BBC campaigns to increase numbers ticking’No Religion’ in 2011 Census

In the week running up to census day on Sunday 27th March the BBC website has run two overblown stories obviously designed to encourage the number of people ticking ‘No Religion’ in the 2011 census return. This campaign by the BBC coincides with the British Humanist Society’s hysterical campaign to increase the ‘No Religion’ response after the last census revealed that 75% of UK citizens claimed to be Christians.

Yesterday the BBC website ran the post ‘Two-thirds of Britons not religious, suggests survey’. This grossly exaggerated claim was made by – surprise, surprise – the British Humanist Society after conducting an on-line poll!!! Not a random telephone or street poll, but an on-line poll. That wasn’t self-selecting then! And this on-line poll only canvassed 1,900 respondents! What a ludicrously flimsy survey on which to base the claim that two-thirds of British are non-religious. Obviously the BBC doesn’t care just so long that they have a story to give prominence to the BHS campaign.

Today we have a new census story on the BBC website, ‘ Religion may become extinct in nine nations, study say.’

‘A study using census data from nine countries shows that religion there is set for extinction, say researchers. The study found a steady rise in those claiming no religious affiliation.’

This wild speculation is based on ‘a mathematical model’ that’ attempts to account for the interplay between the number of religious respondents and the social motives behind being one…The team then applied their nonlinear dynamics model, adjusting parameters for the relative social and utilitarian merits of membership of the “non-religious” category.’ Right, that’s simple and easy to measure then!

In fact, towards the end of the report the BBC admit that the claim of  religious extinction is based on a mathematical model and not the real world:

‘”Obviously we don’t really believe this is the network structure of a modern society, where each person is influenced equally by all the other people in society,” he said. However, he told BBC News that he thought it was “a suggestive result”. ”It’s interesting that a fairly simple model captures the data, and if those simple ideas are correct, it suggests where this might be going. ”Obviously much more complicated things are going on with any one individual, but maybe a lot of that averages out.”

The sociologists, and BBC, make the mistake of linking numerical populations with religious vitality. The history of Christianity shows that individuals and small numbers of followers have radical, creative influence on the life and expression of Christian faith.

Protect the Pope comment: It’s obvious that the editorial team of the BBC have decided that in the week running up to census day that they will seek to raise the profile of ticking ‘No Religion’ in the 2011 census. Is it legal or professional for a public body to seek to influence the outcome of a national census?

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-12799801

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-12811197


54 comments to BBC campaigns to increase numbers ticking’No Religion’ in 2011 Census

  • louella

    Could it be that the BBC are actually afraid that the census will actually show a rise in the number of people claiming to be Christian….even if it is in name only?! Hmmmm…..can’t wait to fill out my census form now.

    • Tim

      “Hmmmm…..can’t wait to fill out my census form now.”

      A perfect example of why stories like this are good for census acuracy. Hopefully you are not the only one whom the BBC’s story has motivated to complete the form. If the BBC’s story has any influnce on the census, it will be to motivate people to complete it rather than influnce the results.

    • Karla

      LOL Louella I know right, I was checking the tick was on the right answer to the religion question on my mother’s question. Probably wouldn’t bothered of doing the census if it was not for this.

  • Andrzej

    Will Jedi Knights be included in the census?

  • Tim

    “Not a random telephone or street poll, but an on-line poll. That wasn’t self-selecting then! ”

    These You Gov polls are a bit more complicated than that. The poll is conducted online, but it isn’t like one of those self selecting polls you get on websites. The poll is only carried out on people who are members of a pre-selected YouGov pannel. There may be problems with this poll as there is with any other, but YouGov polls are widely used by lots of organisations are are fairly well respected. In fact the BHA-commissioned poll has a kind of “internal control”, in that it asks the same question as the census (as well as lots of other questions). 60% of people said that they had a religion and 40% said they did not. When we have the census results we can see how well that agrees with those. If it is wildly out then you may be justified in criticising the poll. You could argue that the online nature of the poll improves acuracy over a paper census where a head of household might be tempted to fill in answers for younger members of a family.

