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A census should allow us to define ourselves – and not be categorised by others

2011 March 25
by Paul Vallely

There was a rather cheering moment on Desert Island Discs when Dame Anne Owers was asked whether she wanted a return to what the interviewer Kirsty Young rather peculiarly described as the “Methodist ideology” that “we are all capable of sin but all also capable of making the choice not to sin”.

Dame Anne, the former chief inspector of prisons – who had been extolling the virtues of her childhood in a small North East mining community with no fewer than three separate Methodist chapels – refused to accept the premise of the question. If only more radio interviewees would do that.

It’s not about rules, she said. “It comes the other way round. It’s about people belonging somewhere, and that creates bonds of responsibilities and rights. I’m not a great fan of Thou Shalt Not.”

But, persisted Ms Young, hadn’t Thou Shalt Not worked quite well?  To which Dame Anne replied: “Individuals and communities need clear boundaries. But there also has to be the recognition that within families and communities you owe things to each other, you support each another. Simply the negative isn’t going to achieve that; there’s got to be the positive as well.”

It is always refreshing when you hear someone side-step a pigeonhole (if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor) and insist on defining an issue for themselves. It’s what, in a limited way, we have been asked to do with next month’s national census. Not everyone approves.

The British Humanist Association in the run-up to the 2011 census launched a campaign to persuade people to tick the box that says they have No Religion. They are still smarting from the 2001 Census, when 72 per cent of people in England described themselves as Christian. “If you’re not religious for God’s sake say so,” BHA posters will proclaim, kicking against the time-honoured “if none, write C of E” formula, for fear that another high census figure will mean more public funding for faith schools, hospital and prison chaplains and the like.

When you debate with aggressive atheists it is striking how they insist on defining what it is you believe so they can dismiss it. Now, it seems, they want to do it for the entire population.

But, there is a lot more to religion than what people believe. Religious belief, behaviour and identity are not necessarily connected.  You can believe and not go to church, just as you can go to church and not believe, or not believe everything. You can participate actively in a faith community or you can just pray and pay. You can be what the sociologists call “unchurched” and still see Christianity as integral in some way to your cultural identity.  You may just like the idea of living in “a Christian country”.

All this explains why the 2001 census had 72 per cent of the population as Christian, as did the 2008-9 annual Integrated Household Survey, while the British Social Attitudes survey put the figure at 51.2 per cent.  And that is not counting the “vague faith” category of those who regard themselves as “spiritual but not religious” but whose beliefs have a Christian hue. There is also a campaign for such folk to put themselves down as “holistics” on the census form.

The truth is that there are as many, if not more, reasons for ticking Christian as there were for ticking Jedi on the last census form – as was done by many campaigning atheists, practical jokers and genuine devotees of Star Wars.

The joy of the census – unlike the plan to collect such data in future by merging the Inland Revenue, Passport, DVLA and other official databases – is that it allows us, however-partially, to define ourselves rather than having others do it for us. Those keenest on definitions are fundamentalists, but then I suppose that the New Atheists are fundamentalists in their own way.

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