Sunday, 6 March 2011

Forthcoming census: make sure you vote

The ten-yearly census that is soon to be undertaken in the United Kingdom is not an election or a referendum on a particular issue. So it should not be a case of "voting" at all. The purpose of the census is to provide a base of data that will be used to inform the planning of services in the years to come.

Everyone should be included in the census - all people, households and overnight visitors.

It is used to help plan and fund services for your community - services like transport, education and health.

Taking part in the census is very important and it's also compulsory. You could face a fine if you don't participate or if you supply false information.

Your personal information is protected by law and will be kept confidential for at least 100 years.

So help tomorrow take shape and be part of the 2011 Census.

But the British Humanist Association are campaigning in order to encourage people to indicate that they have "no religion" in their Census response. Their campaign ran into a bit of bother when the owners of advertising space in railway stations, acting on advice from the Advertising Standards Authority's committee of advertising practice that the advert had the potential to cause widespread and serious offence, refused to carry the advertisements. The report of this on the Guardian website is here. The BHA have ammended their posters in the light of this.

One strand of their campaign is to encourage those who say they are "Christian" out of culture rather than active conviction to say they have "no religion". I think this suggestion is misleading for two reasons.

The first is that what is a cultural identification as Christian represents a pre-disposition towards a level of religious practice at moments of life crisis - such as illness and serious criminal proceedings, to give two possible examples. This might well be expressed to a visiting chaplain as "I do believe, but I don't go to Church" or "I do believe, but I haven't been to Church for ages". And that visit, and the opportunity for the person concerned to express something like this, is of value for their well being at an important moment in their lives. And the service that they have accessed is one that has a religious character. The expression of a cultural adherence to Christianity in the census by those who do have such a cultural affiliation (I am not, by the way, suggesting that someone who genuinely has no religion should express this affiliation) will inform an appropriate provision of such a service.

The second has to do with the phenomenological nature of religion as possessing a cultural dimension. The cultural sense of Christian faith that someone may have cannot be as easily separated from a genuine religious sense as the BHA would have us believe. Though the history of Britain contains a deeply grounded Christian heritage that we receive today, history does not provide a grounds for saying that "Britain is a Christian country" today - in this very limited sense I agree with the BHA. What does justify the assertion of a Christian character of British society is the continued living of a Christian culture by a significant proportion of the people of our nations, and the way in which many of our institutions still express the Christian culture that lay in their historic origin. In other words, it is the continued living of that culture today that justifies a stake for Christian culture in national culture, and not history.

In an appropriately secular society the organs of state will not promote or impose one religious practice over and above any other; they will remain in essence neutral with regard to one religion over and above another, and, indeed, neutral with regard to those of no religious belief as well. But the word "secular" in this context does not mean "non-religious" or "anti-religious". As Pope Benedict XVI indicated when he spoke in Westminster Hall in September 2010:
I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.

Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation. In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters.
So, when it comes to completing your census return, do not hesitate to indicate your religion! Make your vote (?) count!

1 comment:

Francis said...

Apparently some pranksters are writing 'Jedi' as their religion.