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Friday, February 4, 2011

Atheists call on like-minded to declare lack of religion in census

Leesha McKenny
February 5, 2011

The godless will soon be asked to stand up and be counted in Sydney's Bible Belt, part of a campaign to counter the influence of religion on politics. The Atheist Foundation of Australia has begun a campaign calling on those whose faith has lapsed to mark ''no religion'' on their census forms this year - with West Pennant Hills slated to host a billboard before August 9. The 8.3 metre by 2.2 metre sign on Pennant Hills Road and another in Armidale will make a month-long appearance from June 20. Despite the location, the foundation's president, David Nicholls, said the campaign did not intend to attack religion, but to counter the extent to which Australia was unduly claimed as a Christian country in decision-making and funding.

"Unfortunately, because of the wording, many people will select the religion of their baptism or initiation at youth, despite not being a religious person at all," he said.

Every census since 1911 has included a question on religion, with the 1971 census the first to introduce ''no religion'' as an option. Mr Nicholls said the group had long lobbied the Australian Bureau of Statistics to change what it considered a leading question, to no effect. The head of the ABS Census Program, Paul Lowe, said people who were uncomfortable with the question were free to leave it blank. "Even though the question is optional, approximately 90 per cent of people chose to provide a response in the 2006 census, with 18.7 per cent indicating they had no religion,'' he said. But the atheists have found an unlikely supporter. Ruth Powell, the director of the National Church Life Survey, said religious participation and religious identity were two important social measures - ideally considered separately with a second census question. ''It would be really useful to actually identify those who are committed and active and involved [church] attenders, but not at the cost of the current question,'' Dr Powell said. The 20-year-old church survey, conducted in every census year, found more people attended Pentecostal churches than identified themselves as such in the census. It was the reverse with Anglicans. Malcolm Williams, the director of Outreach Media, a Sydney-based Christian media organisation, did not think Christians would be too bothered by the atheists' campaign. But some were occasionally bothered by the posters his organisation distributed to 100 churches around the country, such as one reading: ''Don't let Christians put you off Jesus.'' ''Some Christians were quite indignant, while lots of people who aren't churchgoers were knocking on church doors saying 'thank you','' Mr Williams said.

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