Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Religion a leading question - Census 2011

The 2011 Census. A document that was sent to every household in the country - a survey aimed at giving a snapshot of the people who live on these shores at a specific point in time and a handy tool to see the make up of what is an amazingly diverse amalgamation of human beings scattered around the UK. But what about the question of Religion?

Sadly for Northern Ireland, one statistic from the census that is keenly awaited by many is the response to the question that deals with religion affiliation. Groups with vested interests both faith based and political will be swooning over the results to see if they can claim a popularity victory and with it the political and financial sway it provides. Due to the question and answers put to the public by this census, I honestly doubt they'll be disappointed with the affirmation I expect them to receive. For all intense and purpose, through my eyes, the people who wrote the census might as well have written "What is your religion? Catholic or Protestant."

You might think I'm exaggerating, so lets take a look at this question and the answers from the 2011 census on Sunday...

OK, so first of all (in my opinion anyway) this is a leading question aiming towards having someone answer positively and I'm not alone... the British Humanist Association also agrees and here's why; the question assumes a positive response - even with a negative response as an answer - this encourages the respondent to relate to a choice provided. For instance people are more likely to answer to any loose connection they have when asked "What cultural background do you belong to?" (combined with some listed) compared to "Do you have strong cultural background? If yes, please state." (with no multiple choice).

To compound the problem the question comes with both multiple choice and space for an open answer. On this occasion; four denominations of Christianity, a write in box for 'Other' followed by 'None'.

This limited degree of options though seems somewhat unique to Northern Ireland. I'm sure those who designed it would say it just reflects the main denominations and communities in an area but it all has an impact on the responses they will receive. So lets take a look at the same 2011 Census question in Scotland where we see a much longer list and these faiths are practised in N.I too:

It seems odd that he rest of the UK followed a similar route in this question and N.I had to be special, in the same way job application forms want to know which 'side of the community' you grew up in.

The option of 'None' for instance has to be there to make it not stupid too, but in the Northern Irish census this appears even below the write in option. Odd really that the same question should have too very different layouts of answers. I also do wonder why in NI we didn't get a small reminder within the question that these questions were voluntary? Seems an odd omission to make. My biggest annoyance with the Census and this question was universal across the board and that was the 'Other, please state' option. It turns out there are 393 recommended abbreviations provided in the help section of the Census website; from the mainstream denominations of the largest institutions and belief systems all the way through to the satirical such as Church of the Pink Unicorn - not to mention the odd cult along the way.

Of all the abbreviations though, this one took my interest the most:


Yep, only as important to the census creators as Pink Unicorns if the choice of answers they listed in the multiple choice were down to expected popularity.

Yet surely common sense would have 'own personal beliefs' along side any organised religion or lack of belief  at all? Given this option, how many people would tick it rather than stating a denomination of Christianity? Without this answer it seems we've found that establishing an overview belief isn't the main purpose for the inclusion of the question, it's to put people in boxes so politicians can make excuses with 'facts'. I mean does having a bible in the home really mean you have to divide yourself into one of four or more denominations of Christianity, given the question asked, I reckon people will have done, even if they haven't been to church since they were children. That's neither right or wrong, but if these stats are to be used for more than just curiosity, someone really needs to start rewording that question.

As the BHA found; "by assuming that all participants held a religious belief, the question captured some kind of loose cultural affiliation", asking such a leading question is going to give unrealistic results - at least in relation to the interpretation that the stats will be used for. Translate this into the Northern Irish religious and political scene and given the way the question was asked, laid out and with the multiple choice answers selected - if loose cultural affiliations are being responded to, then the religious and in turn, political landscape that is being reflected by the question, will surely just feed back the same old answer.

But you know what, the same old answer is probably the answer some authorities led by community leaders with their heads in tribal politics and religious institutions wanted to hear.


  1. I almost wish these questions were no longer asked....

  2. I'm sure the top one is how it looked here in London. I remember being vaguely offended at the choices, not wanting to put Jedism down and eventually settling for pantheist or something equally silly.



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