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 were an election of some kind.

Our local atheistic allies have been campaigning hard as though the Census were an election of some kind. Their conversion plan is overtly evangelistic and with promises of a 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:

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.

My advice is simple, just be honest.

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’.

A Serious Flaw

There is however a serious flaw in 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 we see ‘Anglican’, ‘Baptist’ and ‘Presbyterian’ alongside ‘Islam’ and ‘Buddhism’ and ‘Hinduism’ as though they were 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.

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 from Anglicans, Presbyterians or people from the Uniting Church.

Let me explain by way of illustration. It’s like asking ‘what sport do you play?’ And then offering the following options:

  • Carlton
  • Hawthorn
  • Swimming
  • Tennis
  • Collingwood
  • Golf
  • Cycling
  • St Kilda

That would be stupid! Carlton isn’t a sport, it’s a club that plays the same sport as Hawthorn, Collingwood and St Kilda. There’s nothing wrong with asking which AFL club you support, but that’s not the same question as ‘what sport do you play?’ In fact you might suspect that someone who asked a question like that had no idea about sport at all and was probably unfit to conduct the survey or handle the results.

So we might wonder here. Will the Census counters think to combine the numbers from across the different Christian denominations? If so, will they know enough to exclude cult-like heretical groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons?

Before sociologists explain to us that Australia is no longer a Christian nation (by the way, the answer is that we never were and we were never meant to be), it’s kind of important to know how the solicited answers relate to the question being asked.  In the last census, only 60% of Australians answered the question on religion. So, just like a plebiscite, the answers had some value—but only a bit. What the other 40% think, and what Australians genuinely believe about religion remains a Census mystery.

A Window on the Nation

The Census provides, or can provide, useful and interesting information about the people who make up our nation. The data provides Governments, Councils, and community organisations with a window to observe the people of Australia. It produces 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, for future Government lobbying, funding and policy making. One thing the Census is not, and that is a measure of the spiritual health and intelligence of our country.

So 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 would be more interested in knowing how many Aussies are, in fact, attending and actively participating in a Christian Church and finding out about their beliefs and struggles and joys. I would be interested in learning why other Aussies have dropped out of church and/or why they no longer believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. I would like to know what is it about other religions that appeals to people.

These questions would be far more interesting and beneficial.

First published at murraycampbell.net