Next year’s census has a very subtle edit that may completely change the way Australia sees itself and have drastic consequences for the way government money is spent on welfare and education.
For the first time since the “no religion” option was introduced in 1991, the Australian Bureau of Statistics will place it first on a list of answers to the question “what is the person’s religion”, and move the “Catholic” option into second position.
As every politician knows, getting to top spot on the ballot paper has a big impact.
In the last census taken in 2011, 5.4 million people picked the “Catholic” box and a total of 13.1 million Australians (61.1 per cent) said their religion was some type of Christianity. Meanwhile 4.7 million (22.2 per cent) Australians picked “no religion”, or wrote down agnosticism, atheism, humanism or rationalism. The “no religion” option was in a difficult-to-find location under the “other please specify” box.
But whether or not simply putting a different box up the top of the list will significantly change the Australia’s religious composition won’t be known until mid 2017 when the 2016 census results come out.
If Christianity did lose its position as the majority religion, this could impact government spending programs such as the school chaplaincy program, according to those advocating for the change.
“Many government services and resources depend on census accuracy, and the figures are used by religious organisations to maintain their status and influence in terms of grants, tax-free services, access to schools for religious instruction, and for their generally privileged position within the community,” president of the Rationalist Society of Australia, Meredith Doig, said this week.
Director of the Adelaide-based rationalist organisation Plain Reason, Brian Morris, said rationalist and sceptic groups lobbied the ABS to change the question during the post-2011 census review. They argued it was about accuracy.
Mr Morris expressed concerns the current federal government, which enjoys a high number of Christian cabinet ministers, might now intervene and ask the ABS to reverse the decision. But an ABS spokesman confirmed this week the census forms have already been sent to the printer.
Managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, Lyle Shelton, said the order of answers on the census form was irrelevant, but he did expect to see a continuing decline in the number of Christians.
“Just because someone might tick no religion does not necessarily mean they are an atheist,” he said, adding the person could be agnostic.
“I think it is pretty clear that most [Australians] believe in the transcendent or in some form of God and in exploring that side of their humanity.”
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