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Census 2011: counting the heads of the faithful

Posted by Secular on August 2, 2011

by Moira Clarke

What is your religion? The census campaign asks you to stop and think about how you respond to that question on August 9th. This article explores why the numbers are debatable and why it matters.

Once every five years, the Australian Bureau of Statistics conducts a national census [1]. Government departments use the data when planning housing, schools, hospitals, aged-care facilities and so on.

Most Australians view the census as one of life’s more benign events, a nuisance at worst. This year, however, the Atheist Foundation of Australia is highlighting that complacency, and has launched a campaign [2] asking us all to consider how we respond to one of the questions on the census form: What is the person’s religion?

We urge all Australians to answer this question honestly. Our goal here is to show that the data on religion in recent censuses is almost certainly inaccurate, and as such becomes illegitimate ammunition for right-wing religious lobbyists who, in turn, influence religious politicians. We will demonstrate that the net effect of religious incursions into the public domain is detrimental to a free society. If any Australian government made a commitment to the secular spirit of our Constitution [3] and refused to kowtow to powerful religious organisations, the question would be rendered obsolete. Therefore, we view the campaign as a step towards the abolition of this question on our census forms.

The political scene in Australia has undergone a significant shift over the last two decades. Once, party discipline was considered sacrosanct, and politicians were expected to leave their religious affiliations at home. All that changed during the Howard era. Dr Marion Maddox, a leading analyst on Australian politics and religion, has shown that John Howard borrowed certain campaign strategies utilised by the American religious right, thus gaining a greater percentage of the Catholic vote than previously enjoyed by the Coalition [4]. The Lyons group was also established during this era. Both major parties have since been courting the so-called Pentecostals, and it is no longer considered controversial that senior government ministers, Labor or Liberal, attend Hillsong services or speak at ACL conventions [5].

These changes, together with the privatisation of government services, have given religious bodies the opportunity to successfully tender as preferred service providers in areas such as employment, and to expand their influence in education and health [6] [4]. Add this to the fact that over $40 billion of government funding is distributed based on census data [7], and the encroachment of the churches into public service has less of a charitable feel about it.

Meanwhile, past census data show that the religious allegiance of the Australian peoople has headed in the opposite direction, to the extent that 18.7% marked ‘No religion’ in the 2006 census, significant when compared to the 12.9% figure of the 1991 census.

Furthermore, the religious block is almost certainly over-represented. Children constitute a skewing factor. There is also the likelihood of those surveyed to tick a box for sentimental or cultural reasons [3] [8], aggravated by the fact that the ‘No religion’ option appears last. The question itself is misleading [9]. Phrase it differently and the numbers change dramatically, as the Humanist Society of Scotland discovered after commissioning a comparability study on the matter [10]. I refer the reader to an Australian telephone poll conducted in February of this year [11]. Only 49% of respondents agreed that, ‘Religion is an important part of everyday life,’ as opposed to 46% who disagreed. Despite religion’s alleged importance, only 25% agreed that, ‘I regularly go to my place of worship.’ Only 37% agreed that, ‘I believe a percentage of everyone’s income should go to charity,’ which makes one wonder at the government’s eagerness to throw millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money at religious events [12]. Most telling of all, a clear 98% agreed that, ‘Religion is a personal choice and should not be imposed on others.’

So even as Australians shake off the shackles of religious authoritarianism, those in authority, on both sides of the ever-weakening bipartisan wall, lean more heavily towards the conservative right, and are increasingly determined to impose so-called ‘Christian values’ [13] on the populace [14]. One could well ask, what has happened to democracy?

So what are the consequences of allowing the minority Christian right to dictate to the government on any moral issue that does not feature as election bait? A few examples are listed below.

  • NSCP — The controversial and unconstitutional National Schools Chaplaincy Program, introduced by the Howard government, has received additional financial support from the current Gillard government [15]. This, despite a damning submission from the Australian Psychological Society [16] and a more recent and equally negative report by the Commonwealth Ombudsman [17].

  • Religious instruction in public schools – Despite minority opposition, ethics classes have now been introduced in New South Wales as an alternative for children whose parents choose to opt out of Special Religious Education (a similar program was proposed for Victoria, but rejected). Although these pose no threat to religious instruction, the religious right continues to fight back, with Fred Nile holding O’Farrell’s government to ransom [18]. Since when do a handful of religious fundamentalists have the power to deprive public school children of education?

  • Creationism taught in public schools in Queensland — Biblical mythology has been introduced into ‘history’ lessons under the category of ‘controversies’ [19].

  • The diversion of public funding from public to often wealthy private schools — The High Court ruling in the 1981 case for the Defence of Government Schools (DOGS) [20] has made the situation explicit: Section 116 of our Constitution will be interpreted according to the will of one sector of our community [12].

  • Climate change denialism — Any belief system involving literal interpretation of the Bible will by its very nature maintain a collision course with science and evidence-based reasoning [21].

  • GLBT rights — National polls show that 60% of Australians support same-sex marriage [22]. Nevertheless, the Gillard government not only blocks same-sex couples from marrying in Australia, but also seeks to prevent them from obtaining marriage licenses oversees. The Vatican, meanwhile, has set itself in opposition to GLBT rights at the United Nations [23].

  • Anti-discrimination – Most states allow exemptions for religious organisations from anti-discrimination laws [24]. This has led to unfair treatment of students and teachers at faith schools [25], and even at the level of taxpayer-funded service provision.

  • Censorship – People have been sent to jail over censorship in Australia [26].

