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The BBC's Alex Kirby
"Just how many people owe their allegiance to any one religion is still a matter for guesswork"
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Wednesday, 26 January, 2000, 19:57 GMT
Census debate over religion

pope Faith and the census - mixed reaction

By BBC News Online's Alex Kirby

The prospect of a question on religion in the UK 2001 national census has drawn a positive response from different faiths - but criticism from a secular group.

A private member's bill paving the way for such a question has its second reading in the House of Lords on 27 January.

The bill applies only to England and Wales. The question is already asked in Northern Ireland, and in Scotland it is a devolved issue.

The only time a religious question has been asked was in the 1851 census. But many religious groups believe it is now time to reintroduce the practice.

If the bill goes through Parliament, the question will ask those filling in the census form to state their religion by ticking one choice from a list.


The list reads: "None, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jewish". Those who tick none of these are asked to indicate their religion by writing it in.

The Church of England and the Catholic Church both said they welcomed the proposed inclusion of the question.

pupils Pupils at the UK's first Sikh school
Churches Together in England, an inter-denominational body representing most mainstream Christian groups, said it was "very enthusiastic".

CTE's general secretary, the Rev Bill Snelson, told BBC News Online: "We are positive about this, although we would have preferred a question which distinguished between the different Christian churches.

"That would have helped to plan denominational facilities like schools and hospices.

Anecdotal evidence

"But there is now proof that religious affiliation and belief do affect people's social behaviour, for example in areas like morbidity rates, and it's important for the census to recognise that.

"It will also help to ensure there is proper provision for different groups. At the moment all the evidence is anecdotal, and it shouldn't be."

The Muslim Council of Britain echoed that point, saying it had "hard facts" to show that its community's needs were not being properly met.

temple The Hindu temple in north west London
"There is a social time bomb ticking away unless something is done now for the more equitable allocation of public services and better planning on matters such as community relations, health care, education, employment and housing."

But Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society expressed alarm at the prospect of the census question.

He told BBC News Online: "We are concerned at the possibility of much special provision to different communities on religious grounds. And we think the question may produce an inflated idea of the numbers of religious adherents.

"When people go to hospital, they often say they are Church of England, almost without thinking. The same thing could happen here."

The Society wants any religious question to be optional, though it will in fact be compulsory to answer it.

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05 Mar 99 |  UK
Census spotlights religion

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