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Religion and the Census

Census form
Are you considering recording your religion as Jedi, heavy metal or climate-concerned on census day? Before you do, consider why the census asks the religion question and the value of the data for society, says the Revd Canon Professor Leslie J. Francis from Warwick’s Centre for Educational Development, Appraisal and Research (CEDAR), who was on the ONS committee that introduced the religion question onto the census for the first time in 2001.
So, what is the issue?

Religion is a complex phenomenon that shapes society, and it is crucial for complex phenomena to be properly understood. That is why the question was introduced onto the census for the first time twenty years ago. But there still remains confusion and controversy over asking people to name their affiliation.

Understanding what the census is asking, and why, is key to solving the issues raised by this small, but enormous question. To do this we need to first clarify the dimensions of religion and to distinguish among them.

Religious belief, religious practice, and religious affiliation are separate matters. The census is concerned only with religious affiliation and religious affiliation is part of social identity, like age, sex, and ethnicity. Religious affiliation is a matter of public and social concern and is of relevance in creating fair and equitable societies.

Religious belief and religious practice belong to the personal and private domain. They are crucial in shaping our personal identity. But, like political belief and political practice, they can be properly protected from some forms of public scrutiny.

The census is about religious affiliation. There is proper academic scrutiny of what may and what may not count as a religion in this sense. The census is concerned with affiliation to the big six religious traditions: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism.

On the census form, this list is fronted by the clear option: ‘None’. It is this category ‘None’ that is growing during a secular age.

There are still ongoing discussions about the adequacy of this list of six religious traditions in the census form and consideration as to whether Baha'i, Jainism, and Zoroastrianism also be included as well as whether the Christian denominations should be differentiated. But these issues are for future surveys. The census question remains as it is for 2021 and needs to be understood.

Campaigning for inclusion and recognition of worldviews

When it comes to the study of belief (rather than affiliation), it is here that the canvas has to be extended to embrace other non-religious belief systems and worldviews. Those interested in including such issues in the census should begin by campaigning for a ‘worldviews belief’ question alongside the religious affiliation question. Separate questions are needed to deal with separate issues. It would be a mistake to confuse categories and try to deal with affiliation and belief in the same question.

Putting a religious affiliation question and a worldviews belief question side-by-side would really expand our understanding of British society. To try to merge the two issues would produce unusable, noisy data.

So why do we need to know about religious affiliation in the census?

We need to know about religious affiliation because it affects every public facing aspect of society including health care provision, social services, education and policing.

If you are not affiliated with one of the main religious traditions, the straightforward answer to the census question is ‘None’. If you really want your voice to count to show that religion is now becoming marginal, the vote for ‘None’ will do that job.

Even as we become a more secular society, religion remains as complicated and worthy of analysis and understanding as it ever has been. It is interesting to me that I work in a secular university established in the 1960s (when it was thought that religion no longer has a place in the academy). Yet for the past three years (2018, 2019, 2020) the academic whose work has been most accessed and downloaded from the university’s repository of publications is one who works in the field of religions.

Religion is a matter of public and social significance and needs to remain at the centre of academic enquiry.


18 March 2021


Revd Canon Leslie J Francis is Professor of Religions and Psychology at Centre for Educational Development, Appraisal and Research (CEDAR), University of Warwick.

His research in religious education has been shaped by creative links with practical and empirical theology and with the individual differences approach to psychology.

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