    “this on-line poll only canvassed 1,900 respondents! ” that is actually fairly large for a poll. it is comparable to the number of people polled in the run up to elections and those polls are typically have a 5 to 10% margin of error. More respondants don;t neccessarility mean a more acurate poll. It is the qualality of randomisation that is much more important.

    Personally, I don’t think that the BHA should be doing this. I think it is counterproductive, because when the number of christians comes out lower, this will be blamed on the BHA’s campaign rather than any genuine change.

    I don’t want to argue specific numbers, but the poll (see http://www.humanism.org.uk/news/view/771 for full results) does highlight two undeniable facts: 1, answers are very suspectable to the wording of the question asked especially in the area of religion where people have a complex religious identity; 2 many people who tick the Christian box do not qualify as Christians when judged either by observance or by belief in Christ. The census results whatever they are will, “make the mistake of linking numerical populations with religious vitality” and for that reason alone shoudl be taken with a pinch of salt.

    “It’s obvious that the editorial team of the BBC have decided that in the week running up to census day that they will seek to raise the profile of ticking ‘No Religion’ in the 2011 census. Is it legal or professional for a public body to seek to influence the outcome of a national census?”

    It is clear that the BHA commissioned the poll in order to get a press-release and consequnt press coverage. That is how the world works. The Church is of course prefectly free to play the same game. Personally, I am inclined that anything that encourages more people to fill in the census fully and with thought and care is a good thing, whether it be stories like this or Jedi chain emails.

  • Mike2

    “is based on a mathematical model and not the real world:”

    Now where have I heard that before? Oh yes – climate change. All the gloomy predictions about the world’s climate are based on mathematical models and not the real world. And they should be taken with the same pinch of salt as the predictions made by this one. In fact, they should be taken with an even bigger pinch of salt as, as Climategate has shown, many of the leading figures in the Climate Alarmist camp have been shown to have been up to some very dodgy data manipulating.

  • Karla

    The BHS are desperate. If you go to a Catholic website and there is a poll, ”are you religious or not?” I bet the poll results will be that the majority of the percentage will be ‘religious’ because the majority of people visiting that Catholic website are going to be Catholic.

    • Tim

      Karla,

      The poll wasn’t conducted on visitors to the BHA’s website. It was conducted on a panel of people selected by YouGov. Whatever the possible selection error, the fact that you get wildly differing results

      • Karla

        What panel of people?

        • Tim

          according to wikipedia “YouGov’s methodology is to obtain responses from an invited group of Internet users, and then to weight these responses in line with demographic information. It draws these demographically-representative samples from a panel of about 350,000 people in the UK” See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/YouGov for more details and some of the criticisms of their method.

          I have absolutely no idea how good their accurancy is (and surveys on religion do seem especially prone to inacuracy) but they do appear to take some care to aviod bias and their polls are usually pretty good in other areas.

          The key conclusions I draw from the survey – 1, answers are very suspectable to the wording of the question asked especially in the area of religion where people have a complex religious identity; 2 many people who tick the Christian box do not qualify as Christians when judged either by observance or by belief in Christ – would apply even if their samping error was high because they are drawn not from the results themselves (percentage of Christians) but from the fact that the results are startlingly different depending on what questions are asked. The percentage of Christians in the UK can be claimed to be anywhere from about 10 % to about 90% depending on how broadly or narrowly you define the question.

          Both Christians and atheists have plenty of form for manipulatively picking the number that serves their purpose best. that is fine, until the percentage of Christains in the country is used to justify either granting or ending religious righst and privileges when it seems to me that the best way is to aviod the issue altogether and just ask people directly whether they support or oppose a particular policy whether than be expanding church schools or granting gay marriage. If you don;t do that you are making assumptions about members of faith groups that may not actually reflect what the idenviduals think. So it is no use saying “only 8% of people go to church so we don;t need any more church schools” when you could simply ask people “do you want more church schools?”

          • Karla

            I do not understand why somebody would tick the Christian box if they did not feel they were Christian, even if they are non practicing. If a Christian lives in a predominately Muslim country and culture I bet the are not going to tick ‘Muslim’ when it comes to the census.

