Were Non-Religious Australians Under-Reported in the 2012 Census? The Raw Data Suggests They Were

Last week, I mentioned that the results of the 2011 Australian census had come out and the percentage of people marking “No religion” had shot up to 22.3% of the population, making them the second largest demographic group.

Sounded pretty awesome.

But there may be good reason to doubt those numbers. In fact, non-religious Australians may be the largest demographic.

The bloggers at Humans in Design have a great explanation as to why that could be the case.

Here’s the gist of their argument:

Take a look at the raw data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics:

That line at the bottom says the total (100%) amount included all the people who skipped the question or marked it incorrectly.

What happens when you put those people in their own category?

They become the red bar (9.4%) in the following graph:

That’s now the fourth largest group. Now you have to wonder how many of those people are not religious? Presumably a good number of them. Tristan and Tom at the design blog think that’s a glaring oversight:

If a quarter of those people were actually not religious, for the first time ‘no religion’ would be the largest group on the Australian Census…

I ran my own calculations and actually found that the non-religious would still be in second place… but only by a fraction. (More specifically, 25% of the red bar would be 2.35%… add that to the current 22.3% number and you’d get 24.65%… still lower than the 25.3% of Catholics.)

But assuming that only 25% of the folks making up that red bar are non-religious seems like an under-estimate to me. Anyway, it’s all moot right now. But maybe a change in the way this question is asked the next time around (in 2016) could help clarify the situation.

Last year, the question looked like this:

As you can see, “No Religion” is kind of hidden at the bottom. It’s not hard to believe some people might have missed that option.

Tristan and Tom believe the question ought to look like this instead (and I agree that some variation of it would be a huge improvement):

It’s a small change, but we believe that it would increase the people answering ‘no religion’ in two ways. Firstly it would pick up people from the ‘not adequately described’ and ‘blank’ boxes. Secondly, it makes making people stop and think, ‘am I really religious?’ before answering.

There is no agenda in this other than accurate measurement. It’s important. We believe the current design promotes inaccurate reporting.

If we’re wrong, fine. But if we are right, it’s important.

Considering that public policy decisions are based on census results, the Australian government has a duty to make sure they’re getting accurate information. Right now, the system looks broken.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Ibis3

    The proposed solution would lead to false positives. There are many, many people who are religious but who disavow a relationship to “organized religion”: people who believe in Christianity but don’t like churches, followers of Eastern, aboriginal, and traditional religions, New Agers, neo-Pagans and so forth.

    Also, you have the problem of people “identifying with” religions they don’t actually believe in. Do you identify as Christian because it’s convenient or socially expected in your family but don’t believe it at all?

    No, there must be a better way of framing the question, but I’m too tired to come up with it right now.

    • T-Rex

      I thought the same thing immediately. I’d rather see them include the “no religion” option with the rest of the list above or provide an option for agnostic/atheist listed with all of the other religions. The proposal in this article  is even more vague than the original IMO.

    • Michelle

      I agree, I think a key problem is ‘organised’.  A lot of people identify with a religion culture but not its organised church.  Another lot identify with the culture but don’t believe in God.  I don’t think an agnositic/atheist label would help too much either as a lot of people have been turned off that by aggressive atheists such as Richard Dawkins. Maybe a simple “Do you believe in God?” is the only way to really sort it out.

    • Pseudonym

      Also, you have the problem of people “identifying with” religions they don’t actually believe in.

      That might be a problem for some people, but not for demographers.

      A census is not a philosophical pissing contest. It’s for organisations of all varieties, government, business, religious or community, to see where the needs of the community actually are. Churches, for example, use the information to inform the decision of where to build new churches, or where to assign chaplains. For that, “identifying with” is the correct measure.

      It’s no different from a bus line wanting hard data on where to put new routes.

  • Spherical Basterd

    Most surveys seem to be people asking the wrong questions and not understanding the answers they get.

    The most interesting statistic to me is the low percentage born overseas for the non-religious or at least comparable to the  indentifing Christians.

    • Bustermk2

      Also Census forms generally get filled in by the parents who make assumptions about the religious beliefs of their children.

  • Tim

    In Scotland they get a two part question, in England and Wales a single question (but “none” is the first option).  I don;t believe that there is much of a difference in the no-religion rate between the different nations that might be attritutable to the different questions.

    To my mind, no question is perfect, but there is an advantage in not changing the question in each census.  That way the error stays the same for each year and meaningful comparision can be drawn.  I am not too bothered where the line is drawn just as long as it os moving in teh right direction.

  • Emil Vikström

    The proposed solution would skew the results in the different direction. The real solution would be to randomize the options (including the “No Religion” one).

    It’s interesting to note that the result is almost exactly in the same order as the options on the form. Do they sort the options according to earlier statistics? If they do they may be reinforcing the results from earlier years instead of getting a realistic picture.

  • Strech

    It’s a small change, but we believe that it would
    increase the people answering ‘no religion’ in two ways. Firstly it
    would pick up people from the ‘not adequately described’ and ‘blank’
    boxes. Secondly, it makes making people stop and think, ‘am I really
    religious?’ before answering.…There is no agenda
    in this other than accurate measurement. It’s important. We believe
    the current design promotes inaccurate reporting.If we’re wrong, fine. But if we are right, it’s important.

