Census of Population, 2016: The religion question – does it have validity?

Religion in our Census of Population, April, 2016 – A Useful Question or Intentional Propaganda Tool to Bolster Church Influence in Education and Health?

Citizens to Separate Church & State has expressed its misgivings about the Census question about ‘Religion’. What is its real value and does it elicit the truth? Is it measurable at all?

Since the establishment of the Irish Free State, regular censuses of population have been undertaken, beginning in 1926. Data on the religion or religious denomination of each person, without setting a minimum age, and sometimes referring to his or her ‘religious belief’ or ‘denomination’ has been sought, sometimes both. Sometimes guidance was given as to how the question was to be answered. Careless transcribing of the Ministerial Orders which asked for information about a person’s religious belief got reduced to ‘religion’ on the census form. Prior to 2002, the chosen religion or denomination had to be written in.

Here is the draft Q. 12 on the proposed 2016 Census form.

“The householder or any adult member of the household

present on the night of Sunday 24 April should complete this

form. A separate Household Form should be completed for

every household”.

Q. 12 What is your religion?
Q. 12 What is your religion?

In the early days, ‘Religion’ meant the name of the Church to which one belonged, such as Roman Catholic, Methodist etc. However, nowadays it is common for a person to describe herself as a, ‘Christian’, while having nothing to do with a sect (denomination) of Christianity. Similarly, ‘Islam’ – intermingled with denominations on the current census form – is not a denomination. Denomination properly describes one of the various sects of Christianity. Islam and Judaism are not denominations. Orthodox is given as a religion choice in the 2016 census but does it refer to Russian, Greek or Jewish orthodox sects?

This is why we hold that Q. 12 is a flawed question.

Since 1993 the authority to design the questions in a census of population has been vested in the Central Statistics Office (CSO) by law. Population censuses under the CSO’s aegis have taken place in 2002, 2006 and 2011; another has been approved by the Cabinet for 24 April 2016. The CSO has power to use sample surveys in addition to censuses and to perform pilot surveys to test questions at its own discretion. For the census in April, 2016, the CSO has decided to repeat the question-set used in 2011, with the exception of a change in the Marital Status question. The latter is being redrafted to accommodate changes brought out as a result of Constitutional approval of same-sex marriage. Attempts to secure the paper trail of the request made by CSO to the Government for its 2016 proposals and the justification for a ‘no change’ approach has been resisted by the official Secretary to the Cabinet. Informally, CSO [Deirdre Cullen] say their staff numbers have been halved and they are not in a position to pilot any new or altered questions. The latter response is significantly different than that proffered by the CSO prior to the 2011 census, when the officer in charge [Aidan Punch] said they would not change the Religion Question for 2011, in the interests of statistical consistency in the series; he admitted that a different question would yield different results (3).

In each of the last three censuses the questionnaire is predominated by check lists of options, with ‘writing in the data’ an exceptional option; this has been done to facilitate data entry for computer-based analysis.

The current Religion question was inaugurated in 2002, the 2001 census having been cancelled on health grounds (a foot and mouth epidemic). The CSO is subject to the FOI Act. The Office has a Census Advisory Committee, most of whose members are representatives of individual Departments of the State together with a large minority of officers of the CSO itself. There are no, what might be called, representatives of consumer –citizens, nor, in the matter of the Religion question, of minority religions and the irreligious on the Advisory Committee.

Written representations have been made to the CSO in relation to the Religion Question, from 2002 onwards. All the written representations are essentially of a critical nature; some asked for change to the question, others for piloting a different question or questions. The Office has refused to do either. In summary, the criticisms related to the design of the question, including bias, it being offensive to irreligious persons, it being flawed in its structure; and the answers to the question being wrongly interpreted by the CSO and false spin being put on the answers by the CSO in publicity associated with the census and this question. In additions to formal criticisms made of the Religion question on the census form and the CSO’s interpretation of the data, there have been withering and bemused criticisms of the useless data put about by the CSO.