            I do not believe that a lot of people only tick Christian because they feel culturally Christian, what is culturally Christian in 21st century Britain.

          • Tim

            “I do not understand why somebody would tick the Christian box if they did not feel they were Christian”.

            Karla, I do not understand it either. But just because we don’t understand it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. There is plenty of evidence (not just from the English Census, but from the scottish census which asks a two-part religion question and from the regular Bristish Social Attitude survey), that a large number of people in the UK regard themselves as Christian but do not worship the Christian God, do not believe the minimum neccessary about Christ (that he existed, was resurected etc), do not regard themselves “as religeous”, do not belong to a church and do not think that religion is important in either their life or politics.

            I suspect that both you and I would struggle to think of those people as Christians, but they are large in number (maybe about half the UK population).

            The BHA campaign says that if you are genuinely Christian you should tick the Christian box, but if you are not religious, don’t believe in Christ and don’t want Christian leaders speaking for you then you should think about ticking the no religion box.

            “I do not believe that a lot of people only tick Christian because they feel culturally Christian” Why do they tick the Christian box then? because there is plenty of evidence that it isn;t because they are active-Christians or because they believe in Christ’s redemption or meet some other genuine qualification requirement.

            You ask what being a “cultural Christian” means in the 21st century. I don’t think it means very much to be honest, but I suppose some people will see it as meaning nomore than being a native white British person or celebrating Christmas or perhaps somepeople will see it in negative terms as merely “not Muslim”. As a Catholic you have to remember that whereas you are a member of a church that actually believes in something, it is probably easier for cultural Christians to identify with the C of E which sometimes doesn’t actually believe in very much.

          • Karla

            I question if that is 50% of the population.

            I think people tick what they feel they are. I do not think people want to be told by the BHS what to tick. If Pope Benedict or the Archbishop of Cantebury came out with a campaign ‘Tick Christian in the census if you are a Christian’ it would be seen as desperate.

            Census polls are not good because they can not show intensity of belief.

      • Karla

        2/3 of 61 million is 40 million. Whenever I see an online poll it says ‘non scientific’ because it is not accurate, it can be tampered with.

  • Karla

    ‘No Religion’ Census Campaign Is Unnecessary, Says U.K. Think Tank

    Theology think tank Theos has criticized a new humanist advertising campaign telling people to tick “no religion” on the census form, saying it is “misconceived” and “unnecessary.”

    The think tank said people had “ample opportunity” to deny any religious affiliation if they wanted to, and that humanist claims that respondents are “funnelled … into giving a religious response” are “simply untrue.”

    Commenting on the campaign, Paul Bickley, senior researcher at Theos, said the humanists were doing a good job of keeping religion in the news but added that there was “clearly a mistake” with this campaign.

    “The campaign grossly exaggerates the extent to which the religious affiliation results of the 2001 census have shaped government policy or influenced spending decisions,” he said. “In any case, the British people are quite capable of judging for themselves what box they should tick. They don’t need to be told.”

    “If the Archbishop of Canterbury were to launch a campaign pleading for people to tick the Christian box, it would be rightly ridiculed as a sign of desperation,” he added.

    “I suspect that this is what may happen with this campaign, too.”

    http://www.christianpost.com/news/no-religion-census-campaign-is-unnecessary-says-uk-think-tank-49286/

  • Karla

    When anybody says religion is going to go extinct, never listen. Voltaire said religion would be gone in 100 years. Religion is not gone, and Voltaire’s home is owned by the French Bible society.

    The author interviewed by the BBC said the results were mearly suggestive.

    Why are physicists looking at religious census data?

    As somebody on the Catholic forum I go on pointed out Since when does belief follow math?

    If eight people believe on Monday, and six on Tuesday, it does not follow that four will believe on Wednesday.

    • Tim

      “If eight people believe on Monday, and six on Tuesday, it does not follow that four will believe on Wednesday.”

      Absolutely correct Karla, That would be “linear dynamics” the whole point of the paper was that it is more complicated than that which is why they took a non-linear dynamics approach.

