Next year's Census has a very subtle edit that may completely change the way Australia sees itself and have drastic consequences for the way government money is spent on welfare and education.
Next year's census has a very subtle edit that may completely change the way Australia sees itself and have drastic consequences for the way government money is spent on welfare and education.
For the first time since the "no religion" option was introduced in 1991, the Australian Bureau of Statistics will place it first on a list of answers to the question "what is the person's religion", and move the "Catholic" option into second position.
As every politician knows, getting to top spot on the ballot paper has a big impact.
In the last census taken in 2011, 5.4 million people picked the "Catholic" box and a total of 13.1 million Australians (61.1 per cent) said their religion was some type of Christianity. Meanwhile 4.7 million (22.2 per cent) Australians picked "no religion", or wrote down agnosticism, atheism, humanism or rationalism. The "no religion" option was in a difficult-to-find location under the "other please specify" box.
But whether or not simply putting a different box up the top of the list will significantly change the Australia's religious composition won't be known until mid 2017 when the 2016 census results come out.
If Christianity did lose its position as the majority religion, this could impact government spending programs such as the school chaplaincy program, according to those advocating for the change.
"Many government services and resources depend on census accuracy, and the figures are used by religious organisations to maintain their status and influence in terms of grants, tax-free services, access to schools for religious instruction, and for their generally privileged position within the community," president of the Rationalist Society of Australia, Meredith Doig, said this week.
Director of the Adelaide-based rationalist organisation Plain Reason, Brian Morris, said rationalist and sceptic groups lobbied the ABS to change the question during the post-2011 census review. They argued it was about accuracy.
Mr Morris expressed concerns the current federal government, which enjoys a high number of Christian cabinet ministers, might now intervene and ask the ABS to reverse the decision. But an ABS spokesman confirmed this week the census forms have already been sent to the printer.
Managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, Lyle Shelton, said the order of answers on the census form was irrelevant, but he did expect to see a continuing decline in the number of Christians.
"Just because someone might tick no religion does not necessarily mean they are an atheist," he said, adding the person could be agnostic.
"I think it is pretty clear that most [Australians] believe in the transcendent or in some form of God and in exploring that side of their humanity."
However, the ACL has previously reminded members about the importance of ticking the right box on the census form. Governments use the ABS data to "plan for services and infrastructure" and "we need to prove the size of the constituency who hold these values," the ACL told members in August 2011.
So is it possible Australia is no longer a Christian nation? When a similar change was introduced into the New Zealand census the country's Christians lost their position as the majority and the number of people recording no religion jumped from 35 per cent to 42 per cent.
And placing the 'no religion' box at the top of the list could swing the results significantly, according to associate professor Roger Wilkins at the University of Melbourne, who produces the annual Household, Income, and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey).
"People are looking for the first option that they think they can fit into….those sorts of people who are not strongly committed one way or the other are particularly prone to being influenced by the order of responses," he told Fairfax Media.
The HILDA questionnaire puts "no religion" as the first option on its form and receives different results to the census. The 2007 HILDA survey about religious affiliation (the last time it was asked) found 66 per cent of respondents were Christian and 27.2 per cent had no religion. But the 2006 census results were 63.9 per cent Christian, 18.7 per cent no religion, and 11.2 per cent did not answer the question.