Census question on religion as “flawed” and discriminatory

During a debate in the House of Lords, speeches criticising the Census question on religion as flawed and contributing to discrimination against non-religious people. Lord Harrison and Lord Macdonald of Tradeston both contributed to the debate on public confidence in government statistics, raising a number of concerns about the question from a humanist perspective.

Lord Harrison, a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association (BHA), said he was ‘Appalled to learn that the ONS will keep the flawed 2001 question – “What is your religion?” – in the forthcoming 2011 census’. He argued that ‘This is a leading question…it not only overrepresents the religious in our country, but underrepresents the non-religious. It also fails because it confuses and conflates the concepts of belief and ethnicity…It is, indeed, arguably discriminatory under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2006.’

Lord Harrison suggested some improvements that could be made to improve the question but, failing significant changes, that the ‘question should be eliminated, especially in this flawed form.’

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, stated that ‘It undermines our confidence in the Office for National Statistics when [the Census] contradicts other authoritative surveys to declare that only 15 per cent of British people are non-religious’, and provided examples including the ‘ONS’s own Social Trends survey, which reported about the same proportion of people saying that they belonged to no religion as saying that they belonged to a Christian denomination’ and the British Social Attitudes Survey, which ‘reported that 69 per cent of people either did not claim membership of a religion or said that they never attended a religious service.’

Lord Macdonald highlighted that the question is really aimed to measure ethnicity and not religion: ‘The ONS wants to identify by stealth as many members as it can of two ethnic groups protected under race legislation, by asking its leading question on religion, which, it claims, “provides a reasonable proxy for Sikh and Jewish ethnic groups”.’

However, Lord Macdonald made clear that this was highly problematic, saying, ‘It matters because inaccurate data can lead to the misallocation of resources and public funds. It matters because misleading statistics can be used to argue the religious case for the expansion of faith schools, when some of the more divisive institutions discriminate against non-religious people in their staffing and admissions policy. It matters because more accurate statistics would offer reassurance to those who fear that their sceptical, tolerant, vaguely agnostic Britain is being defined and divided increasingly by religion. It matters because accurate statistics might have particular importance for the Equality Bill currently before Parliament, which would mandate public authorities to treat non-religious citizens equally and with the same respect as religious people.’

The Minister stated that he would respond to all questions asked in the debate.

The BHA has been campaigning to raise awareness of the wholly inaccurate measurement of the religiosity of the population by the Census question on religion and its very damaging effects, and for a change in the question.

Notes

For further comment or information, contact Naomi Phillips at on 020 7079 3585

Read more about our campaign on the Census 2011 question on religion

Read the full debate on public confidence in government statistics

The British Humanist Association represents and supports the non-religious. It is the largest organisation in the UK campaigning for an end to religious privilege and to discrimination based on religion or belief, and for a secular state.

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