Proselytising ‘No Religion’ for the Census

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The Census is a dreary duty for many, yet for some, it is an opportunity to proselytise through ideological campaigns around religious affiliation. Over recent weeks, vocal atheists around the country have been taking to social media to convince Australians to tick ‘No Religion’ on the 2021 Census.

As the Sydney Morning Herald recently reported, ‘the Rationalist Society, Humanists Australia, the Atheist Foundation of Australia and others have chipped in $50,000 to the Census21: Not Religious? Mark “No Religion” campaign.’ Celebrities and noted atheists like Tim Minchin have also been amongst those actively campaigning for people to tick ‘No Religion’, particularly in an attempt to convince ‘lapsed Catholics’ to disown their Catholic heritage and beliefs.

Whatever one thinks of the Census21 campaign, I agree with the implicit aim: all people should be honest in answering the Census questions. It doesn’t matter whether one is affiliated to a major religion, no religion, or has another spirituality not listed by the Census (which can be listed under ‘Other’), it is crucial that we give compete answers that reflect our real lives.

Most Australians would likely agree that ideological campaigns should not be used to sway Census responses. These campaigns reduce complex realities like religious affiliation to narrow, simplistic issues, and pressure individuals to fall into line with high-profile influencers.

Rather than ideological, the Census is a pragmatic exercise, and a key source of information for governments, universities, businesses, community and NGOs. It helps determine their future planning and resourcing. The same goes for religious organisations, which are the largest providers of non-government services in Australia. Census data influences how they plan places of worship, schools, hospitals, social services, aged care and more.

For an accurate picture of Australian society, the Census must be completed in a way that truly reflects circumstances, affiliations and needs. Government and religious leaders have been stressing this in response to the Census21 campaign.

 

'These campaigners might do well to remember life is not black-and-white, and neither is belief. There are no guarantees, especially when it comes to the ultimate questions of God, death, and the afterlife, or the various circumstances life throws at us.'

 

Yet ‘No Religion’ campaigners like Monica Dux denounce those who mark a religion in the Census, like lapsed Catholics, for hypocrisy and inconsistency. Like the preachers of old, they condemn others for having a mixed relationship with their religious tradition. (Interestingly, these campaigners are conveniently silent on the social science research that show the positive benefits of religious adherence on one’s health, education, family life, and life expectancy).

These campaigners might do well to remember life is not black-and-white, and neither is belief. There are no guarantees, especially when it comes to the ultimate questions of God, death, and the afterlife, or the various circumstances life throws at us.

No one should be condemned for having a religious affiliation or mixed beliefs as they face the ambiguities and challenges of life. One doesn’t need to agree with each point of church doctrine to be welcome in the Catholic Church, or if I can be bold, in other religions too.

Religions like Catholicism are there for people at the important moments of life: when welcoming a newborn child, educating and forming the young, marrying the person they love, and farewelling loved ones from this life. They are also there at the difficult moments: when we are sick, on hard times, dying, facing family or emotional breakdown, or other times of crisis or hardship. I witnessed this when recently working in a Catholic aged care home in Sydney. The Sisters and staff lovingly cared for the elderly who had limited financial means and no family or friends, regarding these residents as their own family. Why should people not feel connected to this good work and want to maintain some affiliation with it, even if they are not always active in church life or agree with everything the Church says?

A lapsed Catholic might not regularly attend Mass, but an orientation towards something greater is still a meaningful connection and marking such in the Census helps ensure that they’ll still be able to access that connection and support during times when they need it.

Many people are comforted by the fact that religious organisations provide the largest number of social services in this country. These organisations are driven by their beliefs and values, to be there for people at any stage of life in a practical and loving way, no matter the circumstances. There is little evidence that atheist groups do the same.

The Catholic Church, like other religions, does not demand perfection from those affiliated with it. Jesus said he did not come for the virtuous or perfect; he came for the everyday person including those who struggle and who have made mistakes. The Catholic Church has the same ethos in its outreach and does not discriminate in its services. The Church has also acknowledged its past grievous errors and cover-ups, and has worked hard to ensure they don’t happen again.

Both in the Census and beyond it, voices of ideology and condemnation don’t aid in the forming of an accurate picture of our society. Instead of heeding those voices, we should be true to ourselves, being honest and pragmatic about how we want our affiliations acknowledged and future resources allocated.

 

 

Joel HodgeJoel Hodge is a lecturer in theology at the Australian Catholic University and a Jesuit novice. 

 

Topic tags: Joel Hodge, Census, atheism, No religion campaign, ideological campaign, religious affiliation

 

 

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Existing comments

Whilst Joel makes some good points the main reason I support the 'No Religion' promoters has to do with the funding of religious schools by our taxes. It frustrates me to hear of stories of teachers losing their jobs because of their sexuality. And these schools receive my taxes. I would like to see this changed and one way might be to write 'No Religion" on my census form so that eventually this injustice ceases because of the rise of the 'No Religion' numbers.


Tom Kingston | 10 August 2021  
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While I support the sentiments that motivate your post here, Tom, you should know that school-funding is entirely related to the number of enrollments at a school and not, as so many inside and beyond the Church appear to think, by Census data.


Michael Furtado | 16 August 2021  

Congratulations on an excellent article, Joel, balanced and respectful of differing views.


