Currently, census enumerators are going door to door gathering information and passing out the 2022 Census that will help determine the demographic makeup of people living in Ireland, informing future laws and government funding more accurately. Since the last census in 2016, there have undoubtedly been changes in the country that could be reflected in information given by the people to the government. A category that may face large changes since the last census is religion; this is why the Humanist Association of Ireland is urging individuals to focus on accurately answering the question, “What is your religion, if any?”
“In the last census, the data indicated that 10% of people do not practice a religion in Ireland, and this number informed government policy and thinking. Yet according to other data this may not be entirely accurate”
There has been a major shift since 2016, when the religion question on the census read “What is your religion?” and the option of “no religion” was listed at the bottom of possible answers. The wording could be viewed as leading, since it seems to assume that the majority of those answering would have a religion. After the last census, the Humanist Association of Ireland engaged with the Census Office and sought for a change in wording, which is reflected in this year’s question, and it is also noted that “no religion” is now the first choice of answer.
In the last census, the data indicated that 10% of people do not practice a religion in Ireland, and this number informed government policy and thinking. Yet according to other data this may not be entirely accurate. According to a 2018 European Social Survey, around 36% of people in Ireland attend church services, a massive drop from years prior. There has also been an increase during the time of each census of individuals marking “no religion” – from 2% in 1991 to 6% in 2011, and most recently 10% in 2016. It is expected that there will be another significant increase after the census results come out this year.
Speaking to Trinity News, Jillian Brennan, the CEO of the Humanist Association of Ireland, explained the purpose of their campaign urging people to accurately answer the question. Particularly they are keen for people to mark “no religion” if they do not practice one, and stress the importance of accurate representation in the census. Brennan says that “the government uses the information from the census to make decisions about funding and resource allocation,” meaning that inaccurate answers could mean bad policy and government strategy based on those inaccuracies. Sector funding that is influenced by the census includes primary and secondary education, as well as healthcare.
“Especially for the non-religious population in more rural areas of Ireland, there are very few non-religious options for schools to attend”
According to Brennan, “over 90% of primary schools are under church patronage, and the government plans to divest around 400 schools by 2030. However, in the last 5 years only 8 schools have transferred from the church.” This means that, especially for the non-religious population in more rural areas of Ireland, there are very few non-religious options for schools to attend. This is just one way in which answering the census could affect individuals, yet it is a very important one when considering the future of education in Ireland and how more secular options could be made available for children through increased funding and governmental support.
Based on the wording of the 2016 Census Religion question, Brennan says the Humanist Association “believes that many people ticked the religion that they were baptised into when they were born.” The Association believes that the changing of the wording will create a significant change in how people answer the question. “We believe that the 10% in the last census was not truly reflective of the people who are non-religious, and the addition of “if any” and the placement of the “no religion” will significantly impact answers from those who practice no religion.”
Ireland is becoming a more secular society, and people are living their lives more and more without religion being the central focus of it. “In terms of a separation of church and state, there is not a place for religion in how the government runs the country for all of the citizens of Ireland. There is of course a place for the church for people who practice religion, but in terms of how the government runs the country there should not be religious influence.” The secularisation of Ireland can be seen, for example, by the recent referendums that have passed; people voted for marriage equality as well as the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, both moves largely opposed by the Catholic Church.
The campaign has not been free from criticism, as some people see it as intended to discourage religious people from seeking representation However, Brennan is clear on this topic: “We are not encouraging people to mark “no religion” if they do practise a religion, and we are not encouraging people to turn away from religion. We are focusing on reaching out to the non-religious portion of the population, either those who do not practise or who no longer practise a religion, to accurately answer the religion question on the census to ensure accurate representation.” The Humanist Association has mostly campaigned through social media and press releases after a campaign launch at Stephen’s Green a few weeks ago. Through media appearances, they have been reaching out to people hoping that they will make sure to mark the option that best represents them. “We are encouraging people who no longer go to church, no longer believe in god or no longer practise a religion to answer the question in a way that reflects their life.”
Particularly with reference to young people, Brennan encourages any individual answering the census for others in their household to consult them on the question of whether they practice a religion or not before answering.