The question that could be banned from the census

Sparking controversy, a long-standing question could be removed from Australia’s next census after the Australian Bureau of Statistics was flooded with public complaints.

The question could be removed or significantly altered in time for the next census in 2021, if the ABS bows to pressure to change the already optional question.

“Time to drop the religion question?” said one public submission.

“It may be interesting to some, but so is AFL/NRL/A-League affiliation to others and there is no good policy reason to start collecting that information.”

Nearly a third of Australians reported in the census that they had no religion i2016. 

Other submissions argued that the structure of the question led people to list their childhood religions, even though they did not practise religion as adults.

The ABS is under pressure to change the long-standing religion question. Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics

“[T]he structure of the question is still leading in nature, presuming that the person has a religion in the first instance before giving the person the opportunity to specify that they in fact do not have a religion,” said the Atheist Foundation of Australia Inc, in its submission to the ABS. 

“During the 2016 Census topic review process, many submissions recommended changes to the religion topic,” the ABS said.

“The issues raised in the submissions were very similar with most commenting that the current question wording assumes everybody has a religion.” 

In the 2016 Census, 30 per cent of Australians said they had no religion. Source: Australian Bureau of StatisticsThe religion question is already the only optional question on the census.

In the 2016 census, Australians were asked ‘What is the person’s religion’ with the option of selecting listed religions or writing in a separate religion.

In the list ‘no religion’ is the top option. The ABS moved the ‘no religion’ option to the top, in response to public feedback prior to the 2016 census.

Many submissions have suggested that the question should be reformulated, to a two part question, which first asks if a person practises religion, before going to a second question listing religions.

“The 2016 Census collected information on close to 150 different religions. Almost 10 percent of people who responded to the religion question in 2016 provided an unlisted religion,” ABS said. 

The ABS will review public feedback on the religion question during 2018 and 2019, ahead of the 2021 census.