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That Census question

March 29, 2011

Sunday the 27th was census day! I got ridiculously excited about the Census – which is, when it comes down to it, just a rather long and complicated form – because as a whippersnapper of 21 this is my first census as an adult, and I am still new enough to this whole adulthood business that this is Tremendously Important.

The 2011 Census was the second British census to include a question about religion – a voluntary question, to be sure, but a question nonetheless and one whose results will be counted and used as data in the same way as all the others.* So, naturally, various groups have been encouraging people to a) answer the question and b) answer it in a way that actually reflects their religious beliefs and/or practice. The two movements I’ve heard about doing this are the Pagan Federation, who want to get paganism listed as a tickbox next time, and are encouraging pagans of all stripes to write this in; and the British Humanist Association, who are trying to boost the “no religion” share. To summarise, the BHA suspect that a decent chunk of the people who answered the last question with “Christian” are functionally nonreligious and answering more from habit** than from an accurate reflection of their beliefs or practice, and that this was exacerbated by placing the religion question directly after the section on national and ethnic identification.

I am in several minds about this. On the one hand, I am uncomfortable with the BHA’s line of attack in a way that I’m not with the the Pagan Federation’s; I think it’s because the Federation are trying to encourage people to take up a label they may be hesitant to use in public, whereas the BHA are at base trying to get people to reject one – while their message may well reach nonreligious people coming from other quarters, the campaign has been mostly directed throughout at (ex? non? non-practising?) Christians.

My instinct is that an outside organisation aren’t the right people to be saying that you can’t be a Christian if you don’t X – that’s the purview of the Church. The situation is complicated, too, by a lack of agreement between various interested parties as to the nature of X: in all the kerfuffle over The Religion Question, there still hasn’t been any clarification from the government as to what they’re actually trying to count when they count “religion”, and so even straightforward slogans like the BHA’s “If you’re not religious, say so” are liable to be led astray.

This post was crystallised from vague thinky thoughts into actual words by this thread at the Slacktiverse, which is interesting in itself and which I plan to reply to when I’ve gathered my on-topic thoughts, but which has (as is happily so often the case there) produced some very interesting comments. The one that got me thinking was this snippet of a comment from pagan poster Mary Kaye:

I think that the whole focus on *belief* is a characteristic trait of (some branches of) Christianity: it’s not as central in a lot of other religions. You can reasonably be an atheistic pagan or an atheistic Buddhist or even an atheistic Jew, but an atheistic Christian is not going to recognized as such by the majority of Christians.

Her comment was followed directly by one from a poster called Nev, saying:

I never was able to get that emotional response (so it was a relief to admit I was an atheist), but I can’t go a year without celebrating Passover. It would just be wrong.

This is about the headspace I think I am in when it comes to my relationship with Christianity. I pay attention to the procession of the Christian year (though undoubtedly a lot of that is down to living in a country which organises its public holidays around said Christian year); I make pancakes on Pancake Day; I try and go to a Lessons and Carols service at Christmas because it’s just weird if I don’t. On a smaller scale, it’s Christianity that is still in my head and which provides my primary frame of reference in religious matters: when the words god or heaven or hell or angel or church come up, my understanding of those concepts is coming from a broadly Christian usage.

I am an atheist; but I’m culturally Christian in, I think, a way analogous to (if not the same as) how people understand non-practicing or atheist Jews to still be Jewish. I put “no religion” on the Census, but I can easily see how someone holding a very similar position would have gone for “Christian”, and done so entirely sincerely.

Acknowledging that there is a culture called Christianity as well as a range of theological positions called Christianity seems to me to be important, because in popular discourse culture is too often attributed only to minorities; the dominant culture is left unmarked, going without saying. I suspect a lot of people have encountered the well-meaning but kind of clueless white Briton or USian who says they don’t really have a culture, possibly whilst at that very moment participating in some cultural ritual. (It’s a bit like the people who say they don’t have an accent.) I remember the little presentations some of my classmates did in Geography and RE, about their home ‘culture’, their religious ‘culture’; it was never any of the white nominally-Christian children doing them.