      Of course noone can predict the future, although it is not unreasonable to think that the number of believers tomorrow will be influenced by the number of believers today.

      personally, I think that both belief and doubt are part of being human which means that although numbers will fluctuate there will always be belivers and there will always be disbelievers.

      • Karla

        Church Mouse sees some problems with this study:

        The first problem is that the 100 years of census data analysed in this study is not adequate for the task at hand. Since religious belief has existed in virtually all societies since the dawn of humanity, the past 50 years can barely be considered statistically significant.

        In addition, the nine countries included in the model were specifically pre-selected as countries likely to fit in with the expected results (i.e. those already known to be increasingly secularising). It is noticable that they are all developed countries where the dominant religion is Christianity. So it seems we have the twin problems of inadequate data which has been pre-selected to fit the model.

        The truth of the history of Christianity is that there have been seasons when the Church has seemed in terminal decline, followed by seasons of revival. When we expand our horizons a little, we see that we are currently experiencing a time of unprecedented growth in worldwide Christianity.

        http://churchmousepublishing.blogspot.com/2011/03/mathematicians-predict-religion-will.html

        • Tim

          “The truth of the history of Christianity is that there have been seasons when the Church has seemed in terminal decline, followed by seasons of revival. ”

          absoultely true and these things can happen simultaneously in different places or even simultaneously in the same place. You could argue that in the UK at the moment Christianity as a mass movement and a defualt option is dying whilst at the same time it is reviving as a more extreme form with stronger beliefs but held by fewer people. All interesting stuff and absoultely no reason why anyone (physicists included) can’t try their hand at investigating it.

    • “Why are physicists looking at religious census data?”

      Since you ask … physicist study all kinds of such data to study such things as pertubation theory as it is not possible to study truly “random” events via computer models as a computer cannot create a truly random number. Not even ERNIE. He’s just a tin box with a man inside.

      Perturbation theory comprises mathematical methods that are used to find an approximate solution to a problem which cannot be solved exactly, by starting from the exact solution of a related problem. There are many equations which mathematicians are yet to solve… where the answers can be approximated by real world applications.

      Building a super-large random behaviour machine would be prohibitatively expensive so physicists often examine large masses of data in the public domain that have been aquired for other purposes in order to study mathematical patterns. The answers derived can have a wide variety of commercial applications.

      For example I once wrote a paper on
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Percolation_theory
      which is very important in oil extraction and can be studied through all kinds of real world statistical data ….

      You many not have heard of Henri Poincaré
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henri_Poincar%C3%A9
      but you’ve probably heard of his “butterful effect theory”
      “Edward Lorenz was using a numerical computer model to rerun a weather prediction, when, as a shortcut on a number in the sequence, he entered the decimal .506 instead of entering the full .506127 the computer would hold. The result was a completely different weather scenario”
      which has been used to explain why the Met Office cant predict the weather very well…
      or Feynman diagrams
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feynman_diagrams
      which are used in quantum mechanics

      • Pedro

        “a computer cannot create a truly random number.”

        Although of course there are lots of cards you can buy that use resistor noise, metastable transistors, or photon reflection/absorption to generate random numbers.

  • SpeSalvi23

    At the end it’s all meaningless. Because we all know the agenda of those media outlets. I’m hopelessly forced to pay a monthly fee to our public broadcast stations who are not generally anti-Christian, but very much anti-Catholic.

    All we can do is live according to our faith – openly lived and showcased faith is the best way do demonstrate resilience, determination and patience.

    It’s clearly known that a society based on materialism, sex and short term thrill is going to reject the moral impact of religion, and hence, religion in total.
    Let’s see how long the current period of value-less materialism is going to last.

  • Click on the title of my Blog post to read what the Vatican is saying about intensifying persecution against those who oppose homosexuality.

    http://lasalettejourney.blogspot.com/2011/03/ive-been-warning-about-this-for-some.html

  • Jola

    In this age (and continent) of open hostility to religion (National Secular Society Embarrasses Dutch MEP?) perhaps God does need a ‘rottweiler’… Or, more precisely, someone not afraid to stand up fow what millions of people still hold dear.

