Census religion question must make sense

The Census helps us understand who we are as a nation.

We are people of different faiths, cultures and languages each worthy of dignity and respect, with a common home and a desire to lead meaningful and productive lives.

To understand who we are, we need a Census that accurately and comprehensively takes the pulse of the nation.

That accuracy and comprehensiveness is under threat as the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) prepares for the 2026 Census.

We have very few measures of the religious and spiritual profile of Australians.

The ABS appears to be seeking to weaken the accuracy of one of these measures by changing the Census question asked of Australians about their faith.

The most significant change is the removal of tick box options for people who wish to record their religion.

The proposed new question “Does the person have a religion?” can be answered by a tick box for ‘No’, but there is no tick box for ‘Yes’. Instead, the ‘No’ tick box is followed by a space where a person who has a religious belief can write in their religion.

The write-in-only option is an unwarranted complication for people who wish to record their religion.

It will result in a greater number of responses that are invalid, indecipherable, or ambiguous.

The current practice of maintaining a listed order of tick boxes for the eight largest religious groups determined by counts from the previous Census is a consistent approach that ensures data efficiency and accuracy.

The substantial change being imposed means that comparisons with past years will be difficult for researchers.

Accurate and comparable data is vital as the Catholic Church and other religious groups rely heavily on it to assist parishes, schools, health services, welfare and other organisations to understand the religious demographic of the communities they serve.

Digging Deeper

To dig a bit deeper into the issue, there are four main concerns with the reformulation of the Census religion question.

Firstly, the proposed new question disengages religion from culture and identity. The existing question, ‘What is your religion?’ assesses religious identification as part of a person’s culture and heritage, serving as an essential marker of other attributes and behaviour.

The responses to the Census question on religious identification hold significant value for religious leaders, scholars, government personnel, not-for-profit organisations, and sociologists of religion.

As one of the world’s most successful multicultural societies, data from this question has helped demonstrate and monitor changes in the multicultural character of Australia over time.

Reformulating the question as ‘Does the person have a religion?’ effectively destroys the measure of culture and identity as it changes the question to whether a person holds religious beliefs or not.

This will result in the loss of a sense of religious heritage as the new format attempts to divorce religion from culture and tradition, presuming that this is no longer significant.

Secondly, such a significant change would mean results from the 2026 Census would not be comparable with results from the 2021 and earlier censuses.

One effect of the tick box format’s relative consistency over time has been comparable results.

Thirdly, the proposed change would introduce a new bias in favour of ‘no religion’.

It would do this by offering the more convenient option of selecting ‘no’ as the initial response and limiting the availability of the tick-box option while providing only write-in options for everyone else.

This unjustly increases complexity and ambiguity for all individuals who wish to record their religious identity and would provide less precise information.

Another flaw in the proposal is the impact on the reporting of special ethnic minority groups.

One of the strengths of the Australian Census is that it provides a relatively accurate account of many minor religious groups.

Determining members of Eastern Catholic Churches—specifically Maronite Catholics, Melkite Catholics, Ukrainian Catholics, Chaldean Catholics, Syro-Malabar Catholics, and Syrian Catholics—is critical for the Catholic Church.

Census data is used in these communities to plan allocations of clergy based on regional concentrations of the increasingly dispersed church population, as well as address specific welfare needs.

The government benefits from information about specific ethnic groups affiliated with these churches.

The proposed reformulation will create confusion for many members of these groups, which could be exacerbated by the respondents’ literacy and language abilities.

Inaccuracies in recording figures will substantially impede the formulation of policies and plans for these groups.

The Census has been, and must continue to be, a comprehensive and accurate tool for supporting a vast array of services and activities provided by religious groups and government to meet the needs of Australians.

The Catholic Church is deeply concerned about the significant effects that the reformulation will have on the data collected in the Census and calls on the government to reconsider its proposed changes for 2026.

  • Archbishop Timothy Costelloe, President, Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. This op ed was first published in The Australian newspaper, April 30, 2024.