Bruce Duncan | 10 August 2021  

So it's Tuesday, Census night. A night we all have to confront 5 years worth of choices, successes or disappointments. If you're lucky you can fill in the form alone and have no responsibility to anybody else to divulge a lot of very personal details. Our wavering pen is directed to answer all questions in Capital letters in bold text atop each page, even though several pages do not require text responses at all, just dashes. No doubt this Capitalization is simply so the character recognition engine to process the data doesn't have to work overtime but there's some CBT Cognitive Behavior Therapy at play as a result. If you've spent a lifetime or just the last few weeks as an atheist (or other) but never really needed to confront the circumstances to yourself or others Census night is the night. You might have thought about it, you might be proud to be a particular religion but I venture that Tuesday will herald some awful arguments among families and friends where one or more must confess to "the Householder" what their personal choice is and circumstances are. And the CBT is the most confronting part; writing it. Not just a skinny, ineffectual tick the box "No religion" but in big, fat, in yer face capitals: ATHEIST. There. Do you feel better now? It's official, in writing.


ray | 10 August 2021  

This beautifully reflects the life of Jesus of Nazareth, unsullied by the constructions of formal denominational adherence. I hope you are going to make a contribution to the coming PC along these lines, Mr Hodge, and that all the clamorous reformers read this article in the hope that they discover true Christianity and Catholicism.


john frawley | 11 August 2021  

Is a campaign to shame non-practising Catholics to bite the intellectual honesty bullet, and say they are Catholics no longer, bad? It’s not as if they can’t change their minds before the next Census. The idea that once baptised Catholic, you should always record yourself as Catholic even if you no longer practise is: 1. a public lie and 2. serves as an unnecessary fig-leaf for the Church to be absorbed into the purposes of a State using its money power. If the Church wants public and financial recognition of its educational and eleemosynary prowess, it can earn it (and easily, too) by coughing up the numbers of students in its independent school system and the numbers of disadvantaged its agencies serve. Those living bodies are the voters or voter-proxies. The Church should not allow itself to be seen to be subsidised by the Mammon of the State. Especially when, whatever it gets, it can show it earns. Paul made tents by day and preached at night and made it a point to pay his own way.


roy chen yee | 11 August 2021  

I would've thought, after his campaign against Cardinal Pell, including that appalling song, Tim Minchin would have had the decency to disappear, but, he's a media personality and drinks up publicity like Dracula on a feeding frenzy. I think the feral atheists are panicking because religion still exists in Middle Australia, far from the befuddled, myopic illuminati of Parkville et sim. I put down as 'Other' because, although I would align in belief and practice with orthodox Christianity, I have a love/hate relationship with the Catholic Church, which, as an institution made up of fallible human beings is, IMHO, badly flawed.


Edward Fido | 11 August 2021  

Joel is keen to encourage citizens with a Catholic heritage to feel entitled to nominate as Catholics in the Census – intermittent or extended absence from Church life being no bar to holding onto a right to claim affiliation. No doubt, Jesus would agree. The Good Shepherd's message offers a refuge for all and displays extraordinary patience in waiting for those would be followers to make their move. However, Joel's critique of the efforts of “Non Religion Proselytisers” is very much a personal position. An excursus into the writings of John Courtney Murray SJ on recognising the right to religious freedom, an immersion into the speeches in the General Sessions of Vatican II, where the elements of the Decree on Religious Freedom were hammered out, and ending with a close scrutiny of the final text would encourage a different response. One, where respectful differences of opinion with Monica Dux and her associates is fair play – all the while respecting her right to advocate a contrary opinion and solicit recruits to her position.


Bill Burke | 12 August 2021  

Publishing in ES, which privileges social justice over pietism, has its risks. I side here with Roy challenging the view of Archbishop Fisher that all who do good works are in some way 'religious', rather than also atheist/agnostic. This is nonsense. Despite his atheism, Peter Singer is regarded as an ethicist extraordinaire, even though his positions are far from Catholic. It follows that the furore raging about the Census isn't just the result of a beat-up by militant atheists but also by conservative Christians and fundamentalists, on the wrong side of people like me in regard to the Synod, itself commandeered by Joel's Augustinian-specialising ACU theologian colleague, and whose hidden agenda is to secure a pre-existing Catholic advantage on school-funding. (I did the doctoral research!) Catholic schools in other equivalent polities are public-sector schools, treated exactly the same way as any other, and with guarantees relating to religious ethos. Because of the flawed Australian arrangement, our tax-payers now subsidise the 40% of schools that are private on the coat-tails of the Catholic dispensation. Add John Frawley's plaint that they don't turn out practicing Catholics and the case for Census data reflecting an unpalatable alternative view that Joel misses requires answering.


Michael Furtado | 12 August 2021  

Many of us suffered sexual, physical, and emotional abuse under the various religious sects, and due to the way we have been treated by their so-called reconciliation protocols in place, as with their high powered lawyers that want to fight us to the last dollar and turn their backs on us, no wonder why many of us would tick No Religion on our Census Form!


Mary Adams | 18 August 2021  

I must be living in a bubble. I completed the census without hearing about the “no religion” campaign and, indeed, didn’t know about it until seeing Joel’s article today (18 September). I just answered the question honestly, without thinking about it or looking for not-so-hidden agendas. It’s hard to fudge how many people are in the house on Census night, or how many bedrooms the house has or how many cars there are. With religion it may be naïve to think people would just answer the question based on their personal views, but it’s probably what most of us did. The Census isn’t the place for political campaigns, otherwise it loses its value as a tool for decision-making and starts becoming fictional. “Any similarity to actual events is coincidental.” Joel’s essay begins with a reasoned response to the “no religion” campaign but the summary of the important role of the Catholic Church in our society reads like it is pushing the other point of view. Like Michael, I find myself agreeing with Roy’s comment. Being true to yourself is all we should expect.


Brett | 18 August 2021  

By now it is public knowledge that Joel has taken leave of absence from ACU to explore the call to become a Jesuit. I know that all here, as well as all who read, will join with me to pray with and for Joel at this precious time of his discernment.


Michael Furtado | 19 August 2021  

I'm a month ahead of myself. 18 August obviously. Or maybe subconsciously I can't wait for Spring!


Brett | 19 August 2021  

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