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I once tried to get religious – this is what happened

religion_heavy_metal

With religion in the news (just for a change) I thought it’d be an opportune time to do something I’ve been meaning to do for ages, and that is to turn an exchange of emails I had with the UK’s Office Of National Statistics, regarding the classification of religions (or not) in the national census results, into a blog.

During the lead-up to the 2011 UK Census, Metal Hammer magazine spearheaded a campaign to get heavy metal officially recognised as a religion, by encouraging its readers to enter that as their religion on their census forms. Personally, I needed no such campaign. I intended to state heavy metal as my religion anyway, for two reasons:

1) There are clearly many parallels between heavy metal and religion (defined in its broadest sense), as recognised by various bands (e.g. Manowar, Powerwolf, Metalsteel). I won’t go into them now, suffice to say that heavy metal is more than just a genre of music, it’s a global movement that means an awful lot to millions of people, including me.

2) I didn’t like the idea of members of more traditional religions getting some kind of special status that I wouldn’t be entitled to. There are UK laws designed specifically to protect the religious. I’d argue that there shouldn’t be, but seeing as there are, I want to do everything I can to ensure I don’t miss out.

No sooner had the census results been announced than Metal Hammer was declaring metal’s official status as a religion (the story’s gone, but you can see the headline in the URL). Not being one to believe anything I ever read on the internet, I decided to investigate further to see if it really was true.

Surprise, surprise! It was not.

Examination of the actual census results themselves revealed an interesting discrepancy between the wording of the question on the form itself, and the classification of the resulting data. Wherever anyone had filled in the ‘other’ space for the religion question, the answers had been divided into two categories: ‘religion’ and ‘no religion’. This is odd given that there is an entirely separate box to tick for anyone wishing to state that they have no religion, and I could find no explanation of how answers were divided into these two categories. It certainly wasn’t a question of popularity. ‘No religions’ such as heavy metal and Jedi had come out way ahead of ‘religions’ such as Scientology and even Satanism!

There was only one thing left to do – email the Office Of National Statistics…

Hello,

On the census form, where someone lists their religion as ‘other’, how do you decide which to categorise as RELIGION and which as NO RELIGION in your results?

I ask because when I ticked ‘other religion’, the answer I gave was intended to be given as my religion, and not as a variation on ‘no religion’. The way the form was worded made it seem like that was the information I was giving you. If I’d wanted to tell you I had no religion, I would have ticked ‘No religion’.

Thanks in advance for your help.

Gavin Mackenzie

powerwolf_shirt

The reply came within a few days…

Dear Gavin,

Thank you for your e-mail below.

Please find attached a copy of the 2011 Census questionnaire for England:

Question 20: What is your religion?

The religion question was the only voluntary question on the 2011 census and 7.2 per cent of people did not answer the question.

No religion – If this box was ticked, you were counted as having No religion

Any other religion, write in – In order to be counted in this category, an answer would need to have been written in the space provided on the Census questionnaire.

Religion not stated – It the question on Religion was not answered.

I am also attaching the Religion Classification Version 3.0:

Please contact us again if you require any further assistance.

To keep up to date with Census developments, why not subscribe (free) to CensusNewsAlerts, click HERE and send your request to us.

Regards

Linda Oakshott

The attached religion classification document made for some fascinating reading. There were 1311 different responses listed in total, 1210 of which were categorised as religions, thus leaving 101 that were not. Among all of these were a great many sub-categories, including one for heavy metal, which included 14 different responses, mostly referring to specific sub-genres.

Interesting stuff, but it didn’t answer my question…

Hello Linda,

Thank you for the additional information. But I have to say you haven’t really answered my question.

As you note, the form has a box for ‘No religion’ and a box for ‘Other religion’, but as you can see in the Excel document you sent me, some answers given in the ‘Other religion’ box are classified ‘Other religion’ while others are classified ‘No religion’, even though the answerer did not tick the box that says ‘No religion’.

So my question is, how is it decided that something as silly as ‘Church Of The Invisible Pink Unicorn’, ‘Flying Spaghetti Monster’ or ‘Arsenal’ is classified ‘No religion’, when something as silly as ‘Pick And Mix’, ‘The Way Of The Leaf’ or ‘Roman Catholic’ is classified ‘Religion’?

