Changing the way Australians are asked about their religion in next year’s census could see the number of people reporting as atheists jump by more than 10 per cent, a leading demographer says.
The prediction comes after the Australian Bureau of Statistics agreed to change the census form for the question on religious affiliation, moving the mark-box for “no religion” from the bottom of the list of 10 answers to the top.
KPMG demographer Bernard Salt said he expected the change would prompt many to select the “no religion” box for the first time, but warned that the change could “muddy the waters” by making it more difficult to assess historical trends.
In the previous national snapshot, taken in 2011, 22.3 per cent of the Australian population said they had no religion, compared with 25 per cent identifying as Catholic and 17 per cent Anglican.
“I would expect that (figure of 22.3 per cent) to increase an order of magnitude at the next census — it might be 30 per cent or 33 per cent,” Mr Salt said. “It is not that there is a sudden increase in godlessness, it is simply there is a mechanism to capture what is already there in the community.”
The ABS agreed to the change after receiving more than 400 submissions on the religious affiliation question, alleging a perceived bias in how the question was framed.
Australian Christian Lobby managing director Lyle Shelton said he was concerned the change had been made following a campaign by “militant” atheist groups: “There has been a small, fairly strident, even at times militant, atheism and secularism emerging that wants to purge the public space of any opinion informed by religion, and I think that is unfair in a democracy.”
He said any increase next year in the number of people reporting no religious affiliation should not be read as an increase in the number of atheists in society.
“Just because they tick ‘no religion’ on a census form doesn’t necessarily mean you can notch them up in the atheist column, which I suspect might be some of the motivation,” Mr Shelton said.
The Rationalist Society of Australia fears the Christian lobby may seek to overturn the change in next year’s survey, but a spokesman for the ABS said yesterday the review process had concluded.
“All topics and questions for the 2016 census have been agreed with government, and are now set. Topics are set in regulation by the government.