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