The census and religion

Our census questionnaire hit the doormat yesterday.  As usual the census is stirring up a bit of controversy.  Simon Beard is worried about the data being managed by Lockheed Martin, a defence contractor.  I’m not overly bothered by this, but I do find myslelf getting exercised about how to answer question 20, “What is your religion?”

The British Humanist Association has been urging people to tick the box for “No religion” if they are not practising members of a faith, rather than tick “Christian” if they are merely baptised, or write in “Jedi Knight” as a general wind-up.  As I will explain, I agree.  But the main heat arises from the BHA’s advertising campaign; following  a ruling from part of the Advertising Standards Agency that some people might take offence at the ads, and they have been banned from railway stations as a result (although some buses have carried them).  This has generated lots of media coverage, which may have been the original idea, but I still find the whole episode very annoying.  The three ads are posted below.

But first, how to answer the question?  I am an agnostic, as I have already explained on this blog.  I am a confirmed member of the Church of England, but I don’t belong to a church.  I am not an atheist.  But I refuse to call myself a Christian either.  When I was a practising, I did not approve of people who did not commit to the faith, but still called themselves Christians.  I am happy with the label of “no religion” however, and so it won’t be difficult for me to answer the question.  Unlike the NHS job application form, which asks applicants to choose between various faiths and “atheist”; I have to tick “won’t say”, even though I am quite public about my religious status.

So far, so good.  But what does annoy me is that so much of officialdom treats people like me as a lower form of life.  They protect Christians and others from even quite mild offence, but we don’t count.  This is actually quite offensive.  Fine.  There is no liberal principle that people should be protected from being offended, and accordingly I put up with it: the BBC not allowing humanist speakers on Thought for the Day; the Pope implying that I don’t have any moral values because I don’t believe in God; women wearing the niqab because I can’t be trusted to look at their face.  But it  annoys me that we have to mollycoddle people of faith against being similarly offended.

Suddenly ticking the “No religion” box feels like an important assertion of my identity, rather than a simple statement of fact.

Nowquestion 15, “How would you describe your national identity?” is something else.  I think I’m going to write in “European” alongside British and English.

3 thoughts on “The census and religion”

  1. The people who don’t belong to a church of any sort can surely say ‘no religion’ without fear of misunderstanding. But there is a little slip in the Humanist Ad compaign which I feel strongly about: The young woman in the third ad says “my children shouldn’t be preached at in school”. It conceals the fact (and I mean fact) that the common world view (nowadays scientific materialism) is not proven, and rests on a number of articles of faith. This world view is preached continuously in schools, during science, history, english, even PE. It turns out that most scientific materialists know as little about the philosophy of science as fundamentalist christians know about bible scholarship. Science in schools is presented not as a complex philosophy but as simple ‘the case’. If that’s not preaching, then what is?
    Not that humanism is a religion, it has no church services etc, but it is a belief system, and it’s about time that they were called upon to write their own creed, rather than be allowed to complacently imply that they stand for simple common sense (whatever that is).
    Agnosticism is not an solution in this debate, for while it is entirely reasonable to not know what you can’t know, we are all forced to act ‘as if’, according to our best hypothesis. So, for instance, I may not know if I will be judged for my actions after I die, but now I will have to either act as if I will be, or act as if I won’t be.
    Everybody has a belief system, but many people don’t seem to realise it. The debate on belief has been dumbed down to a debate on religion. Questions like “what does quantum physics tell us about the ontological/epistemological status of the unobserved world (eg the big bang or atoms) ?” are ignored.
    Yes, it is provoking when religious groups are given special treatment, are to be protected from offence, but so is the protection through omission of the status quo in terms of belief.

    1. I think the point about the humanist campaign is that people who accept the “scientific materialist” point of view should be very careful about describing themselves as Christians (or Jews, or Sikhs, etc). I think that’s fair. We know know that the hypothetical woman means she doesn’t want her children to be exposed to religious teaching; if that is so she could definitely cause a misunderstanding if she described herself as a Christian, or whatever.
      Another point. I think there’s quite a fine line between “scientific materialism” as a complete belief system (such as promoted by Richard Dawkins, and accepting a series of scientific beliefs (age of the earth, size of the universe, etc, etc) as facts. In the latter case we have space for “non-scientific” beliefs to co-exist alongside the “scientific ones”; that’s where I am. I’m not sure that this isn’t where most secular schools are – which is a bit different from what you are implying.
      Finally I would add that for me agnosticism is accepting some of a faith’s beliefs, but not enough to be a practising member. It’s not a question of saying I don’t know, it is say I can’t accept it all.

      1. Thanks for the response. Replying in reverse order:

        The point about agnosticism is well taken, the non-religious world is rich and nuanced in variety of beliefs, and agnosticism is a ‘broad church’.

        Yes, schools are not so discouraging of holding other beliefs alongside scientific ones. My point is that the scientific ones are being presented as facts without a legitimate uncertainty being taught. I left my own school with a “naive inductivist” view of science, nobody having alerted me to it’s shortcomings. For those who go along with the scientific facts, it’s a case of ‘what’s the problem’, but those wishing to question them it’s a strait-jacket.

        We know what the hypothetical oriental woman means, noone likes to see their child taught a belief system not their own. The current school curriculum promotes ‘weak’ materialism – scientific beliefs being facts, with extras a ‘personal choice’, the cherry on the top, and I think that’s acceptable to most people. The purpose behind the humanists campaign is to cut state support for the current alternatives, which is democratic. But I am personally in favour of pluralism, that alternative belief systems are taught in schools. Having said that, my school RE was dreadful, I’m sure we could do better…

        ‘Science is based on evidence and experiment, and therefore it’s conclusions have a right to be considered fact’. I consider this a misleading half-truth, and I believe this on the core of our disagreement. It’s a hobby-horse of mine, and I doubt you have the stomach for an extended dialogue, so I expect we must agree to differ.

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