Unfortunately, just at the moment the people being loudest about cultural Christianity in the UK are the various racist nationalist parties,*** who rarely seem to be very interested in Christian ideals (and are mostly repudiated by the church, to the church’s credit). I still think it’s important, though, to acknowledge that this is a thing that exists, because otherwise the concepts of cultural Christianity and religious Christianity (for want of a better term) are going to continue being conflated, which is going to lead to confusion, political stupidity, and bad Census data. (And we can’t have that.)

I hope that as the non-practisingly-religious numbers rise, the concept of an atheist Christian or Christian atheist will become (more) comprehensible. It seems like a useful term to cover those people who do not believe (or do not care) but still feel a kinship with the rituals or traditions of their childhood.****

I’m trying to think of a census question that would cover the issue with a bit more nuance, and so far the best I’ve got is something like this.

“To be answered by over-18s (over-16s?) only:

  • Were you raised to practise a religion? If so, what?
  • Do you practise a religion now? If so, what?”

I think restricting the religion question to adults would be a good idea, not because minors can’t have firm views on the subject, but because adults fill in the forms on behalf of their children – and may not have accurate information. (I know I never had the “So, I’m an atheist” conversation per se before I left home, despite not really believing since I was about sixteen. The message has gradually filtered through by other means.) More insidiously there’s also the possibility that a parent may simply overrule a child’s professed religious views on the grounds that they’re too young to know their own mind; I imagine the same thing would happen were there a question about sexual orientation. Keeping the question adults-only seems the easiest way to bypass both problems.

Then, specifying that what the question is interested in is the practice of religion seems to me to clarify the matter a lot. I’m fairly sure that the government has only academic interest in the nitty-gritty what people actually believe; what they practice, however, is relevant to things like church upkeep and funding (or not) for religious charities and the structure of the RE national curriculum. Assuming that the data is actually going to be used, confining the question to people’s practice seems a reasonable idea. Splitting off a question about the religion people were raised in lets you get (long-term) a historical perspective on the question, spotting trends in changing amounts/types of religious practice and being able to plan for the future accordingly.


*It’ll be interesting to see whether the 2001 Jedi Census Phenomenon repeats itself and England once again claims to have more Jedi than Jews.

**Dubbed “the Church of England reflex”.

***Apparently the Christian culture of Britain, that as previously noted organises its national calendar by the church one, has bishops in its legislative house and pace the Census is almost three-quarters self-identified Christian, is Under Threat from the Immigrant Hordes.

****Underestimating, or dismissing entirely, the power of and the desire for ritual is common and annoying in atheist spaces. I wish they wouldn’t do it. It both alienates those atheists who do value ritual of whatever variety and leaves the way wide open for the “Atheists are joyless misanthropist automatons!” canard. I have never met an atheist who was actually against joy – a lot of the loudest arrived at atheism by rejecting religions that viewed pleasure as sinful – but an awful lot of them seem to object to (or just not be able to understand) the idea that ritual form can be joyful and fulfilling in itself, and need not be part and parcel of religious practice.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Paul Skinner permalink
    March 29, 2011 5:11 pm

    Well said.

    “It’ll be interesting to see whether the 2001 Jedi Census Phenomenon repeats itself and England once again claims to have more Jedi than Jews.”

    This time around I’m a Pastafarian after converting from Jedism a few years ago. I have been touched by His noodly appendage.
    I don’t really see the point of The Religion Question as statistical data as it’s flawed in and of itself as outlined in this post. It’s redundant. So write whatever the heck you want in it; have some fun people (if you haven’t already filled it out).

    “Unfortunately, just at the moment the people being loudest about cultural Christianity in the UK are the various racist nationalist parties”

    Applying similar criteria as “there can be atheist Christians”, there can also be members of nationalist parties who are racist. The parties in and of themselves (at least) purport to be non-racist*.

    *Yeah, I realise I’m on to a loser here already.

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