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Census 2011: Was the 'What is your Religion?' question fatally flawed?

Was the 'What is your Religion?' question fatally flawed?
Yes! Say British Humanist Association.
No! Say Office of National Statistics.

Is 'What is your Religion?' a loaded question?

... the data on religion produced by the 2011 Census gives a misleading picture of the religiosity of the UK, despite the rise in the percentage of non-religious. This is because of the flawed nature of the Census question on religion. ‘What is your religion?’, the question which was used in England and Wales in the 2001 and 2011 Censuses, is a loaded question, because it assumes that the respondent has a religion. In addition, many respondents who answer this question by ticking a religion only do so because their family brought them up in that faith, not because they still believe in it or actively practice it. The data on religious belief in the Census should therefore be viewed as indicative of culture rather than of religion. 

The figures were probably also distorted by the fact that the question on religion appeared immediately after a series of questions on ethnicity, which may well have encouraged people to respond more on the basis of culture than actual beliefs or religious affiliation.

... Someone who loosely identifies themselves as Christian in a cultural sense might not necessarily agree with the idea of Christian organisations taking over public services in their area. Read more.

The British Social Attitudes, 2011 asked whether they regarded themselves as belonging to any particular religion, 44% of adults replied in the negative. This was a lower proportion than in 2010 (50%) but much higher than when the question had first been put in 1983 (31%).

However ONS argue (see below) that the word 'belonging' is also a loaded question. 'Belonging' implies a strong affiliation to a religion (ie signing up for a religion or going to church regularly).

Andrew Copson, CEO BHA called the Census 2011 figures 'astounding'. ‘This is a really significant cultural shift. In spite of a biased question that positively encourages religious responses, to see such an increase in the non-religious and such a decrease in those reporting themselves as Christian is astounding. Of course these figures still exaggerate the number of Christians overall – the number of believing, practicing Christians is much lower than this and the number of those leading their lives with no reference to religion much higher. Religious practice, identity, belonging and belief are all in decline in this country, and non-religious identities are on the rise. It is time that public policy caught up with this mass turning away from religious identities and stopped privileging religious bodies with ever increasing numbers of state-funded religious schools and other faith-based initiatives. They are decreasingly relevant to British life and identity and governments should catch up and accept that fact.’

The British Social Attitudes Survey 2010 

Religion - page 173 asked "Do you consider yourself as belonging to a particular religion"

One in three (31%) in 1983 did not belong to a religion, compared with one in two (50%) now.
The largest decline has been in affiliation with the Church of England, which has halved since
1983 (from 40% to 20%). This change – which is likely to continue – can be explained by generational replacement, with older, more religious, generations dying out and being replaced by less religious generations. There is little evidence that substantial numbers find religion as they get older. (source: BSAS 2010)

Why are we less religious than we used to be? 

BSAS 2010 says 'How can we explain this decline in religiosity? Here, we focus on the decline in religious affiliation, which we have seen is strongly influenced by being brought up in a religion, and links to levels of religious attendance. Does the decline in religious affiliation result from a lifecycle effect (with each individual generation’s attitudes following a particular pattern throughout their lifecycle), a period effect (with a particular event or way of thinking affecting all or some of society at a particular point in time) or a generation or cohort effect (with more religious generations dying and being replaced by less religious ones)? source: BSAS 2010, pg 181

To explore these possibilities, we grouped respondents into nine ‘generations’ and considered their levels of religious affiliation at four points in time. This analysis is presented in Table 12.7. source: BSAS 2010, pg 181

The first point to note is that there is no evidence of a lifecycle effect – that is, as people grow older they become more or less religious. Non-affiliation remains relatively stable as each generation ages; for example, 30 per cent of those born between 1936–1945 did not follow a religion in 1983 (when they were aged 38–47 years), compared with 31 per cent in 2010 (when they were 65–74 years). source: BSAS 2010, pg 181

Could the decline in religious affiliation be attributed to a period effect? At a time of plummeting trust in politicians and banks, might public cynicism have extended to religious bodies, perhaps spurred on by scandals within the church, such as the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland? There is some evidence of a decline in religious affiliation between 2000 and 2010, particularly for those generations currently aged in their mid-30s to mid-60s. This trend is likely to be very recent, as it has not been identified in previous work on this topic, and therefore merits further investigation. source: BSAS 2010, pg 181

