Trying to make sense of nonsense

Census 2011: A New Hope?

Significance, 4 March 2011

Gareth Jones, via Wikimedia Commons

With the 2011 Census just over three weeks away, attention for one of the largest data collection ventures in world is mounting. How big will London have grown over the last decade? Will the number of single-parent households have increased even further? And maybe even more important: has the (British) Empire overthrown the Jedi?

Last time round, in the 2001 Census, a new question about religion was introduced to the Census, helpfully incorporating some free space so every religion, however small its representation in the UK, could be recorded. In the pre-Facebook and Twitter era, this led to an e-mail campaign (remember those ‘funny’ e-mails your workmates used to forward on a daily basis?) encouraging people to list ‘Jedi’ as their religion “because you love Star Wars… or just to annoy people.” Probably with the encouragement that horrible things would happen to an innocent kitten if you didn’t forward said e-mail instantly to everyone you knew, it managed to convince 390,127 people to actually list Jediism – as it has been known since – as their religion. And the UK was not alone in this: Canada and Australia saw similar figures of Jedi, and in New Zealand a similar campaign managed to make Jediism the country’s second largest religion (though they only made up 1.5% of the entire population).

Fast-forward almost ten years and the rebellion still seems to be alive. But this time another force is fighting back (though it probably won’t be the Sith, as there were only 14 of them last time round, and all of them in Scotland). The British Humanist Society have started The Census Campaign – a campaign to encourage non-religious people to tick ‘No religion’ in the 2011 Census. Armed with a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter account they plan to strike back.

As they point out, it is important that the Census generates accurate figures – especially this one, as it might be the last Census ever held. The figures resulting from the Census are used to legitimise recourse allocation and policy, with the results from the 2001 Census being misused as evidence that faith in general is on the increase. This justified decisions such as the increase of the number of faith schools, public funding and support of ‘interfaith’ and faith-based organisations and keeping the 26 Bishops in the House of Lords as a right among a lot of other things. With the question being phrased “What is your religion?” rather than a more open question like “Are you religious?” people were more likely to list a religion: while 72% of the population were Christians according to the last Census, only 51.2% were according to the British Social Attitudes survey in the same year.

So far, the Census Campaign seems to be overthrowing the Jedi: while almost 5,000 people have joined their Facebook page, Jedi and Time Lords only surmount to a meagre 700 followers. However, a third campaign, encouraging people to list their religion as ‘Other’ and tell the government to Mind Their Own Business has also been on the rise. Besides a complaint against the increasing intrusiveness of the Census, this also seems to be a cheaper option for those wishing to protest arms manufacturer Lockheed Marin carrying out this year’s Census rather than refusing to fill out the survey altogether.

The success of the Census Campaign so far (apart from a poster ban) offers hope for this year’s Census results: there might not be a Return of the Jedi in this Galaxy.


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