Tuesday August 10th is Australia’s favourite night of the year. Every person will be in their house, flat, unit or caravan. Studiously we will open laptops or take out a pen and the journey will begin: Census 2021. Although, like myself you may be one of the millions who’ve jumped the gun and completed the form in advance.
Our local atheistic allies have been campaigning hard as though the Census is an election of some kind. The conversion plan is overtly evangelistic and with promises of life ending in nothingness to all who join them. In advance of victory, I can almost hear their voices warming up to sing another rendition of ‘Imagine’.
Monica Dux, writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, tries to sway lapsed Catholics by reminding them of all the things they mustn’t like about Catholicism. She claims,
“In the upcoming census, religious affiliation is a category that will be closely watched, in part because participation in organised religion has declined so sharply, to the point that, in the 2016 census, the fastest growing belief was non-belief.”
Not so fast! ‘No religion’ is not a synonym for ‘non-belief’. ‘No religion’ is simply a junk draw for unbelievers, undecideds, spiritualists, and independents alike.
My advice is simple, just be honest.
Perhaps for Census 2026 we can add another box, “uptight atheist”.
There is however a major flaw with the question on religion. No, I’m not referring to the top of the page preference that’s given to ‘no religion’. The error is this, Christianity doesn’t appear as an option.
Instead, Anglican, Baptist and Presbyterian, appear alongside Islam and Buddhism and Hinduism as though they are all different religions. As a friend noted, Pentecostalism doesn’t appear at all, even though there are more Pentecostal Christians in Australia than most of the denominations specified.
I’m all for learning about the breakdown of how many Aussies identify with all the different Christian denominations; that’s useful information for a pastor such as myself. But Baptists are not a different religion to Anglican or Presbyterian or the Uniting Church (well, there is case that this last one should be separated).
Let me illustrate,
It’s like the census asking this question, what sport do you play? Then the options given are the following;
It’s stupid! Carlton isn’t a sport, it’s a club that plays the same sport as Hawthorn, Collingwood and St Kilda. It may be a legitimate question to find out who supports which AFL club, but that’s not the same question as ‘what sport do you play?’.
Will our Census counters combine the numbers from across the Christian denominations? If so, will they include or exclude in those numbers cult like groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons?
Before sociologists explain to us why Australia is no longer a Christian nation (by the way, the answer is, we never were and we are not meant to be), it’s kinda important to know how the solicited answers shape the question being asked. It’s also worth pointing out that in the last census only 60% of Australians answered the question on religion. So, just like a plebiscite, the answers have some value, but what the other 40% think and what Australian genuinely believe about religion remain a Census mystery.
The Census provides useful and interesting information about the people who make up our nation. The data provides Governments, Councils, and community organisations a window into the people around us. We learn interesting facts about how old we are and how much income we earn and what languages we speak at home.
The Australia Bureau of Statistics explains why there is a question on religion,
“A person’s religion is asked as part of a suite of questions on cultural diversity and has been collected since the first national Census in 1911. This is the only optional question on the Census. Information gathered is used by religious organisations and government agencies to plan service delivery and encompass religious practices within community services, such as education, hospitals and aged care facilities.”
This information also becomes political hay and ammunition agitating for future Government funding and policy making. One thing the Census is not, and that is a measure of the spiritual health and intelligence of our country.
There is merit in knowing how people formally identify with different faith groups. Indeed, the fact that this question remains is quite telling. However, I’m more interested in knowing how many Aussies are in fact attending and actively belonging to a Christian Church and what are their beliefs and struggles and joys. I’m interested in learning why other Aussies have dropped out of church and /or why they no longer believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I’m interested in learning about what is it about other religions that appeals to people. These questions are for more interesting and beneficial.