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.