Are you religious? Are you really?

First Humanist Society of New York

Image via Wikipedia

The Problem

I don’t just follow commands from an institution that thinks it is better than me, the church (or should that be the British Humanist Association?)

– ‘jfe261’

And I want the British Humanist Association to stop telling me how to fill out my census form.

– ‘Benulek’

I think the BHA needs to be more realistic about the situation: you can’t tell people what constitutes “true” faith or observance.

– Porthos

All of the above quotes are from an article on the Guardian website about the British Humanist Association’s (BHA) latest plea – that lapsed religious folk and non-believers actually tick the most appropriate box on the 2011 census form: no religion.  Some people, however, seem to take this as an affront on all religious folk and people of faith.

What’s Going On?

The BHA aren’t asking people to lie on their census, or to convert to atheism for the sake of the census.  Instead, they want people to be honest about their religious status because it is important to how the country is run and, on a more personal level, how children are educated.

Faith schools in the UK constitute a large proportion of primary and secondary schools.  Many are publicly funded and yet are able to discriminate against children based on their supposed religion or the religion of their parents.  Since there are numerous areas in the UK where school choice is prohibitive or non-existent, many parents lie about their religious status in order to get their child into the school of their choice.

Just to emphasise that point: the UK government supports and subsidises with public money the discrimination of children based on their religion.

Why Don’t They Stop It?

Plainly, the government believes it has a lot of support from the general public.  In the 2001 census 37.3m people put Christianity, or a Christian denomination, as their religion.  By extrapolation this equates to half the population.  Even without the figures for other religions it would seem that there are a lot of religious people living in the UK.  However, church attendance figures tell a different story.

In 2008, the average weekly attendance figures to church show that approximately only 1.145 million people attended church.  Assuming the number of Christians (as reported on the census) stayed steady, this means that in 2008 only 3.07% of Christians went to church.  It simply does not follow to suggest that there truly are 37.3m Christians in the UK when so few of them go to church.

Affront On Religion?

What the above criticisms seem to be suggesting is that the BHA is attacking religion through the census forms or that they are trying to tell Christians how to observe their faith.  This does not seem to be a fair characterisation.

What the BHA are trying to do is to get people to “fess up” and state whether or not they are religious.  “Religiousness” has not been defined in their press release, so we’ll have to try and work out what they mean.

Being religious means observing the rites of a particular religion and imbuing yourself with them.  To use it in a sentence, we may frequently hear people saying “I’m not a religious person but I believe in God.”  There, in that sentence, is a separation between faith (here defined as believing in a God) and religion (following a specific order, reading scripture etc).

What The BHA Is Really About

The BHA wants people to make that separation.  They want people to be honest with themselves.  People should ask themselves “am I a religious person?” and “do I observe the practices of a particular religion?”  Sure, you may have been baptised or raised in a religious household but what about now?  Do you go to church?  Do you read the bible?  Do you say prayers?  The BHA does not think it unfair to ask these questions of people when they should be asking them about themselves.

The criticisms have said things like “don’t tell me how to practice my religion” and the like.  Well, if you feel that strongly about it then you probably are a religious person.  Religion in some people is deeply entrenched and when someone questions your religion you see that as them questioning you.  If that’s the case then you should probably write “Christianity”.

But to those who don’t go to church, read the bible or pray – you need to ask yourself whether you really consider yourself religious.  Sure, you might have faith – you might even believe in the Christian God.  But are you religious?

The government judges its position on faith schools partly on the public’s opinion.  If it sees that 37.3m are in favour of state funded faith schools then it’ll press ahead.  If it sees those numbers dipping, like the church attendance ones are, then it may change its position.  People have a once-in-a-decade opportunity to make their true position heard and they should take it.


Whenever people question the role of religion in our society we must try and steer away from knee-jerk hyperbole.  We must be calm and listen to what they say.  If, afterwards, you think they are wrong then fine.  But if you walk away or stand there with deaf hears, choosing only to react to what you think they are saying then your actions may have unfortunate consequences.

The institutionalised discrimination may continue in our schools.  Throughout the country children and teenagers may not be able to go to the school that they want.  Parents everywhere may end up lying, simply to accommodate their children.  Children may become indoctrinated in a religion that they never truly believe but must follow simply because they have no other alternative.

Personally, I don’t agree with organised religion and I especially don’t agree with faith schools, whether they are publicly or privately funded.  We are fortunate to have such liberal rights in our country where parents are free to bring up their children in a way that they see fit, where a government-endorsed religion isn’t forced upon them.  I don’t agree with thrusting a religion on a child but I agree with the human right that allows it.  However, we simply cannot allow the indoctrination of children to be state-funded, and part of the fight against that starts with adults being honest about their religious beliefs in next year’s census.

This campaign isn’t an affront on religion, it’s an affront on dishonesty and its awful effects.

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