The workings of Government are very closely interwoven with the gospel story. Tax collectors and soldiers, courts and politics are all there. Did you ever think what the Christmas story would have been like if Caesar Augustus had not decided to hold a census? No journey to Bethlehem and no stable, for a start. In the wider Bible, censuses are regarded with some suspicion, as a symptom of people placing their trust in human strength rather than in God, and in more modern times, they are often regarded as intrusive prying by the state. They are, nonetheless, incredibly valuable tools for understanding society and hence for making sure that government plans bear some resemblance to the real world.

And why am I saying this? Well, there is a census due in the United Kingdom on 27 March 2011, though the advanced publicity has been muted in order to save money, and you may not have heard. The questions asked are not the same throughout the UK, but are shaped to meet the perceived needs of the various countries. You are asked about your knowledge of Gaelic in Stornoway, but not in Southend, and in Northern Ireland, you are asked what your religion is. And of course, that isn’t about whether you are a Muslim or a Hindu, it’s about whether you’re a Protestant or a Catholic.

The government isn’t really interested in which church you go to on Sunday (or whether you go to any church at all), but it does want to know what community you belong to. Unfortunately, I think that this is effectively helping to reinforce the sectarian divide that runs through all of Northern Ireland, from the structure of the Northern Ireland Assembly to the colour of the kerbstones. You may be an agnostic, it seems, but you must be a Catholic or a Protestant agnostic. Many folk, however, would prefer to see Northern Ireland move away from this obsession with the two communities, and would rather not reinforce the sectarian divide.

Interestingly, failing to answer the religion question at all is subject to no legal penalty (unlike the rest of the census questions). If you disregard the provided denominational slots in order to write in a truthful answer of ‘Christian’ or ‘Agnostic’ or whatever, then the census enumeration has to accept such an answer, even though it gives away nothing about your community. Maybe now is the time to be thinking about the best answer to give to the religion question, rather than simply giving the answer that is being sought.

Chris Morris.

Chris Morris used to be a statistician and is now retired. Last year, he did a MPhil in Reconciliation Studies at the Irish School of Ecumenics, and he is currently working on matters to do with fuel poverty.