The number of Australians declaring they have “No Religion” is expected to jump to new heights, after a change in the layout of the 2016 census questions.
Census question 19 will this year list “No Religion” as the top option—for the first time in the census’s 100 year history.
“No Religion” was introduced as an option in 1971 and used to appear below “Other” at the bottom of the list. But a campaign by atheist organisations has prompted the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) to move it to the top, to acknowledge its importance as an option.
Similar moves in other nations have led to a leap in the numbers of people identifying as having no religion.
The census will be held on Tuesday, August 9, and all Australian households are asked to fill out the survey, either on a paper form, or online. In the leadup to the survey, the Atheist Foundation of Australia has been urging Australians through billboards and social media to mark “No Religion” on census night, if they no longer consider themselves “religious”.
Australia Becoming Increasingly Secular
Dr Ruth Powell, the director of the National Church Life Survey which is conducted each census year, says the move of the No Religion category to the top of the list was indicative of the increasingly secular nature of Australia.
“That says something about where Australia is at, that they’re expecting that no religion is the most common answer that people will give,” she said.
“Last time it was at about 22 per cent. It could be this time, for the first time that there are more people that say they have no religion than, say, a Catholic identity, which was 25 per cent last time.
“It’s a real turning point for Australia about how they identify.”
In the last census 61 per cent of Australians identified as being religious, while the proportion of Australians identifying as Christian has been declining.
Religion Question Is Really About Your ‘Tribe’
Dr Powell believes Question 19 is not meant to explore the level of peoples’ faith or spirituality.
“It’s really asking do you see yourself as having a religious identity, or do you see yourself as belonging to a particular tribe, if you like,” she said in an interview with Vision FM.
“You might say, ‘I belong to the Catholic tribe’ or the ‘Anglican tribe’. So in that question, every single person in the country can identify, ‘I belong to this religious group. That’s what the government is tracking.”
New Census Question May Paint A More Accurate Picture
While the number of people marking No Religion on the census may spike, Dr Powell believes this could help alert the church to the fact that it has a lot of work to do.
“We’re talking about a statement of belonging [and] we will probably get a truer picture of how many Australians feel they belong,” she said.
“The churches need to hear, ‘I don’t feel I belong’. That’s an important challenge. We need to be honest and vulnerable, and courageous to do the work to help church be healthier and stronger and vital.”
Christian Groups Say ‘Mark Yes For Religion’
In a counter-move to the atheist campaign, the Christian Media and Arts Association along with Olive Tree Media and Christian radio stations, are launching their own census campaign this week.
They want people to either choose a religion listed on the census form, or write something in “Other” if they have any kind of faith background or belief—instead of marking “No Religion”.
The more people declare an affiliation with Christianity, they say, the more likely the government will make funding and policy decisions based on Christian values.
While some people who follow Jesus don’t want to be considered “religious”, marking No Religion won’t help their cause…
A website and a series of videos called ‘CensusYesReligion’ is expected to be launched mid-week.
While some people who follow Jesus don’t want to be considered “religious” in a restrictive sense, they’re being urged to set aside their dislike for the word “Religion”, and choose one—just for the purposes of the census. Marking No Religion won’t help their cause, says Dr Powell.
It could lead to a decrease in government support for faith-based values.
“What will happen is that you will end up in the No Religion box and people will go ‘Ahaa’ see, church doesn’t matter anymore. People don’t believe in God…they ticked the No Religion box”,” she told Vision FM.
Not All Denominations Are Listed
Due to a lack of space, the national census only lists a handful of religions and denominations as options. This year those options will be Catholic, Anglican, Uniting, Presbyterian, Buddhism, Islam, Greek Orthodox, Baptist and Hinduism.
Dr Powell said that people from religions and denominations like Jewish, Salvation Army and Lutheran would have to write that in the “Other” section.
For those who don’t want to box themselves in a denomination but still identify with Christian values, the best thing to do is write down “Christian”, she said. The more people mark “Christian” as their religion, the more likely the government will pay attention to the importance of Christian values.
“If you put Christian in the box, that will get counted as Other-Christian,” Dr Powell said. “But people who want to put all sorts of variations, often it gets lost.”
Pentecostals Want to be Counted
Meanwhile, Pentecostal churches like Hillsong are encouraging their members through an in-church advertising campaign to mark “Other – Pentecostal” on census night.
They want to show the government the strength of the Pentecostal “spirit-filled” movement in Australia.
“There’s so many different Pentecostal churches, so from a Census point of view I’d encourage you to just all put “Pentecostal.”
Churches in this category include Australian Christian Churches (including Hillsong), C3 Churches, Dayspring and other Vineyard Christian Fellowship churches, Christian Outreach Centres, Christian Revival Crusade, Four Square Gospel Church, Assemblies of God, Christian Family Churches, Full Gospel Church, Potters House and others.
Dr Powell agreed the campaign was a good idea.
“There’s so many different Pentecostal churches, so from a Census point of view I’d encourage you to just all put “Pentecostal”,” she said. Whether it’s the Christian Family Church or whatever it is—just put Pentecostal. That will be a better way to be counted and not just disappear into some ‘Other’, invisible box.”
The ABS will publish census results in mid 2017.