A recent report by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS) entitled, 'The art of asking questions about religion' demonstrates just how significantly the results of religiosity surveys (including the National Census) are influenced by the particular framing of the questions asked.
The report concludes:
‘A review of methods of measuring religious involvement suggested that “the following ‘law’ is at least semi-serious: a quarter of responses to any question on religion are unreliable” (Voas 2007b: 133)’.
‘Apparently small differences in question wording can lead to dramatic differences in responses’.
Of particular relevance to the 2011 Census results due out tomorrow is the report’s finding that:
‘Religious affiliation does not imply belief in God, let alone participation in religious services or meetings, and for some respondents may just reflect a cultural default or quasi-ethnic identity. Indeed it is unclear how questions on religious affiliation should be interpreted. What does ‘belonging to’ a religion actually mean? It is very likely to mean different things to different respondents. This ambiguity is important in the context of the UK Census question on religion, which pertains to religious affiliation, given that the Census is intended as a tool for planning public service provision. Repeated efforts to stress that people are asked about affiliation, rather than practice or belief, has not stopped even expert commentators from muddling the concepts’.
Download the report here: http://www.cls.ioe.ac.uk/shared/get-file.ashx?itemtype=document&id=1557
Although it refused to replace the 2011 Census religion question for England and Wales with one of a less leading nature, the ONS does stress that Census data on religious affiliation should be presented along with the following clarification:
‘Respondents were asked the question, ‘What is your religion?’ which measures affiliation - that is the identification with a religion irrespective of actual practice or belief’.
Unfortunately, our experience is that this instruction is rarely complied with, even by representatives of national and local government.