Monday, 21 March 2011

Census question

I managed to start an argument between my parents when I saw that the census form had arrived.  What I had failed to do was read the religious belief question before commenting.  I said "Dad, you are going to put us down as Christian not Anglican, aren't you?"  I had some idea that Anglican would be an option on the form, and I felt strongly that it should not be ticked.  My mother misheard.  "Have you put us down as Anglican?" she shouted at my Dad.  "I'm really angry at you if you've done that."  It took me some time to calm down the subsequent row which was entirely my fault.  For one thing I really doubt that my father would ever treat "Anglican" as a religion.  For another the question actually doesn't go into such detail.  The options start with "No religion", include plain "Christian", and finish with a box for filling in anything not covered, for example if you really want to put yourself down as a Jedi, which is fantastically tedious of you.  I'm not entirely sure what all the fuss has been about with this question, which seems very fair to me.  The Guardian, which is often very boring about religion, reports that the Humanist Society has done a survey to show just how misleading the Census religion question is.  Apparently "61% of 1,896 adults in England and Wales said they belonged to a religious denomination or body. When asked in a subsequent question if they were religious, only 29% of the same people said yes."  I might possibly these days say I was religious when asked in a poll.  As a youth I would never have said I was religious, because I basically saw religion as the enemy of faith. According to the same poll, when asked "48% of the people interviewed who said they were Christian believed that Jesus was a person".  Well, asking a Christian if Jesus was a person is a trick question.  The orthodox answer, taking orthodoxy by the creed, is yes and also God.  Or no, not just a person, also God.  Even if 48% think he was just a person and not God, then that simply makes them Arians -- these are debates which have been raging within Christianity for centuries, and contributed to the early years of Islam, when some people thought Islam was just an Arian sect.  I really object to the British Humanist Society in some way implying that whether or not people say they are Christians, they're not if they respond as that 48% did.  The British Humanist Society don't get to decide what Christianity is.  I'm afraid that I don't either, and when it comes down to it faith, like race, is something where people get to self-define.  I may be practicing the hermeneutics of suspicion, but I feel that the British Humanist Society is trying to imply that people who say they're Christians are so stupid that they don't even realise that they're not.  So much of what is said against Christianity in the media or popular books is against a Christianity that I do not recognise.  For one thing it's an immensely stupid Christianity, because the people talking against Christianity in this way have already decided it's stupid.  So hurray for Augustine!  Because it's Lent I'm reading some more of his Expositions on the Psalms.  I'm still only on Psalm 37.  He was intelligent and humane.


  1. "asking a Christian if Jesus was a person is a trick question"
    Maybe, but that is the Guardian's paraphrase of the BHA'a question; what the BHA survey actually asked was this:
    "Do you believe that Jesus Christ was a real person who died and came back to life, and was the son of God?"
    I would have thought that that is a pretty good question for defining whether or not someone is a Christian in the normal sense of the term. To me, 48% sounds like a very high figure, but it's still less than 50%, and that fact ought to be taken in account when funding faith schools etc.

  2. Oops -- I thought 48% was remarkably high, but didn't want to cheat by suppressing that figure. Reading the YouGov Survey results more closely, I see that the 48% figure is apparently a percentage *of those who define themselves as Christian*, and that only 29% overall defined themselves as "religious". So, less than a third of the population define themselves as Christian and religious, and of that third, less than half believe that Jesus was the son of god etc. So now we're down to a figure of about 15% of the population as a whole, which still seems high to me, but is less astonishing.

  3. You're quite right, I shouldn't have just read the Guardian piece, I should have looked at the actual survey. That's a much more reasonable question. No matter how often I marvel at the appalling standards of newspaper journalism I still keep getting caught out by things like this. Bloody Graun.

    I think it will be interesting to see what results come out of the census. The church has been beating itself up for years about all these supposed Christians who never go to church, trying to work out how it is failing them. I heard an interesting sermon about it just a few weeks ago. And probably there are Christians out there who have been profoundly failed by the church, the church being like it is. But I expect a large number are people who define themselves as ethnically Christian even though they don't believe a word of it. And if this census, after all the debate on the issue, returns fewer of those, I think it has to be good for everyone. Nonetheless people have to be allowed to self-define about religion.