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Responding to the census question on religion

By Glen Coulton - posted Tuesday, 26 July 2011

For many years, the religion question on the Census has been "What is this person's religion?" It is a flawed question because it assumes that every person is religious. No pussy footing around with polite inquiries such as, "Excuse me, does this person happen to have a religion? Nothing as simple and direct as, "Is this person religious?"

In the last census, about 64 per cent of us ticked a box identifying us as members of a Christian religion yet other research suggests that the number of Australians who are religious — any sort of religious — is much lower than that.

The Humanist Society of Scotland reports that in response to the census question, "What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?" 42 per cent of the adult population in Scotland said 'None'. But when the question was re-phrased as, "Are you religious?", 56 per cent said 'No', 8 per cent said 'Don't know' and 1 per cent skipped the question. Only 35 per cent said 'Yes'.


Note that the Scottish census question, already a huge improvement on ours because it implies that you don't have a religion unless you are part of a religious body or group, still overestimates the percentage of the population who say yes when asked the simple, straight forward question, "Are you religious?"

It's not just the coercive question that introduces error into the Australian census; it's the lack of definition about what having a religion means. Of the 9 religions that respondents can tick, all but two — Buddhism and Islam — are Christian. Most of those who get counted as a Christian in Australia do so by ticking one of these boxes: Catholic, Anglican (Church of England), Uniting Church, Presbyterian, Greek Orthodox, Baptist and Lutheran. It is also possible to tick ‘Other – please specify’ and write in a different Christian religion.

The question arises, what is a Catholic, Anglican, Uniting, etc? Do you need to believe what the religion teaches and do what it says, including attending regular worship? Or is it enough to just feel a bit Catholic, Anglican or Uniting? Or is it enough to have been brought up as one of them? Many of the people who tick one of these boxes probably shouldn't?

Most Christian religions pretty much accept the beliefs of the Nicene Creed so it seems reasonable to say that people who reject any of the Nicean beliefs could hardly call themselves Christians. Let's look at some of them:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. So to be a Christian, you certainly used to need to be a creationist and Christians who like the overwhelming logic of evolution by natural selection will need some wiggle room here. But that's alright because the smart churches are furiously revising their theology to give their rational members room to wriggle.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God…being of one substance with the Father. Christians need to accept that Jesus and God are one and the same while being quite different persons at the same time. None of this namby-pamby 'Jesus was just a man' nonsense.


Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man. The problem here is with what is implied. Salvation from what? What most Christians seem to regard as the definitive Christian belief is that we all need to be saved from the eternal damnation that we deserve because one of our ancestors disobeyed God, thereby inflicting every human being ever born or yet to be born, Christian and non-Christian alike, with original, ancestral or inherited sin; but that fortunately for us, God realised that he could find it within himself to let us off the hook by following a process that involved his producing a son who would be man enough to be able to succumb to a pretty gory death while remaining God enough to be able to spring back to life after a couple of days. (It would be interesting to know what ex-PM Howard really thought about the Christian belief in inherited sin.)

On census night, those who have no qualms about accepting all of this and everything else that the Christian religions insist is true, will have no trouble with the religion question. But the not-so-sure Christians will need to think long and hard about a couple of questions: If I don't believe all of that, can I honestly claim to be a Catholic, Anglican, Uniting Church? If I don't believe all of that but still believe in some kind of God, what do I do?

It would be reassuring to think that people who can't accept the essential beliefs of Christianity would be honest enough to say that they weren't really Christians. Here's how they could proceed:

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About the Author

After attending small country Catholic schools and Armidale teachers’ College (NSW), Glen Coulton taught in government primary and secondary schools for eighteen years. In 1975, he was “temporarily” deployed to a HO position (curriculum and assessment) from which he never escaped despite being restructured out of existence twice. A period spent studying Item Response Theory (Rasch analysis) with Ben Wright at the University of Chicago led eventually to his involvement with the design and implementation of the NSW Basic Skills Testing Program whose successors include NAPLAN. He retired in 1994 and now spends his time taking and presenting courses with the Lake Macquarie University of the Third Age (U3A) and encouraging recorder playing.

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