’ were counted separately, then added into the ‘Church of Ireland’ figure, along with Church of England, Anglican, Episcopalian, and Catholic Church of Ireland. Lapsed Catholics were presented separately to Roman Catholic.

As an aside, the 1926 Census report states that:

“The 1926 census was compiled by machines, which sorted and counted cards punched in accordance with code numbers given to each religion, birthplace, occupation etc. The scheme of machine operations made it possible to compile statistics of religion, Irish language, age, etc, as by-products, while sorting the cards in relation to other subjects. To take full advantage of this scheme, it was necessary to confine attention to the principal religions only, otherwise the cost of compiling the statistics of religion would have been much more than doubled.

On this account, and in order to be in a position to meet fully the more insistent demands for as much information as possible which would throw light on the economic structure and conditions of the country, it was decided, in view of the results of the 1911 census, to compile particulars for only the following six religions: Catholics; Protestant Episcopalians (including Church of Ireland, Church of England, Protestants); Presbyterians; Methodists; Jews; Baptists.”

This may explain why we are used to seeing census presentations focusing on a small number of religions or denominations. However, before 2002, the results came from the opposite direction than they do now. People then wrote in their religious denominations, and the results were calculated from that. They were not given a set of check-boxes with selected religions on the census form. Also, computer software today makes it unnecessary to restrict cross-comparisons to a small number of religions or denominations.

4.6 Evolving Obligation to Answer

  • 1901-1926 The Act did not make it compulsory to answer the Religion question.
  • 1926-1946 We can’t find any instructions on obligation or not to answer.
  • 1946-1961 No question on religion
  • 1961-2002 The census enumerators were instructed not to insist on the completion of this section of the form in cases where householders were reluctant to give the required information.
  • 2002-2022 We can’t find any instructions on obligation or not to answer.

5. Conclusion

Atheist Ireland recommends the following changes to the religion question: 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 recommend that the religion question should be moved well away from the ethnicity question, as the UK census has already done, because it primes certain answers.

This submission explains our reasons. We will make a further submission when the results of religion question for the 2022 census are published.

Atheist Ireland

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