However, by far the most marked differences occur between cohorts – indicating that the decline in religious affiliation in Britain has primarily been brought about by generational replacement. In 1983, for example, 55 per cent of those born between 1956 and 1965 (then aged 18–27) did not belong to a religion, compared with 12 per cent of those born before 1915 (then aged 68+). By 2010, 65 per cent of the youngest generation (born between 1986 and 1992 and then aged 18–24) did not belong to a religion, compared with 24 per cent of the oldest generation (born between 1926 and 1935 and then aged 75+6). The result of continual generational replacement is that, overall, the proportion of the population who does not belong to a religion continues to rise. source: BSAS 2010, pg 181

Graph by Chris Street

What do our findings mean for the future? We cannot, of course, rule out the possibility that a major event might affect people’s relationship with religion. But on the basis of our findings it seems likely that the ongoing decline in religious affiliation (and consequently religious attendance) will continue. This reflects the fact that each generation is less likely than its predecessor to be born into religious families, and that this lack of religiosity tends to remain with an individual as they get older. source: BSAS 2010, pg 181

Census 2001/2011 v British Social Attitudes - What is the difference in questions?

BSAS says in Note 1 'What is the difference between the proportions of the population identified as belonging to a religion by the 2001 census and British Social Attitudes can be partly explained by question wording: the census asks respondents “What is your religion?” – implying that the respondent has one – while the British Social Attitudes survey asks “Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?” The difference may also be due to the response options offered; with the census listing the major world religions, and British Social Attitudes listing specific denominations; respondents answering the former would be most likely to see this as a question concerned with ‘cultural classification’ rather than religion (Voas and Bruce, 2004). 

Finally, the context of the questions is significant, with the census question following one on ethnicity, arguably causing ‘contamination’ of responses (ibid.).' (source: BSAS 2010, note 1, pg 183)


explains results of the Census 2011 and BSAS 2010 in his Youtube video (13m) which I recommend as a summary of Census 2011 and why the Census 2001 and 2011 question 'What is your religion', only looks at Religious Affiliation and NOT whether people believe in God.

I posted this in reply to his video:-

'@ 4.47
- Census 2011 'What is your religion?".What is it trying to find out? 59% Christians does NOT mean they believe in God!
@ 5.11
ONS say in their Youtube video 0-18secs "This is a short video looking at religion in England and Wales. Using these people we will look at the breakdown of Religious Affiliation; how we connect or identify with a religion, irrespective of actual practise or belief". On the ONS site they also say "Religion is a many sided concept and there are other aspects of religion such as religious belief, religious practice or belonging which are not covered in this analysis" (source: ONS)

Social connection is what interests them NOT whether you believe in god(s), or not.

BNAS 2010 Religious Affiliation table 12.1 "Do you regard yourself as belonging to a particular religion? Result: 50% Irreligiosity.
Table 12.7 explains cohort reason. viz. as new generations come along, fewer of the cohort believe in God'

What options for the Religion question did ONS consider?

ONS published a 'Final recommended questions 2011 - Religion' a comprehensive 57 page pdf listed here.

ONS say there are a number of dimensions to the concept of religion, the key ones for survey and census questions being affiliation, practice and belief. Based on the evidence of a lengthy programme of research and consultation, ONS believes that the most appropriate question for the 2011 Census, that best meets user needs, is one that asks about religious affiliation.

Several different question wordings have been tested, including:
• What is your religion?
• What is your religion or belief?
• What is your religion, even if not currently practising?
• Do you regard yourself as belonging to a religion?
• Which of these best describes you?

Testing found that the question ‘what is your religion?’ best meets the requirement of collecting good quality data on religious affiliation within the space constraints of the census questionnaire. The question will also provide comparability between the 2001 and 2011 Censuses.

The question did not attempt to collect detailed information about the nature of their belief or the extent to which people practice their religion. Although questions on belief are asked in the British Social Attitudes Survey and the British Household Panel Survey, they are not seen as appropriate or acceptable for a census and nor would they meet the needs of most users of census data. (source: 'Final recommended questions 2011 - Religion', pg 9)

Do you regard yourself as belonging to a religion?

ONS chose not to use the BSAS question ('Final recommended questions 2011 - Religion', pg 25-27):- Do you regard yourself as belonging to a religion? The term ‘belonging’ is used in the literature to refer to both strong affiliation and regular churchgoing. It may be that this conflation occurs in the minds of respondents too. Differences in the proportion of religious affiliates between the census (‘what is your religion?’) and the BSA (‘Do you regard yourself as belonging to a particular religion?’) may be partly explained if people are more likely to understand the latter in terms of active belonging – that is, as requiring membership of a church or other practising religious group, reducing the number identifying as such (Voas and Bruce 2004).

What do BHA think about the 'What is your religion' question?

BHA - New survey evidence: census religion question ‘fatally flawed’.

click for large image

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