    • Tim

      I don;t think Sophie in t’Veld is the least bit embarassed with her award. She has been an honory associate of the NSS for many years and is an outspoken secularist. I expect that she is proud of the recognition she received.

  • Earlier in the day the BBC were running the story about using non-linear dynamics to predict religions decline in some countries as “Physics predicts end of Religion” – a highly misleading title link. Of course, ironically in another article today, they point out religion in Russia is growing since the collapse of atheism although dressed up in an attack on abusing children by baptising them in freezing water.

    The other scandal about the census is that No Religion is the first option. The humanists know how to get their own way.

    • Tim

      “The other scandal about the census is that No Religion is the first option. The humanists know how to get their own way.”

      not at all. The BHA objected to the current question “what is your religion?” on the grounds that it presuposed a religion (they suggested that the neutral option would be “which of the following best describes you…”). They asked for the question to be made into a two part question (as it is in Scotland), asking first “do you have a religion?” and than asking “if yes, what is it”.

      They most certainly didn’t get their own way on this.

      • The BHA wanted to frame the question in a way that would give them the most positive responses from their point of view. This was never going to happen, because the question on religion is probably as much about general identity than about genuine belief and has nothing to do with faith schools or Bishops in the House of Lords. They got the next best thing, which was to put No Religion as the first option which will encourage people to tick it – quite astonishing given that a) 70% of people described themselves as Christians in the last census using the same question, and hence it would have made sense to have it as the first option (or in alphabetical order) and b)we have an established state church.

        • Tim

          “This was never going to happen, because the question on religion is probably as much about general identity than about genuine belief and has nothing to do with faith schools or Bishops in the House of Lords.”

          I wouldn’t be so sure. See http://www.humanism.org.uk/_uploads/documents/Howthecensusisused.pdf for a dosier of how the census data has previously been used. It does seem to have been used in the past as an indicator or more than general identity.

          • Karla

            The BHS has agenda, try and lower the amount of people saying they are Christian on the census and we can get rid of faith schools.

            That will not happen. It will not happen even if only 10% of Britons say they are Christian. Faith schools are here to stay.

          • Tim

            “The BHS has agenda, try and lower the amount of people saying they are Christian on the census and we can get rid of faith schools.”

            absolutely that is (one of) their adgendas. it is one which they are open about

            “That will not happen. It will not happen even if only 10% of Britons say they are Christian.” why not?

          • Karla

            Because faith state schools have better GCSE/A Level results than a lot of private schools.

          • Tim

            The evidence for that is rather weak. Voluntary Controlled schools on average do no better, Voluntary Controlled schools do slightly better. LSE has done lots of research on this. There might be lots of reasons for this difference, but the most obvious would be that VA schools run their own admissions and VC schools do not. It seems that VA schools take on average better pupils as a result. they certainly have a lower percentage of kids on free school meals.

          • Tim, all the link you provided shows is that politicians are misusing statistics to defend policies they want to implement anyway. It is indeed unfortunate they are using the Census figures in this way, but it does none of these prove the British Humanist Associations point and in fact there is a glaring counterexample: if Census 2001 was believed to have shown 70% have a genuine religious belief, how did one of the darlings of the BHA, Dr Evan Harris, who is indeed mentioned at one point in this report, manage to get the blasphemy laws abolished in the intervening period? Why were the census figures not used as an excuse to stop this?

          • Karla

            Anglican, Catholic and Jewish Faith based primary schools dominate the league tables even though faith based primary school only count for 1 in 3 of schools. 61% of the best schools in the 2010 league tables were faith schools. That is not weak evidence.

            The accusation that faith schools only do better because they socially select their pupils is not true. Faith schools tend to to better in whatever area they are in.

  • EMW

    “If the BBC’s story has any influnce on the census, it will be to motivate people to complete it rather than influence the results”

    My form says completion is required by law!

    • Tim

      yes you are right, but do you really think that they throw everyone who doesn’t complete the form in jail? it is the law but it isn’t very enforceable. The ONS admitted in 2001 that the jedi census phenomonon helped improve the census by getting more people to fill in the form (especially students who are not very good at filling it it)

      see http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=297

      • EMW

        In my area they are knocking on doors.

