As Britain Conducts Its Census, Religion Question Ruffles Feathers

For the first time since 1851, Britain’s census includes a question on religion this year.

The official bodies of British Jewry welcome the question on faith, but some Jewish thinkers believe the effort to draw a religious map of Britain is seriously flawed.

Sociologist Barry Kosmin, director of the British-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research, warned as far back as 1999 that the question will create “a false picture of homogeneity” because it fails to distinguish among different Christian groups.

“One can picture the pie chart already: a solid block of undifferentiated Christians taking up about 90 percent of the circle, with tiny slivers of exotic, and, for the most part, non-European faiths making up the rest,” he said.

The questionnaire “is not a census for a multicultural Britain,” Kosmin added. “Instead of providing the data needed for building the communal structures appropriate to diverse local populations, it will create a false map of homogeneity over large areas of the U.K. alongside small, ‘exotic’ enclaves.”

Approximately 285,000 Jews live in Britain, out of a total population of some 59 million.

Kosmin also is concerned that there is no “Jewish” option on a question about ethnicity, only on the religious question.

He wondered how many Jews would respond to the religion question at all. The religion question is the only voluntary one on the census, which includes mandatory questions about housing, education, health, transport and work.

“It will be interesting to see, given the current climate, how relaxed people feel about identifying themselves,” Kosmin said, pointing out that Britain’s Jews are nervous about potential anti-Semitism because of Mideast violence.

The Board of Deputies, the umbrella organization that represents most British Jews, is making every effort to ensure that Jews answer the religion question.

Checking the Jewish box “is an easy, anonymous way of aligning with the Jewish community. The community needs your positive response to this unprecedented question,” the board said in a public statement in the runup to this year’s census, which begins next week.

Marlena Schmool, community issues director for the board, agreed with Kosmin’s concerns.

“Ninety-six percent will probably say Christian” when asked their religion, Schmool acknowledged, though she also pointed out that a substantial number of people are likely to say they have no religion.

But representatives of religious groups that the government consulted about the census all favored a religious question, Schmool said.

Because the question is new – and because of competition for space on the census form – the question is not formulated as well as could be, Schmool said. Still, she noted, it is better to have a flawed question on religion than none at all.

The board hopes the census will give a better picture of how many Jews there are in Britain and what their needs are.

“The Jewish community, with other faiths, has much to gain from the information,” the board statement said. “Not only will this help our communal organizations to plan for the future; it will also provide us with an in-depth picture of the community.”

That might be true, said Graham Zellick, vice chancellor of the University of London, but it’s not the government’s business to do research for religious groups.

“It is improper to use the unique power of the State to ascertain information so that these bodies can carry out their own functions,” he said.

Zellick has urged a boycott of the religious question, on civil liberties grounds.

“It is wholly inconsistent with our traditions of freedom and personal privacy to ask a question about a person’s religious beliefs,” he said.

The Office of National Statistics, which is running the census, defended the question, saying that the faith groups they consulted – especially Muslims – were the most eager for a religion question.

Aside from the concerns of some civil liberties campaigners, the office has found little resistance to the question, spokesman David Marder said.

“We’ve found in testing that it was an almost universally accepted question,” he said.

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