  • Voluntary euthanasia – Repeated attempts to pass state reforms on voluntary euthanasia have so far failed, despite an overwhelming 85% of public support [27] [28].

  • Religious meddling in scientific and medical concerns such as stem cell research [29] — Cardinal George Pell, for example, threatened to deny communion to Catholic politicians should they vote in favour of embryonic research, despite the profound medical benefits that this field promises [30].

  • Last but not least: right of choice – Both fundamentalist Christian groups and conservative churches lobby hard against abortion, with the result that women’s rights are severely restricted in most states/territories except Victoria and the ACT [31]. There are similar issues with the provision of the drug RU-486 [32].

How do religious bodies find the clout to do this, given Australia’s increasing secularism? Clearly, mainstream churches have had centuries to amass formidable organisational infrastructure, wealth and ready-made political influence. Despite poor church attendance, they can function as business concerns in their own right. Popular disenchantment scarcely matters, as demonstrated by the behaviour of an out-of-touch Vatican, unable to comprehend or cope with the enormity of the entrenched abuse of children and others in its care. Meanwhile, the Pentecostal churches owe their success to clever marketing tactics and their ability to extract cash from their gullible but transient followers.

The situation isn’t helped by religion’s tax-exempt status in this country. The Secular Party of Australia has estimated that the costs to the taxpayer in government concessions and tax exemptions are approximately $31 billion annually. Businesses and properties owned by religious organisations continue to avoid tax. Religious bodies are not financially accountable to the public, and are not obliged to file tax returns [3].

Even if the cashed-up churches no longer need their congregations, they no doubt realise that the status quo cannot be maintained forever, and so will do anything to regain the power that once they held. They know, too, who their real enemy is — not Catholic, not Protestant, nor Jew, nor Muslim – there is a new enemy, the previously complacent secular component of society [14], now willing and able to spotlight the problems inherent in religion itself.

Should we answer that question on August 9th? Clearly we should, and for those of us who do not consider worship of one or more gods to be an important part of our lives, we should state unambiguously that we are not religious. By doing so, we will send a message to our government that while we defend freedom of religion, we also demand the right of freedom from religion. We will know we have succeeded when that question is finally removed from our census forms, signalling that the influence of the supernatural has finally been removed from the public sphere.


  1. ABS Census Home,

  2. No religion census campaign, .

  3. Max Wallace, The purple economy: supernatural charities, tax and the state. Australian National Secular Association (ANSA), 2007.

  4. John Warhurst, Religion in 21st Century Australian National Politics,

  5. Scott Stephens, Australian politics doesn’t need a Christian lobby,, ABC.

  6. Andrew Jakubowicz, Religion and Australian Cultural Diversity,

  7. Paul Lowe interviewed by ABC, Making sense of the census,, ABC.

  8. Dick Gross, The Godless Numbers Game,, Sydney Morning Herald.

  9. Blog by David, Continuity of ambiguity,

  10. Humanist Society of Scotland, YouGov poll shows flaw in Census question on religion,

  11. Roy Morgan poll February 2011,

  12. Max Wallace, The whale in the bay of Australian politics,, Online Opinion.

  13. Brian for, Australian Christian Values Checklist – 2007 NSW State Election,

  14. Chrys Stevenson for Sunshine Coast Atheists, We Didn’t Start the Fire,


  16. Australian Psychological Society’s submission on the NSCP,

  17. Maralyn Parker, God help us, and our children, if chaplaincy problems ignored,

  18. Sean Nicholls, O’Farrell bows to Nile over ethics,, Sydney Morning Herald.

  19. Carly Hennessy, Creationism to be taught in Queensland classrooms,, Herald Sun.

  20. Max Wallace, Is There a Separation of Church and State in Australia and New Zealand?,, Australian Humanist.

  21. Bronny for, The Thousand Year Itch,

  22. 3 in 4 Australians believe Same-Sex Marriage Will Happen. Mum Asks Gillard ‘Not to Delay’ in New TV Campaign,, PFLAG.

  23. Dr. Joseph M. Palacios, Vatican opposing gay rights at the UN claiming the Church is the victim,, Secular Europe Campaign.

  24. Anti-discrimination Exemptions for Religious Organizations,, Australian Sangha Association.

  25. Religious Exemption to Discrimination Law is Utterly Obscene,, The Antitheist Daily.

  26. Fiona Patten, Classification And Internet Censorship As An Election Issue,, Gizmodo.

  27. Media release: Voluntary euthanasia leader slams plans for NSW rally,

  28. Ian Wood, Christian lobby versus Christian compassio,, PerthNow.

  29. Religion, stem cell research and capitalism,

  30. Alexandra Smith and Linda Morris, Minister says Pell as bad as that ‘boofhead Hilaly’,, Sydney Morning Herald.

  31. Leslie Cannold, Abortion law reform is still unfinished business,, Sydney Morning Herald.

  32. Kate Gleeson, It’s Legal, So Why Is RU486 So Hard To Get?,, New Matilda.

© The Secular Party of Australia Inc., 2011. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author and from the Secular Party of Australia is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author and to this blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


2 Responses to “Census 2011: counting the heads of the faithful”

  1. rogerb said

    Great article Moira 🙂

  2. Glen said

    Great article!

    the best thing we could do for our children of the next generation is dump SRE in public schools. Educating children about all world religions in general is good, But indoctrinating a vulnerable child with any particular faith using public school time is just wrong. We should properly separate church from state, 100%.

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