Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Think before you tick: A comment on the UK Census

Yesterday, a census form fell onto my doormat. Yours, if you reside in the UK, will probably have arrived by now too.

The UK census is undertaken every ten years (since 1801*) and is intended to provide a snapshot of the UK and the characteristics and variety of its people. But you know all that.

What interests me is the section about religion. One simple question that asks which religion you perceive yourself to be a member of. I have an issue with this before we even start: The question itself is biased, implying that any particular reader follows a religion to start with. But that's an issue being debated by many, and not what I want to talk about. What I want to talk about is this:

I know a lot of people. There are a small number who, through considered and thoughtful choice, will tick "Christian", or any of the other religions available. This is fine.

There are a small number who, through considered and thoughtful choice, will tick either "No religion" or "other", and then enter "Atheist". This is also fine.

There are an even smaller number who will, though they have thought about and considered the great questions of life, the universe and everything, reached a very firm state of not having decided, and tick "other," entering "Agnostic". This, too, is fine.

The vast majority, however, will simply tick whichever box sits next to the name of the religion (or group of religions) that they have grown up being told they are. In the UK, many people will make their 'choice' based on one of the following viewpoints:

  • I live in the UK, am British, and this country's religion is "Christian".
  • My parents always told me I was [insert religion], so that's what I am.
  • I go to church twice a year, so I must be [insert religion].
  • I'm rebelling deliberately against my perceived expectations and am therefore ticking "No religion," or "Atheist."
  • I'm rebelling a little bit, but I'm not an anarchist or anything, so I'll tick "other" and write "Agnostic".
  • I'll write "Jedi" because I actually believe all that rubbish bouncing around the internet that they'll introduce it as an option if enough people do so.
This is not fine. This is very not fine.

Religion is still one of those things that's passed down from generation to generation. Yes, there are people who decide for themselves and make a considered decision either way, but it is my firm belief, based on social and professional interactions with a wide range of people, that most individuals don't think all that much about which religion they subscribe to, if any at all.

I'm not making these observations or statements in an attempt to offend anyone, although someone will undoubtedly take offence one way or another. I'm not making any kind of ploy to skew the results and encourage people to tick one thing or another. I'm deliberately not mentioning which box I'll be ticking, although both people who read this will probably already know. I'm simply asking everyone to do one thing:

Please think about it first.

Please don't let yourself be pressurised into ticking one box or another because you think it's expected. Please don't tick a box just because that's what you always tick, or because that's what your parents always used to tick for you, or because that's just what you always say when someone asks.

You are an individual person with individual beliefs, opinions, ideas and thought processes. Use them to tick the box that truly represents you as a member of our society in 2011. This is the only way that the UK Census can be any use whatsoever.

I've based these comments around the 'Your Religion' section of the census, but I think they're equally applicable to the 'National Identity,' 'Ethnic Group,' and even 'Your Sex' for many people.

* With a gap in 1941, and an extra one in 1966