I love the census

Natasha Moore on the findings of the 2021 Australian census, and how behind the raw numbers lie fascinating and surprising stories.

I love the census. There’s something about the idea of 26 million people pausing to take stock of who we are at a particular moment in time – what a feat of logistics! – that makes me pleased to be human.

While we’re a bit warier of polling than we used to be, there’s something reassuring about the census. No random sampling; they just ask literally everyone, and count up the results.

The release of the first 2021 results today, though, reminds me how much of statistics is in the eye of the beholder.

I work for a Christian media company, so with the expected uptick in the “no religion” category (from 30.1% in 2016 to 38.9% this time around) and decline in Christian affiliation (from 52.1% to 43.9%), I’m bracing for all those “losing my religion” headlines.

When we put the numbers in embodied terms, though, they often surprise us. While 60% of boomers still say they’re Christian, only 30% of millennials do. Sounds low! Even negligible. What if I put it this way: nearly one in three millennials (think of all the millennials you know) ticked a Christian box on the census. Does that suddenly sound like a lot?

And the “no religion” category is teeming with stories the census doesn’t attempt to capture. The 2022 Generation Z Study from Monash, ANU, and Deakin found that 52% of Australian teens don’t identify with a religion – but only 24% of them say they don’t believe in God or a higher being. 67% do. (9% said they were unsure.)

To me, the religion question is a nod to something all 26 million of us share. The places we’re looking for satisfaction vary and shift, but the longings are universal: fullness, worth, security, purpose. Those transcend every difference the census so importantly tallies.