catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Are we getting more religious?

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It was in 1971 that, for the first time, the instruction “if no religion, write ‘none”‘ was printed on the Australian census form. The number leapt from less than 1 per cent to almost 7 per cent, and has mainly increased since, only, surprisingly, sliding backwards from 17 to 16 per cent between 1996 and 2001.

That’s Julia Baird, in her column this morning. But how likely is it that Australia’s long-term secularisation trend has come to a halt? It’s possible that the decline of irreligious Europe as a source of migrants is giving believers a boost as a share of the total population, and this is evident in the increase in people nominating ‘other religions’ (ie, not Christian) in the censuses between 1981 and 2001.

However, I suspect the decline in those nominating ‘no religion’ between the 1996 and 2001 censuses might have more to do with flukish factors than changes in our spiritual condition. If you click on the census link, you can see that though the proportion of people stating ‘no religion’ went slightly down, the percentage of people in ‘not stated/inadequately described’ went up. If we add the two categories together, those without a stated religion went from 25.6% to 27.2% between 1996 and 2001. Also, the ‘not stated/inadequately described’ category is behaving erratically. It went down 1.5 percentage points between 1991 and 1996, but then went up 2.7 percentage points between 1996 and 2001.

Why might ‘not stated/inadequately described’ have gone up? There is the ‘Jedi’ factor. In an article nicely headlined ‘may the farce be with you’ the SMH wrote up the move by Star Wars fans to give ‘Jedi’ as their religion. The ABS was having none of this, and put these 70,000 people in the not defined category. It’s possible that some ‘Jedi’ had a nominal religion, but someone taking the whole thing so unseriously surely has ‘no religion’ for all practical purposes.

Another possible cause is the way they asked the question on the census form. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of the original 1996 form. But I do have the 2001 form. Question 19 asks ‘What is the person’s religion?’ and the first line notes in large bold letters that answering the question is optional. If you don’t have a religion, on reading this it would be easy to skip to the next question without realising that there is a ‘no religion’ option. Also, the ‘no religion’ box is slightly obscured under several lines of blank boxes where people can write things like ‘Jedi’. Whether there was a difference between the 1996 and 2001 forms, I think form design probably leads to ‘no religion’ being understated.

The idea that the 2001 census was thrown by factors other than underlying changes also gets some support from the religion question in the Australian Election Surveys. There ‘no religion’ goes from 15.8% in 1996 (16.6% in the census) to 19.7% in 2001 (15.5% in the census) to 21.3% in 2004 (no census comparison). Of course the AES has sampling problems the census does not, but the fact that its trend is toward secularisation supports my thesis that the 2001 census result under-stated the true level of ‘no religion’.

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Written by Admin

January 19, 2006 at 8:33 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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