New poll shows UK Census will undercount the non-religious

  • post Type / Members and partners
  • Date / 2 March 2011

Two thirds of adults living in Scotland are not religious—but the 2011 Census question won’t show that, says the Humanist Society of Scotland (HSS).  A scientific survey commissioned by HSS demonstrates that the way the census asks about religion greatly exaggerates the number of religious adherents in Scotland. Whereas 58% of Scots say they are religious when asked the census question, just 35% of Scots reply “yes” to the question “are you religious?”

“The census question,’What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?’ pre-supposes you have a religion,” says HSS Convenor Juliet Wilson. “Our question, ‘Are you religious?’ with three possible answers, yes, no, and don’t know, would be much more fair and accurate.”

The census question on religious belief was challenged for pro-religious bias by the HSS, but the Scottish Government refused to change it.

Earlier this year, the HSS decided to test its theory about the bias in the religion question, and commissioned a piece of comparability research through the Progressive/YouGov Scottish online Omnibus. This involved asking the Census question on religious orientation in a parallel test alongside the religious orientation question proposed by the HSS. The approach allowed exactly comparable samples to be used to test both sets of questions, and two sets of interviews, each of 1,000 adults, were conducted by Progressive/YouGov during the week of January 10th 2011.

The results were startlingly different. 

When asked the census question, “What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?” 42% of the adult population in Scotland said ‘None’. But when asked the HSS question, “Are you religious?” 56% said ‘No’, 8% said “Don’t know” and 1% skipped the question. Only 35% said “Yes”.

But even if every adult in Scotland answers the census question on religion (which is voluntary), then it may appear that 58% of the Scottish population belong to a religious group, when the real figure should be only 35%.

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. He says, “This does not stack up. The only explanation is that the Census question significantly overemphasizes the commitment of the people of Scotland to religion.”

The result of the YouGov poll is supported by other sources. In February 2008, The Times quoted a 23 page report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Asma Jahangir, showing that “two-thirds of British people do not admit any religious affiliation”: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article3412734.ece

HSS Convenor Juliet Wilson says, “This poll suggests that in the Census, many more people will say they belong to a religion than is the case. 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, and promote greater separateness in our already dangerously divided society.

“If the 2011 census gives an inaccurate picture of our beliefs as a society, it may lead to further discrimination against non-religious people. Our survey shows that Scotland is already effectively a secular country. But the only way the Scottish Parliament will recognize this is if people remember to to put a big tick in the ‘None’ box. So we say, “If you’re not religious, for God’s sake, say so!”  

HSS supports the Census Campaign run by the British Humanist Association:  http://census-campaign.org.uk/

For more information on the Scottish census campaign go to:  http://census-campaign.org.uk/support-the-campaign/the-scottish-campaign/. Or visit the HSS website at: http://www.humanism-scotland.org.uk/census-campaign/index.php

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