Thursday, 17 March 2011

Some thoughts on census campaigns

The 2011 census has started dropping through people's doors. Mine is sitting on top of my stove, waiting for me to get around to it. Whilst I procrastinate, huge amounts of money, time, and energy are being spent campaigning upon this form. It's hard to know what to make of it all.

Firstly, there's the ad campaign encouraging us all to fill the form in. "It's essential that you fill it in and help shape what your community really needs," apparently. However, as the census is compulsory, going to all this effort to persuade people to fill it in seems rather redundant. Either have it be mandatory, and leave it at that, or make it a voluntary undertaking and use the adverts to encourage people to take part.

The other significant census campaign is the one being run by the British Humanist Association. Their tagline - "if you're not religious, for God's sake say so" - pretty much covers it. They want people who have no religious affiliation to tick "no religion" on the form.

The reasoning for this is that "the figures on religion produced by the 2001 census gave a wholly misleading picture of the religiosity of the UK" and "approximately cut the number of non-religious people in half." This was because the question "assum[ed] that all participants held a religious belief" and thus "captured some kind of loose cultural affiliation." 70% of respondents claimed to be Christian, "a far higher percentage than nearly every other significant survey or poll on religious belief in the past decade."

According to the campaign, this matters because "the figures collected were used to justify the following policies;"
  • Increase in the number of faith schools
  • The continuation of collective worship in schools
  • The public funding and support of ‘interfaith’ and faith-based organisations above the support offered to secular organisations
  • Suggestions of an increase in the role of faith in Britain under the coalition government
  • The appointments of government advisors on faith
  • Contracting out public services to religious organisations
  • Keeping the 26 Bishops in the House of Lords as of right
  • Continued high number of hours dedicated to religious broadcasting
  • Specific consultation at government and local level with ‘faith communities’ over and above other groups within society
  • Continued privileges for religious groups in equality law and other legislation
All of which are fair points. I have no more love for the privileging of religion in society than the BHA, and have more than once argued against both the rise in faith schools and the division of the working class into mythical homogenous "communities" under the guise of multiculturalism. There is no need to give the state ammo to justify its policies by claiming a religious affiliation when you have none.

However, it would be naive to presume that state policy in this area can be tackled using reason. Where there is statistical evidence which appears to back up the argument being made, it will be used. But the government has not done the things listed above on the back of an apparent demand from a faith-based majority. It has done so because the "culture wars" that such policies generate are beneficial to the ruling class.

I have explained this phenomenon in more depth in The propaganda function of political correctness. However, this passage from Noam Chomsky provides an apt summation;
Educated and privileged sectors, reasoning along Ricardo’s lines, see little problem in the fact that policies are executed in “technocratic insulation,” unimpeded by public interests and concerns. But the population has to be controlled somehow. For obvious reasons, one cannot appeal to them on grounds of the intended effects of the policies that are being implemented. So other methods are required. There are standard devices. Many can simply be locked up or confined to urban slums. Others can be entrapped by artificial “creation of wants” or other forms of diversion. They can be left in confusion and despair by corporate and other propaganda, a huge industry in the United States for many years. Or they can be mobilized in fear and hatred – of foreigners, of one another – or by religious fundamentalist appeals.

To mobilize popular forces, the corporate world has been compelled to resort to what are called “cultural issues.” But its troops are now prepared to fight the “culture war,” as Pat Buchanan and others refer to the various forms of fanaticism they are seeking to engender. That process has opened a “culture gap,” … The CEOs are generally liberal in cultural attitudes. They don’t want their children to be forced to pray in schools or taught “creation science.” They want their daughters to have opportunities. They not only tend to be pro-choice, but about 60% of CEOs are “adamantly pro-choice, agreeing with the statement that `a woman should be able to get an abortion if she wants one, no matter what the reason’.” They do not want to live in a society and culture dominated by Christian fundamentalists, people who worship the Enola Gay or run around with assault rifles, or who debate subtle points about Beast 666 from the Book of Revelations and listen to Pat Robertson explaining how Presidents from Wilson to Bush may have been pawns of “a tightly knit cabal” run by Freemasons and “European bankers,” who seek “a new order for the human race under the domination of Lucifer.” But these are the sectors they are forced to turn to as a popular base for their assault on democracy and human rights.
The British parallel is not (yet) as explicit as in America. We don't have a Bible Belt, or people who take creation as literal fact forming part of mainstream discourse. But we do still have religious temper tantrums by those who claim Christianity is "under attack," outrage over the "gay agenda," and other such outbursts of irrational nonsense. The British religious right is just as tangible as its US counterpart.

This is why, if the census comes back with a more accurate reading of people's religiosity, it will not mark a roll-back of the above initiatives. It will spark a backlash from those dedicated to organised religious anger. Perhaps accusations of "fixing." There may be concessions to the non-religious majority, and there may not. But all of this will be incorporated into the ongoing culture war narrative with ease, and the antagonisms which exist to distract from more pressing realities will continue to fester.

As for helping non-religious people gain official recognition, this is dealt with by NO2ID in their round-up of "the ten worst lies you will be told in the coming weeks;"
Whether a group is "officially recognised" is a political decision, not the same as individuals being located and categorised. 390,127 people recorded their religion as Jedi in 2001; they have yet to be officially recognised. More seriously, the Board of Deputies says the census underestimates British Jews, precisely because some of that community are nervous of officials knowing where they live.
This is not to say that people shouldn't tick "no religion." If you're going to fill out the census, then I'd advise taking the campaigns advice. But we should be under no illusions, certainly not to the tune of £20,000, that this will make any significant impact upon British politics.