Monday 19 December 2011

Sucker Punch

The Irish Times reported earlier this week that according to a recent report by the Catholic Dublin Diocese,

“weekly Mass attendance in Dublin is down to 14 per cent (164,000 out of a Catholic population of 1,162,000).”

According to this summary the 2006 population within the Dublin Diocese was 1,291,599, of which 1,087,361 or 84.2% were Catholic.

None of this is a surprise (see previous posts for example) but nobody seems to have picked up on the sneaky trick the Catholic church has pulled here – while admitting that most people are ignoring them, they still manage to claim a million people as Catholics, even though none of those million can be bothered to go to mass. And of course, these numbers get picked up uncritically in the media, re-enforcing the false view that Ireland is a majority Catholic country in a religiously meaningful sense. This allows the church to claim it is a representative voice in Irish society and gives religious bigots the confidence to tell the rest of us how we ought to behave (and legislate for it).

Where do these numbers come from? The Census. And what question is asked in the census?

It has been pointed out repeatedly that this is a misleading form of questioning that overestimates the number of religious. Instead of ‘What is your Religion?’, what should be asked is, ‘Do you have a Religion? Is so, what is it?’ That the form of the question is important is shown by the following trend in Australia:

“Correspondingly, there has been a large increase in those claiming to have ‘no religion’: up from 27 per cent of the population in 1993 to 43 per cent in 2009. This figure is much higher than the figure of 19 per cent who said they had no religion in the 2006 Census as well as previous ISSP surveys. The difference is partly due to the fact that the 2009 ISSP asked people first if they had a religion before asking what was their religion. In other surveys and the Census, people have simply chosen their religion from a list in which 'no religion' was an option.”

So ask the question differently and you will add, in Australia’s case anyway, another fifth of the population to the no-religion group.

Or closer to home, try the UK:

“When asked the census question ‘What is your religion?’, 61% of people in England and Wales ticked a religious box (53.48% Christian and 7.22% other) while 39% ticked ‘No religion’.
But when asked ‘Are you religious?’ only 29% of the same people said ‘Yes’ while 65% said ‘No’, meaning over half of those whom the census would count as having a religion said they were not religious.”

We need to challenge statements claiming most people are Catholic as they are fundamental to ensuring that politicians feel they cannot ignore the church. If we could get across how much people are not religious (even if culturally ‘Catholic’), then we might see a more ethical and secular debate in our society.

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