Thanks again for your help

Gavin Mackenzie

Linda couldn’t be bothered with me any more and so handed me over to Penny, who took a few weeks to respond. Well, it was Christmas, and Penny probably celebrates Christmas (I wonder if those who follow The Way Of The Leaf’ celebrate Christmas)…

Dear Gavin

Thank you for your further response. Apologies for the delay in responding

Responses to open-ended census questions with write-in responses can be many and varied. For the purposes of producing statistically meaningful tabulations that both meet users’ requirements and do not infringe strict statistical disclosure controls, it is not possible to code and tabulate separately each and every response. Responses for which there were only relatively few numbers across England and Wales are therefore generally classified under residual categories in statistical outputs.

The allocation of write-in responses to either the ‘religion’ or ‘no religion categories’ in the statistical outputs was made on the basis of extensive consultation with users on their requirements for statistical data and the practices adopted in the 2001 Census in order to provide statistical comparability over time.

Regards

Penny Wilkinson

I wanted to know more about this “extensive consultation with users”…

Hello Penny,

Thank you for for this information.

Are you able to tell me more about what you found to be users’ requirements for statistical data, with specific regard to the ‘religion’ and ‘no religion’ allocation?

In particular I’m interested in how and why these requirements carry more weight than the views of the thousands of users who provided a write-in response that expressed what they considered their own religion to be, but were nevertheless allocated ‘no religion’.

Kind regards

Gavin Mackenzie

god-listens-to-slayer

I’m getting a bit sarcy by this point but Penny, to her credit, is not ready to dismiss me yet. Next she sends me a long reply with some links to some long, complicated documents, perhaps in the hope that I’ll go all “tl;dr” and leave her alone…

Dear Gavin

The reasons for including religion and the various questions in the 2011 Census were set out in the government’s White Paper ‘Helping to shape tomorrow’ published in 2009 after extensive consultation with, and submissions from, users and other stakeholders including representatives of many faith and non-religions organisations.

Here is a link to the 2011 Census White Paper which explains the purpose of the Census and why we ask the particular questions :

http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/guide-method/census/2011/the-2011-census/2011-census-questionnaire-content/2011-census-white-paper.pdf

In the 2011 Census religion was just one of a suite of questions that allowed individual respondents to indicate their identity in the way they consider most appropriate. Responses to the question help provide information which supplements the output from the ethnicity question by identifying ethnic minority sub-groups, particularly those originating from the Indian sub-continent, in terms of their religion. Information is used to improve understanding of local populations and markets for service planning and to promote legal obligations under equality legislation and to prevent discrimination.

I have also provided a link to a comprehensive information paper for the religion question which you may find useful:

http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/guide-method/census/2011/the-2011-census/2011-census-questionnaire-content/final-recommended-questions-2011—religion.pdf

Regards

Penny Wilkinson

metal_crucifixion

But if that was her plan, it didn’t work. I followed the links and read anything I could find that seemed relevant. I still couldn’t find the answer to my question anywhere, so…

Hello Penny,

Thank you for your e-mail and the links you provided. I can see that a lot of time, effort, resources and thought has gone into the religion question. It’s clearly a tricky element of the census form and there’s evidently no perfect way to word it – I appreciate that.

However, I have been able to identify the part of the information paper that concerns me most. It’s this…

“If individuals wish they may still choose to write-in a non-religious belief in the write-in space and as with 2001 a count of these will be outputted.”

What this means is that some answers written into the space marked “Any other religion” are assumed to be indicative of a non-religious belief. The 2011 Census White Paper indicates that one of the purposes of this question is to gather information on how people identify themselves. It seems to me that if someone writes something in a space marked “Any other religion” that they are identifying something that they consider to be their religion. So why are any of these answers treated as “non-religious belief” at all? Is doing this not at odds with the idea of asking people how they identify themselves (as opposed to how they are identified by others, in this case, your organisation)?

The 2011 Census White Paper also indicates that the information gathered by this question should be used to help prevent discrimination. But is it not discriminatory to treat some people’s answers as religious and others as non-religious?

On what basis is this discrimination, or distinction if you prefer, made?

Kind regards

Gavin

I sent that almost two years ago and still haven’t had a reply. I’d still like answers to my questions though. I’d like to know why a Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and even a fucking Satanist all have the right to identify themselves as religious, and thus gain extra protection from the law, whereas I don’t.

If you feel the same way, why not contact the Office Of National Statistics and ask them yourself? And while you’re at it, share this blog with any similarly-inclined friends you might have, and ask them to do the same.

Be nice though, okay.

census.customerServices@ons.gsi.gov.uk
linda.oakshott@ons.gsi.gov.uk
gillian.day@ons.gsi.gov.uk

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