        • EMW

          That is intended to catch those who simply cant be bothered. But there will obviously be some who slip through the net. It wont account for those who dont want to “exist”, or those who are here illegally, and others.

          • Tim

            There will also be some who haven’t been sent a form and others who have not seen a form because it has been filled in, perhaps inacurately, by a member of their family or a flatmate.

  • Karla

    When will the results of the 2011 census be out?

    • Tim

      If 2001 is anything to go by, the headline results will be released by the ONS within a few weeks (in press releases etc) so will will know the total population estimates, the average number of children, the percentage muslims etc, but it might take almost a year for the full data sets to be anoynised and put up on the ONS website. Only then will we be able to answer more complex questions like in which town are there the most budhists over 60 who walk to work and rent a 3 bedroom house with their same-sex partner.
      The full answers without the anoymisation will be released on 27 March 2111.

  • sam

    Karla if you look at where the faith schools are based they are mainly middle class areas thus they tend to do better, it was found that in the same areas with faith schools and state schools for example if the pupils lived in a similar area or next door, there was found to be little to no difference in achievement. I believe the two biggest areas for faith schools are oxford and cambridge which says everything.

    • Karla

      Faith schools tend to do better in whatever area they are in. The faith school I went to for some years was in a deprived area you could say, and that school in 2009 is in the top 50 in the league tables.

    • Karla

      You mean most faith schools are in Oxford and Cambridge? Any evidence to support that?

      I bet if you look at the results for the faith schools in deprived areas, most will have better results than non faith schools in the same area.

      • Tim

        “I bet if you look at the results for the faith schools in deprived areas, most will have better results than non faith schools in the same area”

        absolutely true. In an area like Cambridge or Bath (where I live) the difference is not very strong (in Bath we have some very good faith school primaries, but an average Catholic secondary and a below average Anglican secondary, along with three outstanding and one average non-demoninational school) and because all the schools are reasonably good anyway you could argue that it doesn;t matter.

        In poorer areas it tends to be the faith schools that attract the kids with parents who are more concerned about their schildrens aducation (there may be selection by the school, but there is also selection by the parents – better parents are more likely to apply to a faith school, less concerned parents will let the council allocta etheir kids to the nearest school)

        Anyway individual experiences of me or Karla don;t prove anything. There is a summary of the eveidence produced by teh Accord coalition (of secularists, humanists and religious organisations which makes interesting reading at http://accordcoalition.org.uk/evidence-on-faith-schools/

  • Karla

    They had a debate on the The Big Questions, ‘Should you only tick the box if you go to Church’ regarding the census, and this guy Paul Bickley from Theos made it clear. There are three things to measure: 1. Practice. 2. Belief. 3. Affiliation. The census clearly mentions affiliation, if you think it means anything else you have not read te question properly. Affiliation means ‘I am a Christian.’ It might relate to occasional practice, but it is about cultural identity. Importantly, the question was not asked to find out the number of Christians, but to find out the numer of Jews, Sikhs and other religious minoirities.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0101rt8

  • Tim

    @Louis
    “Tim, all the link you provided shows is that politicians are misusing statistics to defend policies they want to implement anyway.”

    absolutetly agree. All the BHA is saying is that if you tick the Christian box you need to be aware that this is what policicians will do.

    “It is indeed unfortunate they are using the Census figures in this way, but it does none of these prove the British Humanist Associations point and in fact there is a glaring counterexample: if Census 2001 was believed to have shown 70% have a genuine religious belief, how did one of the darlings of the BHA, Dr Evan Harris, who is indeed mentioned at one point in this report, manage to get the blasphemy laws abolished in the intervening period? Why were the census figures not used as an excuse to stop this?”

    Well it is a logical fallacy to use one exception to prove a rule. The blasphemy repeal was also complicated by the fact that the law was probbaly illegal under the human righst act and the C of E generally aupported the repeal because they had been promised a replacement in the form of the religious hatred laws.

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