Stand up and be counted!

Humanists Australia
5 min readJun 22, 2021


The 2021 Census is coming and it really matters.

by Michael Dove, Campaign Leader for Census21: No Religion

The Problem

I was born into a 1950s Catholic family, brought up as a Catholic and educated at Catholic schools.Until the early 2000s, if asked on the census or at a hospital, I would indicate Catholicism as my religion. This was despite the fact that I hadn’t practised as a Catholic for more than three decades. And my beliefs and philosophical leanings had progressively morphed into something that was at odds with the teachings of Catholicism or, indeed, any religion.

I place enormous value in the architectural, musical, and artistic contributions of religion to our cultural and urban fabric and, curiously, still have an interest in things to do with the Pope. The teachings, the rituals and the experiences persist in my memory. Culturally, I am steeped in a Christian background. But my beliefs and practices have moved on.

On August 10th, Australians will be asked to complete the 2021 Census. Every five years we are compelled by law to respond with information that will inform policy, planning and funding for the years that follow. Most Australians accept the process and are supportive of the role it plays in providing the evidence needed to support policy and funding decisions. But there is one question that attracts controversy, What is the Person’s Religion? It is the only optional question in the census but the 2016 non-response rate of 9.1% is only slightly higher than the compulsory questions on income and number of children.

There has been much debate about the wording and the intent of the religion question. Some commentators think it should be broadened to include a range of alternative world views, while others think it should be a two-part question, differentiating between active participation and a passive alignment. The format of this year’s question is largely unchanged from 2016. The No Religion option is still at the top of the listed options, having been repositioned in 2016. Curiously though, the ABS suggests that an example of an Other Religion is Atheism.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Curiously though, the ABS suggests that an example of an Other Religion is Atheism.

In Australia, the proportion responding with No Religion in the 2016 Census was 29.6%. Comparing with other similar democracies, Canada and the UK registered 23.9% and 25.7%, respectively in 2011. However, New Zealand sets the benchmark with 48.2% declaring No Religion in 2018.

Australia, in common with other similar democracies, has shown a significant growth in the proportion of people identifying as non-religious. The proportion making this choice has risen by more than 60% over the decade to 2016. Despite such trends, census data consistently understates the true extent of the non-religious when compared with well-respected surveys. The Australian Values Study, the Australian Election Study and the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes all point to significantly less participation in religious services than that reported in the census data. The surveys also tell us that only around one in five Australians believe in the existence of a god, heaven and hell, miracles or life after death.

Census data consistently understates the true extent of the non-religious

How would you answer this question?

ABS catalogue number 2008.0 |

Part of the difference in the messages given by census data and survey data is due to the wording of the question, and the setting within which it is asked. The wording of the religion census question presumes the respondent has a religion. Even though No Religion is placed first in the list of ten response boxes, the directness of the question encourages a positive choice. This presumptive bias is compounded by a contextual bias, created by the questions that precede the religion question. The ABS considers religion to be one of the questions in a topic which it labels Cultural Diversity.

The directness of the question encourages a positive choice.

The census respondent is asked questions about country of birth, parents’ countries of birth, language spoken at home, and ancestry — all of which create a context for the question on religion and condition the response so the choice people make is more likely to reflect a cultural religion. For example, if someone is of Jewish heritage or born in India, they are more likely to choose the religion associated with their cultural background, even though they may be no more engaged in religious actions and beliefs than the non-religious.

Why does it matter?

Participation in the census is compulsory, producing a sample size of more than 90%. Notwithstanding the inherent bias in the way the question is framed, the resultant data is robust and provides the gold standard for researchers, politicians and others seeking evidence to justify resource allocation. Census data on religion is used to justify the funding of religious organisations to provide a range of critical public services. The results determine the need for religious schools and places of worship, and where they should be located.

Similarly, religious organisations receive a disproportionate share of funding to operate aged care facilities and hospitals, together with associated chaplaincy services. The names of the facilities sometimes reflect their religious affiliation. Examples include Mercy, St Basil’s, Villa Maria, Baptcare, and Ottoman. Regulatory controls for such organisations oblige them to provide non-discriminatory care for all, with the majority exceeding their performance criteria. But sometimes, the artefacts, iconography, imagery, and messages found in these institutions are a superficial expression of the ethos and spiritual values underpinning the operation.

Under the guise of spiritual support, and even with the best of motives, there is a risk of insidious gentle pressure, maybe to participate in religious activities or to engage with a religious chaplain. In the worst cases, vulnerable residents may experience subtle forms of proselytising. Consciously or otherwise, religious service providers are susceptible to discrimination in the administration and delivery of their services. Using census data as justification, they compete for resources that might otherwise be used by secular, non-discriminatory suppliers. Chaplaincy programs for schools, aged care providers, hospitals and prisons are dominated by religious providers. Even religious connotations of the word chaplaincy repel the non-religious from accessing secular counselling services.

In the worst cases, vulnerable residents may experience subtle forms of proselytising.

Census data is a key resource for lobby groups, politicians, and others to infer the state of contemporary values, attitudes, and behaviours. Data on religion is often used as a proxy to justify a position on issues such as the Religious Discrimination bill, currently before parliament.

If the non-religious are not fully counted, decision-makers have a distorted picture, resulting in undue influence and misallocation of taxpayer funds.



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