No minutes of the CSO’s population census advisory committee which might clarify the members’ attitudes to the representations made to them on the Religion question have been made available to enquirers. No records have been discovered of representations made in favour of, or relating to the formation of, the original question. No representations have been discovered from the principal Churches on the religion question, even though they are the principal beneficiaries of the propaganda value brought about by current design and interpretation of the question, particularly in the matter of the nature of our publicly-funded national and second-level schools, the need for chaplains etc. It is unlikely that their views were not considered and more likely that publication of their views have been suppressed, perhaps because they were made orally.

What’s Wrong with the Religion Question?   (“What is your Religion?”)

The question is offensive, because it presupposes that every citizen has a religion (adherence to a formal religion and practising it);

It is flawed because many persons without a religion simply skip the question, having read the opening sentence, and go on to the next in the census. The CSO has classified these persons (over 70,000 in 2011) as having ‘other religions’ – which is false.

It is flawed also because the list is not alphabetical; it starts with Roman Catholic. One has to search for one’s denomination. It is doubly flawed because the ‘pecking order’ has been altered from the 2002 to the 2006 census and denominations have been dropped and others added to the list. Hanging off the bottom is ‘No Religion’; hard to find, but also, ‘no religion’ is not an answer to the question, “What is your religion?”

It is flawed because there is no written guidance on the notes with the census form to state what is meant by the question; whereas, on the website of CSO they offer the advice to just cite a religion whether or not you attend an church; the person is ‘herded’ into a positive answer. One census enumerator (2006), when asked for advice by a householder when she called to the door, as to how to fill it in, said she was advised to tell persons to put their birth religion in. There is no paper trail of this advice; it is tantamount to leading the householder to give an answer intended to best satisfy some users of the data.

It is flawed because the questionnaire is normally completed by ‘daddy’ or ‘mammy’, or the hotel manager etc, whose own biases enter the system. How can a hotel receptionist know your religion or belief system?

It is flawed because asking of the religion of a young child, for public policy purposes, is nonsensical; they are too immature to be committed, have an understanding etc. In contrast, when asking whether or not a person can speak Irish, the question is restricted to persons over 3 years of age. 15 years is the age limit applying to married persons.

The CSO – and mimicking media – have deliberately misinterpreted the data in the media releases of the Census. They speak and write of ‘adherents’; they speak and write of everybody declaring themselves to be [Named Religion]; or as “ticking the box”, whereas, the form is filled in by one person. When they refer to everybody, they never refer to infants and immature persons who are included as having had their religion assigned them by the head-of-household.

The census is essentially only of propaganda value to some Church leaders, to assiduous advocates of Catholic Church controlled schools, such as the Iona Institute, the Department of Education, Opus Dei, etc. It irritates funeral undertakers, surprised by the one third or so of their customers wanting secular funerals, wicker coffins etc (1). It disappoints some churchmen, such as the RC Archbishop of Dublin, who complains of church attendances on Sundays of only 3% of the census declarations. It irritates practising teachers who find the ‘Catholic’ children presenting themselves in RI classes as being ignorant of and disinterested in their nominal religion (2). It misleads on public policy of funding chaplains (sinecures?) in prisons, hospitals, and community schools.


(1) Freddie Maguire, representative of Massey Brothers, speaking to reporter, Carol Ryan, Heatlh Plus, The Irish Times, p14, 22/5/2012.

(2) Anonymous national school teacher, writing “To be Honest”, Education page, The Irish Times, 1/5/2012]

(3) A question on religious affiliation has been asked in every census taken in Australia, with the voluntary nature of this question having been specifically stated since 1933. In 1971 the instruction ‘If no religion, write none’ was introduced. This saw a seven-fold increase from the previous census year in the percentage of persons stating they had no religion. Since 1971 this percentage has progressively increased to about 16% in 1996 and 2001. In the 2001 census just over a quarter of all persons either stated they had no religion, or did not adequately respond to the question to enable classification of their religion.