2012 Census – The Rise and Rise of the Non-Religious

As reported widely this morning, the results are in from England and Wales for the census conducted last year, and I’m really pleased to see that the non-religious now amount to 25% of the population – a 10% rise on the figure in 2001.

This is particularly good news, given that the census question was phrased in such a way to make it more likely to misrepresent the nature of belief. I was the society’s Media Officer at the time and we spent a fair bit of time and money campaigning on this.

“The census question was ‘What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?’ which pre-supposes you have a religion. We asked the Scottish Government to change it to ‘Are you religious?’ with three possible answers, yes, no, and don’t know.

We then commissioned a scientific survey through YouGov that showed that the two questions gave very different results. 1,000 adults were asked both sets of questions, in two sets of interviews.

When asked the census question, 58% said they were religious. When asked ‘Are you religious?’, only 35% said ‘yes’.

Mark Cuthbert, who conducted the survey on behalf of the HSS, has been a leading independent research consultant in Scotland for more than 20 years. As he said at the time, “This does not stack up. The only explanation is that the Census question significantly overemphasizes the commitment of the people of Scotland to religion.”

Why does it matter? The government will use census data to justify maintaining faith schools, and the funding of religious patient support services in the NHS, while religious groups will use it to lobby for their own institutions, which will promote greater separateness in our already dangerously divided society. 

The HSS survey showed that Scotland is already effectively a secular country. Will the census data reflect that? Wait and see…

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