By Brian Morris
On Tuesday 10th August every Australian will be asked to complete the 5-yearly census. A primary objective of each census is to collect accurate data from individuals and households, allowing the federal government to provide, “better services and infrastructure planning – and to responsibly allocate funding and resources.”
One section of the census – over many decades – has been anything but “responsible”. New academic research now validates what secular organisations have known for years – that census Question 23 on Religious Affiliation is a loaded question that corrupts the statistics. It inflates the status of religion and allows billions in unjustified funding to be granted to wealthy church institutions, to the detriment of secular public health and education.
Costing $470 million in 2016, and tipped to be higher this August, taxpayers expect the census to be reliable and accurate. It is not. It’s crystal clear that on one question in particular, census data is hopelessly corrupted.
Research specialist, Neil Francis, has completed an academic analysis of religion in society to produced a 152-page in-depth study; Religiosity in Australia. The findings are stark, with political ramifications that run deep.
“At the 2016 census, 60% of Australians indicated an affiliation with a religious denomination. This is widely assumed a reliable headline indication of Australians’ religiosity. It isn’t. Bias in the census religion question leads to overstatement of affiliation on weak family historical grounds, rather than actual religious belief and practice.”
ABS – the Australian Bureau of Statistics – is responsible for every aspect of each census. They should know their published results are misleading, so the questions to ask are (1) why is that so, and (2) how is it that ABS has for decades rejected calls from nation-wide secular organisations for a more “balanced” question? We shall come to that shortly, but first, what is the census question ABS has been asking for so long, and why is it misleading?
Headlining the religious question is a bold statement; Religious Affiliation. Instinctively, it helps contaminate the data by inferring a family affiliated bias. Then, the loaded question; “What is the person’s religion?” Implicitly it assumes every citizen has a religion, and it sets up a wrong conclusion that Australia is a “Christian nation.”
Following each census since 2006, hundreds of submissions have called for a more ‘open’ question but ABS has rejected them all. They claim the question should not be altered as it requires “continuity” – and their priority is only to test “affiliation”, not a person’s genuine belief or religious commitment.
But the question has indeed been modified in the past, and “affiliation” simply skews the truth of a current religious conviction – or lack of belief. It encourages regression to childhood, and a family-induced faith that is no longer followed or relevant.
Patently, ABS is not interested in collecting current “here and now” data on the religious beliefs of Australians – and we shall ask “why” shortly. In ‘Religiosity in Australia’ Neil Francis again points to how the data is corrupted.
“When expressly asked if they ‘belong’ to their religious organisation, a majority – 62 percent of Australians – say they don’t, including 24 percent Catholics, 44 percent of Anglicans.”
These are alarming statistics when ABS recorded just 30 percent ‘No Religion’ in 2016. And Dr Andy Marks, the vice-chancellor of Western Sydney University, says only 7.5 percent of MPs identify as “No Religion”. Measured against the realistic public figure at 62 percent, citizens are a staggering 8 times less religious than federal MPs.
Creating a false picture of religiosity in Australia has allowed governments to hand out billions in additional taxpayer funds to wealthy churches to run their private religious enterprises in nation-wide education, health, welfare and aged care – most of which has little to do with genuine charity or public service.
Historically, an unhealthy symbiosis between religion and government is well established
Over millennia, it is inescapable that governments foster and support religion as a means of calming the masses – and they continue to do so. It’s the tried-and-true ‘carrot and stick’ philosophy of Imperial Rome – cooperate and prosper, or face the consequences. Countless philosophers have written on the symbiotic relationship between religion and government. One of the first was Lucius Annaeus Seneca – the 1st century CE stoic philosopher – who stated; “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.”
So why has ABS rejected every call for greater transparency?
It is a fair question, given recent events. Church leaders and a host of Christian activists lobby MPs continually for greater religious privileges – and increasingly so since Same Sex Marriage was legalised in 2017. And it’s not unusual that governments, too, will influence sections of the public service. Pork-barrelling has a long tarnished history – most recently with rorts in sport and car park funding.
The ABC’s Insiders program, on 4th July, saw journalist Karen Middleton refer to the growing concern over the “Car Park” rorts – where Scott Morrison is said to have signed off on a swag of car park projects in marginal Liberal seats, just days prior to the 2019 election. Middleton said, “so you’re seeing public servants now making a ‘political’ defence of the government”. She pointed to departments bowing to projects that were critically flawed.
And on 5th July, online journal Independent Australia published a report that senior figures at the Reserve Bank of Australia had made inaccurate statements in support of the government. Public servants are required to serve the nation without partisan bias. There’s concern, too, that Australia has lost its top-10 global anti-corruption ranking.
Has ABS come under any pressure to maintain the status of religion?
The question needs to be asked. All parliamentarians – and mainstream media too – would do well to read the full 152-page Religiosity in Australia. The report has amassed clear evidence that public support for organised religion is not simply “in decline”, it has essentially degraded to half the figure suggested by the 2016 census.
Primarily it’s a rump of devout Catholics, evangelicals, and Pentecostals who believe that only they are qualified to govern – much like PM Scott Morrison, and others, who claim they were called to do “God’s work.”
Combining religion and politics has never ended well – particularly when conservative governments enmesh with the new “puritan” strains of religion that are based on the beliefs of biblical literalism. They deny science, climate change, and human evolution – and tragically, these parents teach their kids the same misinformation.
Regrettably, ABS helps perpetuate this fallacy of a ‘Christian nation’. And they show another bizarre distortion of reality. In this August 10th census ABS will now include ATHEISM as an optional “religion” – the provocative claim of evangelists! Has the Bureau completely lost the plot, or somehow been influenced to play religious politics?
Brian Morris is a former Journalist and Public Relations professional and the author of Sacred to Secular, a critically acclaimed analysis of Christianity, its origins and the harm that it does. You can read more about him here.
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