The religion question on the 2016 Census. Picture: ABS Census of Population and Housing, 2016
The religion question on the 2016 Census. Picture: ABS Census of Population and Housing, 2016

Question we shouldn’t be asked

THERE was one question on the 2016 Census that left people with a bad taste in their mouth. Now Aussies have been able to have their say about why it should be changed.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) gave people the opportunity to give feedback on the questions included in the latest Census and what might need to be changed for the next.

One of the main points of contention for many Australian's was in the "Religion" section of the survey, with the question asking, "What is the person's religion?"

National Secular Lobby (NSL) ambassador and former senator Chris Schacht said that the question is "leading", which results in an inaccurate representation of the Australian public.

The religion question on the 2016 Census. Picture: ABS Census of Population and Housing, 2016
The religion question on the 2016 Census. Picture: ABS Census of Population and Housing, 2016

"There's only one reason Australia's 'No Religion' score is half that of other Western nations. We're not more religious; the Census question is simply wrong," he said.

In the 2016 Census, 30 per cent of participants reported that they had no religion, but Mr Schacht suspects that a change in the wording would reveal it is much higher.

He said the "closed" way the question is worded assumes that every Australian has a religion and secular groups have been campaigning for years to change this.

"This immediately assumes every Australian has a supernatural belief in a particular god," Mr Schacht said.

"Evidence shows that many people just tick the religion they were taught as a child, even though those early beliefs have long since lapsed."

Other Western countries are recording much higher rates of non-belief, with 52 per cent for New Zealand, 54 per cent for England, 62 per cent for Scotland, and over 80 per cent for Scandinavian nations.

Religious affiliations in Australia. Picture: ABS Census of Population and Housing, 2016
Religious affiliations in Australia. Picture: ABS Census of Population and Housing, 2016

It is thought the reason for this is because these countries ask the question in an open-ended way that doesn't automatically assume people are religious.

The ABS has noted on its website that a number of changes have been suggested for the religion question, including using two-part filter questions, changes or additions to wording, and placing the 'no religion' response as first in the list of options.

They responded to these suggestions by moving the "no religion" option to the top of the list in the 2016 Census but there are still calls to change the actual structure of the question.

An example of an open way to ask the question would be:

"Does the person practise a religion? Please mark YES or NO.

If NO move to the next question. If YES mark one of the options below."

According to Mr Schacht, open questions such as this one have been proven to reduce bias and corrupted data.

He said the "mistaken belief that the population is highly religious" have resulted in religious groups benefiting substantially from government grants, subsidies and tax exemptions.

"There is no doubt that Australia is predominantly 'religion neutral' - more than 50 per cent," Mr Schacht said.

"And we will show a more accurate figure, similar to other Western nations, when ABS finally ask an 'open' question on Religious Affiliation at the next Census."


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