    They’re wrong about the accurate reporting (they are making the reporting worse, by bad design).  And I’m not sure about the agenda, but fraudulently increasing “no religion” answers is certainly the result of their plan.Accurate Reporting :”Not adequately described” and “Blank” are not no religion. The full description is of the first is “Inadequately described (supplementary code) religions”, which indicate religious affiliation that cannot be fit into their organizational code structure (see Australian Standard Classification of Religious Groups).  There is one atheist supplementary code (7010) out of 23, and I’m not sure it’s used at all in these results, as they use the 3 digit code (701).  7010 would be used if they broke “No religion” out into subgroups, which they don’t in these results.   What this appears to be referring to is the “000″ codes:

    Four-digit codes commencing with 000 are supplementary codes included
    for operational purposes to facilitate the coding of responses such as inadequately described religious affiliations, which present particular
    problems in that they cannot be allocated one particular religious
    group, narrow group or broad group code. …

    Not Stated

    Religious Belief, nfd

    Not Defined

    New Age, so described

    Theism

    Which is either “Blank” or theist.
    “Blank” is also – obviously – not “no religion”.  The weird position of “No Religion” below the box may reduce “No Religion” answers, but that could be solved by moving the answer, not their 2 question design.  Additionally, entries in the “Other” box can also be classified as “No Religion” fine (again, from Australian Standard Classification of Religious Groups)

    7
    NO RELIGION

    701
    No Religion

    7011
    Agnosticism

    7012
    Atheism

    7013
    Humanism

    7014
    Rationalism

    So their objection

    People answer “Other” before considering ‘no religion’.  The census itself actually has ‘humanism’ as a suggested other.  This is an ideology or philosophy rather than a religion.

    is without merit, as they’re still counted as “No Religion”.

    I do suspect there is some inaccuracy from the bad location of the “no religion” checkbox, but not as much as they seem to think, as they haven’t seem to have tried to understand how the data is handled.

    Additionally, their proposed question – “Does the person identify with an organized religion” – is incredibly misleading, vastly worse than anything they object to, as it conflates “organized religion” with “religion”, which is factually incorrect.  The survey design may suppress some “No religion” answers with the bad location of the question, but their question design actively designates theists as atheists.

    As for no agenda -
    The entire point of the redesign is to increase “No religion” answers because of supposed inaccuracies.  They don’t try to understand how answers are classified before declaring their objections.  They suggest a design that clearly and fraudulently increases the number of atheist answers.  If they’re not doing it on purpose, they’ve clearly let their lack of belief cloud their judgement.

    • Strech

       Gah, sorry about the bad spacing / paragraph breaks.  No preview and it’s not letting me edit.

  • Erp

    I’ll  note that the 9.4% for not-stated is lower than the last census (2006) when it was 11.9%.

    The percentage of no religion and non-Christian Australians went up and Anglicans, Catholics, and all other Christians went down (though certain Christian groups, e.g., Orthodox, went up).   No religion has gone from 6.7% in 1971 to the current 22.3%.

    Note that ‘no religion’ can also include people who are theists (just not affiliated with a religion) and other-religion can include people who are atheist and affiliated with a religion that doesn’t care (e.g., Unitarian, Unitarian Universalist, some Jewish groups).

  • Goonies

    The Atheist Foundation of Australia (AFA) has lobbied the ABS before about changing the question.  They claim it would be too expensive and then not fit with prior years reporting.

    The AFA ran a campaign leading up to the Census http://www.censusnoreligion.org/

  • http://twitter.com/BrookLaa Andy Laa

    Feels good to have been a part of this survey haha (as a non-national, but I had to take it as I was in the country, living with a family that is Australian – Australia is very anal about its census)

    Anyway, yeah the reason there would be more last time than this who didn’t fill it in properly would be because there was a shit-load of stuff from social media, billboards etc basically saying ‘Yes, it’s very funny putting your religion as “Jedi”, but please be serious as they will not be counted as “no religion,” helping boost religious numbers’
    http://censusnoreligion.org/ Anyway, personally, I can’t see a lot wrong with the system here in terms of religion interfering with politics – there is plenty of shit I don’t agree with, but I mean, there’s an Atheist, woman PM in at the moment (who is unlikely to be in next time around granted, but that was due to some very poor decisions on her part), people are pretty accepting of everyone (although racism, as with a all countries, needs stamping out a bit more effectively), the government in power supports same-sex marriage, Sydney is renowned for its gay pride marches.

    Australia is pretty secular as far as it goes.

    Except the opposition leader who thinks “HERP GAY GUYS MEANS MY DAUGHTERS LOSE ANOTHER POTENTIAL HUSBAND HERP JESUS HERP.”

    Vut I mean watch this advert and tell me it’s not awesome!http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OoORUsLS2Ew&feature=related 

    (Bear in mind on TV you have no idea where this advert is going – it could be any number of “products” being advertised  - a camera, a holiday, life insurance, whatever and then it just hits you at the end BOOM – marriage equality,

  • Tom

    Thats not the complete data.   The complete data has 137 categories including “Atheist”.  I don’t think the full raw data for 2011 has been released yet


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