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Friday, August 05, 2016

No religion

Australia is about to conduct its latest census, and the topic of religion has become an issue. The question for them is whether people should choose “no religion” as a designation. On this side of the Tasman, Australians’ dilemma seems odd.

The graphic at left [SOURCE] is a plea from the Atheist Foundation of Australia to choose “no religion” rather than “Jedi”. They say that if people choose Jedi, it’s classified as a “Not Defined” religion instead of “No Religion,” and that matters because it makes Australia seem more religious than it actually is, and would encourage the government to give more money to religious-based organisations than they otherwise would.

At the moment, some 61.1% of Australians chose some sort of Christianity, and a mere 22.3% chose “no religion”.

The problem here is that “no religion” doesn’t necessarily mean literally no religion: It often simply means no particular religion. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) doesn’t offer an option for atheist or agnostic, and instead tells people to write it in under “Other” in the religious belief section (scroll to the bottom), essentially making atheism a religion, which is absurd. To make matters even more confusing, the ABS directs, “If a person identifies with no religion at all, mark the 'No religion' box.” All atheists would say they identify with no religion, so why wouldn’t they choose that option? This is why atheists are urging people to choose “no religion” and avoid giving a higher count to those with “religious” beliefs.

However, it’s not only atheists who have been lobbying people on how to answer the religion census question.

Some people are using email and social media to spread the fear that marking “no religion” could lead to Australia being declared a “Muslim country”. This is probably being done by far right bigots, because Muslims make up such a tiny part of Australia (2.2%) that it’s flat out impossible for it to be declared the largest single religion. Unfortunately, this demonstrates that Australia has its very own tinfoil hat brigade spreading utter nonsense, just like the USA has.

And, it turns out there are other, more basic concerns over data changes the ABS has made this year, especially privacy concerns. Participation is mandatory, but the religion question is optional.

Meanwhile, on this side of the Tasman, things are quite different.

In the 2013 NZ Census, Christianity (of all sorts) was chosen by around 48% of respondents, and “no religion” was second with 41.92%. The largest denominations in New Zealand were: Catholic at 12.61%, Anglican at 11.79% and Presbyterian at 8.47%. The largest non-Christian religion was Hinduism at a mere 2.11% (the complete census results can be downloaded as a spreadsheet from Statistics New Zealand). The “Jedi Phenomenon” is also much less in New Zealand than Australia.

What’s interesting in that is this: Collectively, Christianity was chosen by the largest plurality of New Zealanders, however, “no religion” is BY FAR the biggest single choice of them all: 42% choosing “no religion” is more than three times the largest Christian denomination.

Does that matter? Somewhat. Most Christian denominations have little in common with each other, so lumping them together doesn’t really tell us a whole lot about the state of religious belief, while seeing each choice compared to the choice of “no religion” tends to reveal how weak specific religious affiliation really is in New Zealand. Most people (including me) expect that the 2018 NZ Census will be the first in which New Zealand is majority “no religion”, but if not then, it’ll be 2023—it’s inevitable. This little factoid is part of the reason why that is.

The decline of religious affiliation is a phenomenon seen throughout the western world, apart from fundamentalist religions, Christianity in particular. That, and the strength of other fundamentalist religions in developing countries, means that religious conflicts won’t be ending any time soon. What people choose on their census form won’t be enough to change that—yet.

Related: Census Night – my post about the 2013 NZ Census and my participation.

Tip o’ the Hat to Roger Green who sent me the link to the i09 piece (second link in this post) because he knew I’d be interested. That meant I also needed to know more about it all, and that meant this blog post was born, so thanks to him for that, too.

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