If you enroll your children in a public school in Ireland, the government has you fill out a form with basic information about the kids: name, ethnicity, their version of a social security number, etc. All that data is fed into a “Primary Online Database” (POD).
The questionnaire also asks parents to declare their children’s religion.
The problem here is obvious: How does it make any sense for a child who’s just a few years old to have a religion? What five-year-old knows enough about Hinduism to make an educated declaration about whether or not he believes in it? As Richard Dawkins famously pointed out in The God Delusion, a label like this makes as much sense as asking parents if their children are Democrats or Republicans. They’re not old enough to think for themselves, so why ask?
Or to put that another way, the question’s really asking what the parents believe. In which case, just ask that.
It’s true that “Atheist” and “Agnostic” are options, but they’re also wedged in there near the bottom, and it’s arguably problematic that they’re even included in a list of “religions.” There’s also the underlying presumption that kids have a religion.
Why do this?
John Hamill from The Free Thought Prophet Podcast had the same question, so he wrote two letters.
The first was a tongue-in-cheek response to his daughter’s teacher. Enjoy this. It’s magnificent.
… In relation to Aideen’s religion, I initially suspected that she may be a Roman Catholic. To confirm, I asked her about the doctrine of purgatory and whether she wished to seek any indulgences in this life, which would limit her time there. If I‘m honest, she seemed quite bemused by the question, despite the clearly articulated tenets of Catholicism described in Catechism 1040. I also asked how she views the transubstantiation of physical matter, while the accidents of [its] appearance are preserved. She was totally unable to express a view on the subject and so I began to think that she may be a Protestant of one flavour or another.
In the hope of providing an accurate answer for the POD, I diligently pressed on. To determine whether or not she may be a Protestant, I decided to begin with the Ninety-Five Theses of Martin Luther. Since Aideen was unable to name a single one, I thought that I may be on the wrong track altogether with Christianity. I was confirmed in this view once I observed Aideen’s reaction as I quoted Matthew 15:3-4. [Note: Those are the verses that say. “Jesus replied, ‘And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’”]
Broader inquiries focused initially on the Hindu pantheon. I had to explain that neither a god with blue skin and an elephant’s head called Ganesh, nor a god with a monkey’s head called Hanuman, were in fact cartoon characters. Aideen seemed incredulous that a billion people could believe in such deities. She also seemed less than enthused about the idea that the divine might provide instructions to a husband on how and when he should beat his wife, thereby ruling out Islam too.
At this point I was at a loss. Since there is no box to tick on the form indicating that the Department of Education shouldn’t ask such deeply stupid questions about ten year olds, I have simply declined to provide the information. I hope you understand.
Good lord, that is glorious.
Hamill wrote a more formal letter to the government itself. In addition to pointing out the problems above, he notes that the government should really be asking a different question if it wants an honest answer:
Asking about the religious beliefs of such young people is absurd. I suspect that what your Department is really asking here, relates to which (if any) denomination that parents intend to raise their children in. That is a very different question and if that is what your Department is interested in, then that is what you should ask. Otherwise, it is risible to ask children who in many cases have not yet learned to read or write, that they should distinguish between their preferences for the teachings of the Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran and Methodist Churches.
He also correctly points out that the Irish Census for 2021 changed its religion questions to accommodate these criticisms. It’s not perfect by any means, but it now asks, “What is your religion, if any?” and lists “No religion” as the first option.
If the folks running the Census can figure this out, why not the education officials running the POD survey?
In his letter, Hamill said this education data was being used for important reasons, so why open the door to so much inaccurate information?
… may I ask if you will ensure that the format of the religion question within the POD forms is changed, in order to adhere to best practice?
That letter was sent out a week ago. To my shock, he received a response on Wednesday.
The government official said that the religion question was not used for any reason than general data collection, and that they were prevented from including a write-in box… but that “you are correct in pointing out… that the layout of the POD religion question needs to be updated.”
Private Secretary Derek Newcombe said the POD would review the formatting of that question in order to make it relevant. So change could be coming in the future. It’s not yet time to pop the champagne, but that’s a potentially big change that would never have happened had an atheist not pointed out the problem.
Kudos to John Hamill for bringing it to their attention.
(Featured image via Shutterstock)