The British Humanist Association has published a poll, hoping to show that the census question about religion is misleading, but critics say they have missed the point.
Peter Benton, Deputy Director of the 2011 Census, says the question “what is your religion?” aims to discover general affiliation not practice.
In addition, accurate comparisons with past results will be impossible if the question is radically altered to suit campaigners.
But the BHA is demanding a change, claiming there is a key difference between asking people “what is your religion?” and asking people “are you religious?”.
A YouGov poll conducted for the BHA, and reported enthusiastically by the BBC, shows that lots of people affiliate themselves with a religion without necessarily describing themselves as “religious”.
The Christian Institute’s Mike Judge said most people were already aware 72 per cent of the population are not in church on a Sunday even though they described themselves as ‘Christian’ in the last census.
He said: “The BHA is missing the point. The census question does not seek to measure religious devotion or practice, it simply measures affiliation.
“The BHA may not like the fact, but huge swathes of the nation are happy to identify themselves with Christianity more than anything else”, he said.
“Genuine Christians know this is largely a cultural affiliation”, he added, “but it at least shows that people think of themselves as aligned to our nation’s Christian heritage and Christian values.
“They certainly don’t think of themselves as humanist.”
The decision to use the affiliation wording has been supported by the Church of England.
Revd Linda Barley, Head of the Church of England’s Research and Statistics Department, said: “It’s not about belonging, it’s not about believing, it’s not about practice, or any of those things, it’s about just whether people feel they align themselves with different religious persuasions.”
A spokesman for the ONS told the BBC: “The religion question measures the number of people who self-identify an affiliation with a religion, irrespective of the extent of their religious belief or practice.”
The think tank Theos, which undertakes research into religious matters, says attempting to measure cultural affiliation to religion – rather than actual, regular practice – is a good idea, as it shows the broad values society shares.
But the chief executive of the BHA, Andrew Copson, said: “This poll is further evidence for a key message of the Census Campaign”, he said, “that the data produced by the census, used by local and national government as if it indicates religious belief and belonging, is in fact highly misleading”.
The online poll asked 1,900 adults in England and Wales if they were religious, a question which is not included on this month’s census form.
Of those surveyed, 65 per cent answered “no” to the question: “Are you religious?”, but over half said they were Christian.
Earlier this month the BHA’s census campaign posters were banned from railway stations because the slogan – “If you’re not religious, for God’s sake say so” – was deemed likely to cause serious and widespread offence.
The ban, initiated by companies that own advertising space in stations, followed advice from the Advertising Standards Authority.