Atheists and agnostics, stand up and be counted in the 2011 Census!  Currently, most of us are not.

January 8, 2010

In 2001 the Canadian government had its last major census which, among other questions, polled our citizens on their religion.  This is precisely what they asked

22. What is this person’s religion?
Indicate a specific denomination or religion even if this person is not currently a practising member of that group. For example, Roman Catholic, Ukrainian Catholic, United Church, Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Islam, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, etc.
Specify one denomination or religion only __________
No religion ________

Does anything here bother you?  "Indicate a specific denomination or religion even if this person is not currently a practising member of that group. " So essentially the government seems to wish to label any lapsed and unbelieving catholic, muslim, jew, etc, with those observant or believing members of that tradition.  The effect this had was to drown out the numbers of atheists and agnostics in our country. 

When decision makers contemplate increasing public funding of religious schools, keeping God in our constitution or anthem, giving preference to the religious in charity law and in special accomodations, continuing to call on a deity to bless parliament or the legislatures, or keeping the offence of "blasphemous libel" in the criminal code of Canada, they desperately need an accurate assessment of just how many non-believers exist and are being marginalized by such practices.  Yet they don't get that. 

Many of us have been lobbying the Census consultation team with this concern.  We all get the same carbon copy response from Dale Johnston (in case it's useful to you this is Mr. Johnston's full contact info: Dale Johnston, Senior Adviser / Conseillère principale, Census Communications / Communications du Recensement, tel :(613) 951-0444, fax : (613) 951-0930, ).

Feedback from extensive consultations leading up to the 2011 Census indicates that the religion question in its current format provides the information required to meet the data needs of many users.  The question is open-ended and asks "What is this person’s religion?" Respondents can write in the box the name of a denomination or religious affiliation that best applies to them, including atheist or agnostic. They can also check the response for no religion.  In the 2001 Census, 17,810 individuals indicated that they were agnostic while 18,605 said atheist. Attached is a link to the table with the 2001 information.

That comes out to  36,415 atheists and agnotics in Canada in 2001, or 0.117% of the population.   Now does that sound remotely correct?  Not according to Phil Zuckerman, an expert in the sociology of religion at Pitzer College.  In his article " Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns ," from the Cambridge Companion to Atheism, (edited by Michael Martin, University of Cambridge Press, 2007), he writes:

... Guth and Fraser (2001) found that 28% of Canadians “show no evidence of religious salience or activity.” According to Norris and Inglehart (2004), 22% of those in Canada do not believe in God. According to Bibby (2002), when asked “Do you believe that God exists?” 6% of Canadians answered “No, I definitely do not” and another 13% answered, “No, I don’t think so,” for a total of 19% being classified as either atheist or agnostic. According to Gallup and Lindsay (1999:121), 30% of Canadians do not believe in God or a “Higher Power.”

This is damning.  Sociologist based out of Lethbridge, Alberta,  Reginald Bibby, who is no friend to atheists who enjoys railing about the negative effects of the rise of atheism on our society, nevertheless himself still concludes - in 2002 a mere year after the census - that there are 19% atheists and agnostics in Canada.  Gallup and Lindsay go further. 

Though more removed in time, in May 2008 the Canadian Press commissed Harris Decima to conduct a poll which found that " Many Canadians don't believe in a god: poll ", specifically, "23 per cent said they did not believe in any god..." and excitingly for the future of our country, "More than one in three (36 per cent) of those under the age of 25 said they did not believe in any god."

In summary, if Mr. Johnston, the Senior Adviser advising the Census group on how to get the best information to our decision makers, believes that a whopping 0.117% of respondents indicating atheism and agnostic means this Census is getting accurate data, we have a problem. That number if off by a factor of over 150!

Note that 16% of respondents in 2001 indicated "no religion."  Now not only does that number not fully account for what we would have expected even if every atheist and agnostic checked that box, but that category fails to differentiate between non-believers and those who are spiritual or subscribe to new age beliefs but are not religious, and those who are deists, both of which are large categories.  The Census question must be changed.  CFI is recommending the following: 

22. What is this person’s religion / worldview?
For example, atheist, agnostic, Roman Catholic, Ukrainian Catholic, United Church, Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Islam, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, etc.
Specify one religion or worldview only __________

This is an easy change, but it would have a huge effect.  Please help us.  If this question remains in its current flawed form, it will be another 10 years before we have a chance to improve it.

What can you do? Contact Statistics Canada and voice your concern. Ask to be counted as an atheist or agnostic on the 2011 Census.

Census consultation on the web:

Contact the Census consultation team:


Mailing address: 
Census Consultation Team
Census Marketing
Statistics Canada
4th Floor, Jean Talon Building
170 Tunney's Pasture Driveway
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0T6

613-951-4210 (Attention: Census Marketing)

For more information, contact Kevin Smith, Board of Directors, Centre for Inquiry Canada, (416) 312-7719 or


#1 asanta on Friday January 08, 2010 at 11:12am

I don’t remember if the American census has a religion question. I will have to be sure to write in ‘atheist’ if it is not presented as a choice.

#2 John Manuel (Guest) on Friday January 08, 2010 at 12:15pm

I’m not convinced that the belief in god is a useful measure of religiosity or spitituality.  Chinese Buddhists, for example, would say they do not believe in god, but they do believe in the spirit world, pary for guidance from Buddha, for the departed spirits of their relatives, etc.

We need a narrower question than just the belief in god.  I would like to know that, of course, but I would like to know how many Canadians deny the existence of anything beyond the temporal.  How many would assert they do not believe in afterlife, for example, or any kind of supernatural beings, departed spirits, ghosts, gods, saints.  How many would declare absolutely that there is nothing to pray to.

Let’s hope we can get a small bank of some meaningful questions on the next census.

