Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Give me a child until the age of seven...

The census form plopped through our letterbox  a couple of days back, prompting me to mention the banned poster campaign asking non-religious people to tick "no religion"on the form, rather than leaving the voluntary question blank or putting some jokey response like 'Jedi', 'Heavy Metal' or 'Pastafarian' in the question-begging 'what is your religion?' box.

Having filled in my part of the form, it seems that the question of a few non-religious adults failing to record their non-belief is the lesser of two problems with the way this question appears. Rather than worrying unduly that some of the UK's 390,000 Jedi Knights* might actually be non-believers having a laugh, I'm wondering what happens to the responses to this question filled in by parents or guardians on behalf of young children.

Question H1 asks for the names of all the people in the household including children or babies born before 27 March 2011. A person questionnaire should be completed for each person listed in H1, including the children and babies. Each person questionnaire includes the voluntary question 'what is your religion?' Obviously, many of the childrens' person questionnaires will be completed by parents or guardians - all of them, in the case of infants and very young children.

I'm a bit disturbed that there's nothing on the form stating that assertions of religious affiliation on the part of minors will be disregarded. My son is only four and a half. He thinks that Father Christmas is a real person. He can identify the Fat Controller who runs Thomas the Tank Engine's railway, but not the Prime Minister.  He's been exposed to the idea that many people in other countries don't communicate using English words, but doesn't yet fully grasp the concept of different languages or counties. He's heard about death and knows that, as a baby, he came out of mummy's tummy, but these, too, are clearly only hazy ideas in his head at present. In short, he's a perfectly bright pre-schooler who's learning about the world at the sort of rate you'd expect him to.

Yet, if I were so minded, I could complete a box stating that he subscribed to a particular religion, or to none. In other words, tick a box, saying that a four and a half year old has formed some sort of meaningful, settled opinion on questions pertaining to metaphysics, theology, the probable origin of the universe, history, moral philosophy and the interpretation of certain books that some people believe were divinely inspired. As far as I'm concerned it's about as appropriate as polling pre-schoolers on the relative merits of the First Past the Post and Alternative Vote electoral systems, or fixed rate v. tracker mortgages. In short, if you ask a silly question, you'll get a silly answer.

From the census returns it will be easy to separate the responses to this question given by people over the age of sixteen** from those probably supplied on behalf of minors by parents or guardians. I hope that, when making decisions about the role of the established church, or the role of religious organisations in the provision of public services, or faith schools and other contentious matters, only the views of consenting adults will be taken into account, the data for under sixteens being open to contamination by parents or guardians answering on behalf of a child too young to have, or express, an opinion. I'd just like to be certain this has been done with any figures relating to religious affiliation that are used to influence or determine public policy.

When in that House M.P.'s divide,
If they've a brain and cerebellum, too,
They've got to leave that brain outside,
And vote just as their leaders tell 'em to.
But then the prospect of a lot
Of dull M. P.'s in close proximity,
All thinking for themselves, is what
No man can face with equanimity.
Then let's rejoice with loud Fal la--Fal la la!
That Nature always does contrive--Fal lal la!
That every boy and every gal
That's born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative!
Fal lal la!
W S Gilbert Iolanthe

*recorded by the 2001 census

** it's a rather arbitrary dividing line, but since that's how the census divides up the population (it's when questions about educational attainment and work become relevant), I'm happy to accept it as a reasonable age to start asking questions about religion


john b said...

By the by, if you tick the Jedi box, you'll still get recorded as 'no religion' in the stats (see footnote), so no need to worry about the atheist movement being undone by our inherent flippancy.

I'm not sure whether the same's true for Pastafarians, though. Probably best stick with the Force.

john b said...

(thinking about it re Pastafarians - on a handwritten form that's being batch-processed, the likeliest outcome of writing that one in is that the recorded number of weed-smoking Bob-Marley-loving Haile Selassie types will rise substantially...)

Zirbert said...

I recently completed the census form for my family. I answered the religion question honestly and accurately for my wife and myself. When answering it for my young son, I wrote, "He is too young to have made that decision."