Not so strange bedfellows

Earlier this week, Atheist Ireland launched a campaign called Be Honest in the Census, asking people not to tick the religion of their childhood in April’s Census 2011. Furthermore, they state that:

Atheist Ireland wants to see accurate answers to the question on religion.

And asks people completing the Census form this year:

If you still believe in God but you are no longer truly a Roman Catholic, please say so. If you are an atheist or agnostic or humanist and you have no religion, please tick the ‘No Religion’ box.

Being as honest as you can be in something like a Census is worthwhile, if the Census was a ‘neutral’ political process. It isn’t.  According to the CSO, the Census “allows us to find out things such as how people get to work, what sort of accommodation we live in, how many people are in each occupation group and lots more.” The state needs to know these facts to retain some level of control over its population.  The development of Censuses across Europe and the world in the early 20th century tells an interesting story about state formation and legitimacy. Ireland is one of the countries in the world with the oldest repeatable Census process because it was an integral part of Britian’s colonial power. Know where people live and you can manage their domination.

So when David Quinn tweeted that Atheist Ireland might have a point, it got me thinking. Why would Atheist Ireland and David Quinn agree that accurate answers to the question on religion are desirable? In their different ways, AI and David Quinn want definition; they want clarity on the religious question. According to this logic, the fewer people that tick ‘Roman Catholic’ in April the easier it will be to identify respective constituencies. David will be able to use the phrase ‘the Roman Catholic community’ with more surety in his battle against ‘the secular’. AI (you’ve got to love that acronym) will be able to speak more effectively for their vision of a ” fair future based on accurate statistics”. This kind of Victorian bluebook-ism confuses the representation of ‘reality on the ground’ for fairness.

I work a lot with the CSO data on religion and other social and economic variables. I take full advantage of the public purse paying for this data collection for private sector research, as do many others. Census data is claimed to inform policy and help devise appropriate measures for land planning and the likes. Atheist Ireland knows this, being an organisation committed to a “building a rational, ethical and secular society.” In the pursuit of this rationality, they urge:

If you’re not truly a Roman Catholic, we’re asking you to not tick box number 1, which says ‘Roman Catholic’.

They state that the Census is not a survey of theological beliefs but a measure “to help plan the allocation of State services and other policies.” If only it were true: I’m sure my homies over at Ireland After NAMA (among many others) could tell us how it does not. But it is AI’s use of the word ‘truly’ that I want to focus on here. There are no true Catholics in Ireland in the same way as there are no true Irish people. Reflection upon being one would require a process of relational and dialogical catechesis that has not taken place. Those ticking a box in the Census are undergoing two very different processes: firstly, a thought process about who they are, some sense of identity and, secondly a representation of that identity to official others. Neither process is well defined but is certainly definably political. Politics is why we don’t ask about income in the Census. Politics is why the CSO asked about volunteering activity in 2006: measuring Bertie’s active citizens.

The Census is not a neutral instrument of politics, although an instrument of politics it certainly is. The ‘facts’ that emerge from the Census results tell us all something but, in my business, you’ve got to know the pliability of these facts. 87% of the population of Ireland claim they are Catholic and about 46% of these people attend Mass once per week or more often (ESS, 2010). Are the 41% who do not attend Mass weekly true Catholics? For that matter are the 46% who do? I can appreciate where Atheist Ireland are coming from in this campaign but they may as well be asking people to be truthful about what 15 minute period they leave their house for work, as the CSO do. It will make precious little difference to the allocation of services. That’s a far more contingent, messy business than ticking a box.

If the Irish state began to allocate educational resources on the basis of Census 2006 data, large swathes of Dublin should probably be prepared to see schools close in the next few years, as this true map below demonstrates with irrefutable and uncontroversial true facts.


8 thoughts on “Not so strange bedfellows

    1. Hundreds more where they came from. Maps lie, it is only a question of how much tolerance there is for the lie.

  1. “If the Irish state began to allocate educational resources on the basis of Census 2006 data, large swathes of Dublin should probably be prepared to see schools close in the next few years”

    You don’t reference the data to back up this statement, and you also don’t seem to be sure, as you say ‘probably’, but if we ignore that for the moment, would it not be more true to say that large swathes of Dublin should see Catholic schools receive less funding from the government? Would that money go to Educate Together and secular schools instead (relative to overall student numbers)?

    1. I am making the point that data can and does get used to make lots of different political points, many of which are unsourced. Sort of like those “54% of women prefer their partner to feed them M&Ms” surveys you hear on the wireless.

      The determination of patrons is a complicated business transected by class, local politics and the centralising tendencies of the Department. I’m not advocating one position you present over another, privately of professionally.

  2. Why does the State need to know a person’s religion anyway? I say, don’t answer the question. Leave the box blank.

    1. A valid question. In the same way, you could ask why does the State need to know how many children live in the household?

  3. I’m a Roman Catholic and I’m an atheist. Is there a box for that or should I jot down an accurate description of my beliefs on the back of the form?

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