The minimalist change to the religion question in the 2021 Irish census will mask, but not stop, the relentless increase in the number of nonreligious people in Ireland.
Some change to the religion question was inevitable, as the results were increasingly not reflecting reality, but this is the smallest improvement to the question that could have been made.
The new question is slightly better than the old one, but it will still underestimate the number of nonreligious people in the country. The current number is in reality far higher than the one in ten nonreligious shown in the 2016 census results.
During the consultation process, the Census office had argued for a minimalist approach to changing the religion question, because they said it was important to compare results from census to census.
Atheist Ireland had argued that it was more important to get accurate results, rather than to be able to compare one set of flawed results with another. In any case, the current question has only been there since 2002.
How the question understates the number of nonreligious people
The old question was ‘What is your religion?” That was a leading question, that resulted in a higher figure for religion, by assuming that the respondent is a member of a religion.
The new question is ‘What is your religion, if any?’ This is slightly better than the old question, but is still a leading question, as it assumes that religion is the default, and that not having one is an aberration.
Atheist Ireland had argued for the question ‘Do you practice a religion?’ followed by ‘If so, what religion do you practice?’ That would have been a more neutral question, and would have given a more accurate figure in the census results.
How the check-boxes understate number of nonreligious people
The new question is also slightly better than the old one, in that ‘No religion’ is the first option of the check boxes, instead of the last one. This means that people are more likely to see it before they have ticked the check-box for their childhood religion or cultural identity.
But Atheist Ireland had argued for the check-boxes to be removed entirely, and for a return to the write-in answer that had been used for a century until the check-boxes were introduced in 2002, and given to the five highest religions from the previous census.
These check-boxes overstate those religions that are given a check-box. Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, and Methodist all dropped consistently from the 1960s to the 1990s. When given check-boxes, they all increased in 2002. Methodist doubled when given the check-box in 2002, then halved when it was taken away in 2011.
Other issues about the religion question
Atheist Ireland had also argued that a further follow-on question should ask how often the person practices their religion, in the same format as the Irish language question.
Also, the question on religion appears immediately after the question on ethnic and cultural background. This primes people to be thinking about ethnic and cultural background when answering the question on religion.
Atheist Ireland had argued that the question should be moved to elsewhere in the census, well away from questions on ethnicity, culture, or language. The England and Wales census has already made this change, by moving the question on Religion away from the question on ethnic and cultural background.
Atheist Ireland will continue to publicise the flaws in the census question on religion, despite the new question being slightly better than the old one. We are confident that, despite these flaws, the 2021 census will yet again see a significant rise in the number of nonreligious people in Ireland.