#3 John Perkins (Guest) on Friday January 08, 2010 at 1:20pm

The village in which I live, Nakusp, has a large population of atheists and agnostics. I know this because I donated a number of books and DVDs on atheism to Nakusp Public Library - each book was inscribed “Donated John Perkins”. Over the years since my donations I have had so many ‘phone calls expressing appreciation for the books and DVDs, that I know that the number of atheists and agnostics in Nakusp is very high in relation to the population of 1500.

#4 Tas (Guest) on Friday January 08, 2010 at 1:33pm

I’m an agnostic and I actually prefer the way the question is already because it gives me the option of saying ‘no religion’. I don’t consider Aethism or agnosticism as religions. It is precisely the fact that its ‘not a religion’ that I’m an agnostic. Plus, I don’t think religion and worldview are interchangeable terms so putting them in the CFI recommended question to the StatsCan doesn’t make sense to me.

Just my two cents.

#5 Anja (Guest) on Friday January 08, 2010 at 2:52pm

They tried the same in Great Britain in 2001 and a rather high percentage stated their religion as “Jedi”. This resulted in over 700000 people doing the same in Australia.

Don’t be upset, just beat the system….

#6 John Perkins (Guest) on Friday January 08, 2010 at 2:55pm

I agree with the comment following mine - #4 Tas -.
Atheism and agnosticism are definitely NOT religions.
They are, however, worldviews and the CFI recommended question could be construed as covering that.

#7 DebGod on Friday January 08, 2010 at 3:58pm

@asanta, U.S. Census bureau doesn’t collect religion data anymore, but there’s a research team at Trnity College that’s done a fantastic post-census American Religous Identification Survey (ARIS).  See:

For recent ARIS findings:

#8 jack Hallam (Guest) on Friday January 08, 2010 at 10:40pm

Ourr small stamp club of five septugenarians and octogeneriams has four atheists and one member of our very liberal United Church which had a special service to welcome gays and lesbians. Our award winning weekly Gulf Islands Driftwood seldom publishes anything critical of organized religion. They declined to publish a letter I sent very critical of the previous pope whose “sins” are equalled by Ratzinger aka Benedict the 16th

#9 Kathy Orlinsky on Saturday January 09, 2010 at 7:57pm

I think having a no religion option below the list or having atheism within the list of choices would both be fine.  The problem is this statement:

Indicate a specific denomination or religion even if this person is not currently a practising member of that group.


What if this same criteria was applied to race? 

“What is this person’s race?
Indicate a specific race even if this person denies that they are a member of that group.”

OK, it’s not exactly the same since a person can say they once were a catholic but aren’t anymore, but they can’t say they were once hispanic.  But the point is, why ask someone about their religious views if you don’t accept what they say.

#10 Tina Simpson (Guest) on Sunday January 10, 2010 at 2:56pm

A real non-believer would answer a religion question on a census in a way that indicates their true affiliation. I believe this is a non-issue for free thinkers.

#11 Ryan Mattie (Guest) on Monday January 11, 2010 at 6:46am

I definitely disagree that this is a non-issue. I in fact believe it to be a very important issue for free thinkers. The question is asking to list a denomination even if the person no longer practices the religion the were indoctrinated in since birth. An honest answer to this coming from me would be ‘Presbyterian, although I haven’t practiced in 20 years and am now an atheist’. This is a far too convoluted answer for a census question, and anyone reading this would probably assume the answer is simply ‘Presbyterian’.

I agree that putting any thought in to this would have any free thinker answer truly instead of strictly honestly, but the way it’s worded is very convoluted and unnecessarily so. I like the CFI updated question, but think it still needs the ‘No Religion’ checkbox.

#12 Robin (Guest) on Monday January 11, 2010 at 4:19pm

The issue I have with the question is the second sentence, which, in my opinion, does not need to be there.  Most members of Canadian society (and all societies for that matter) should have the requisite intelligence to answer a question that is straight-forward, rather than obscure.

The question, as it stands now, encourages people to overthink the idea and possibly biases them towards a previous view or pressures them into an answer they might not otherwise have given, or even agree with.  As well, it fosters moderation within religion.  I wouldn’t expect anyone to gain relevant insight from a census that waffles on moderate religious belief systems.  That’s just silly.

Ask them “What is it?” and leave it at that.

#13 Draconian on Saturday January 23, 2010 at 12:07pm

If the religious people hidden or open in our government want to skew questions, they should make available the converse:  “If you indicated a religious affiliation, indicate if you reject religion, even if you are currently trapped in a religious social peer-pressure group that keeps you from speaking freely.”  Looking at it that way, it’s not true that the Maldives are 100% Muslim, or Iran is 99% Muslim, or Canada is 75% religious.

The Dominion Institute said there were 3 surviving veterans of WWI and wanted to arrange commemorative ceremonies including fully religious funeral services in the rites AT THE TIME THEY WERE YOUNG MEN (probably including snide remarks from the pulpit against the Irish.)  They said they wanted to brush away “political correctness” that services should be “non-denominational”.  This is a strange, fixed idea of their director.  I suggested we should have lawyers interviewing these remaining 3 IN PRIVATE, ready to draft an airtight will, and tell them they’ve been caught in a religious peer-group all their lives, but after they die no one can influence them, how do they REALLY want a funeral?  Non-religious?  Atheist?  Maybe even a Satanist rite!  That is more fair.

The question as it currently exists does not let people state their mind about religion, it spreads fear and says you have to stay in a label group or what will the neighbours think?

#14 Dale Boan (Guest) on Tuesday January 26, 2010 at 10:54pm

Justin, it would be great if you supplied the link to the table Dale Johnston sent you.  The 2001 tables I can find lists 4,796,325 people classified with no religion.

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