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For many people religion is one of the most important defining characteristics of an identity.

Whilst religious identity can be objective this guidance focuses on measuring the subjective nature of religious identification and how people define themselves.

Surveys can measure different concepts of religion including religious ‘affiliation’, ‘practice, belief and belonging. This guidance begins by outlining those concepts but then specifically details the process of asking about ‘religious affiliation’, which is the recommended concept for the GSS harmonised question for use on surveys.

The question was developed to enable consistency and comparability of data across the GB and the UK. The guidance provides advice on how to ask, present and discuss religion data at a country specific level and a GB and UK level, whilst also highlighting how to avoid data being misinterpreted by users.

A question on religion can be asked by itself or along with other questions such as ethnic group as they are often closely interrelated concepts. When used together they can complement each other to allow for a more distinct picture of a population.

For guidance on data presentation please refer to the related link.

What are the concepts of religion that can be measured on social surveys?

There are different concepts of religion that can be measured on social surveys and these can include affiliation, belonging belief and practice. It is important to be clear about what concept is being measured:

  • Religious affiliation is the connection or identification with a religion irrespective of actual practice or belief.

  • Religious belonging can be interpreted as both loose self-identification and active or formal belonging to a religious group. This can produce problems of ambiguity as some people may respond that they have a religious affiliation but not belong to a religion.

  • Religious belief includes beliefs typically expected to be held by followers of a religion and how important those beliefs are to a person’s life.

  • Practice includes specific religious activities expected of believers.

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Are UK comparisons possible with the census questions on religion?

The Census is the most commonly used source for statistics on religion and a voluntary question was asked for the first time in GB in 2001 (a religion question has been asked in Northern Ireland since 1861). In England and Wales the question asked was ‘what is your religion’. For Scotland and Northern Ireland there were two questions asked, ‘what religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?’ and ‘what religion, religious denomination or body were you brought up in?’ The same religion questions have been asked on the 2011 census of the respective countries however, in Scotland only one question has been asked: ‘what religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to’, the question on upbringing wasn’t asked. The religion question in Northern Ireland is used to derive community background (that is, Catholic, Protestant or Other). The additional question is included in Northern Ireland partly to enhance response rates. Legislation in Northern Ireland was framed in terms of ‘perceived religious identity’.

Due to the differences in the questions it is important to be aware that when trying to make UK comparisons with census data on religion:

  • The 2011 question on the England and Wales census asks about ‘affiliation’, whereas, the 2011 Scotland and Northern Ireland censuses ask about ‘belonging’.  

  • The way people respond to questions on religion is sensitive to what question is being asked and how it is asked.

As a result, comparing or combining data relating to different concepts is not recommended.

 

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Should comparisons on religion be made with different data sources?

  • Caution should be used when comparing religion data from and with different sources. The Census of England and Wales asks a different religion question to that of Scotland and Northern Ireland.

  • There is also variation in the religion questions asked on different surveys, some ask about belonging and attendance whereas others ask about importance or belief. Note that on the LFS in Northern Ireland the religion question asked is about denomination.

  • It is important to note that the way people respond to questions on religion is sensitive to what question is asked and how it is asked.

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What is the recommended harmonised religion question to use on government surveys?

A religion question on affiliation was recommended for use on surveys after a two year cross-government consultation programme that wanted to harmonise data collection across GB and the UK to enable consistency and comparability of data. It is therefore recommended that where a single question on religion is required for data collection in the UK, the GSS harmonised religious question which measures affiliation should be used and that is:

            ‘What is your religion?’

If further information on religious practice is required a follow on question about practice can be used, such as:

 ‘Do you consider that you are actively practising your religion?’

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What instruction should be used when asking the religion question?

  • It is not recommended that a single Christian category is used across GB or the UK. The recommended breakdown for the Christian denominations that should be used in Scotland and Northern Ireland are provided below.

  • It is recommended that a show card is used in interviewer-led surveys in GB. Where this is not possible (e.g. telephone interviews), the response categories should be read out by the interviewer in the same order as the appropriate show card.

  • The instruction ‘please describe’ should be included on the show card following the ‘any other religion’ response option. This should be in non-bold font. This instruction should also be included on paper-based surveys.

  • Use of a show card is not recommended in Northern Ireland. The interviewer should read the question and wait for a spontaneous response. If a response is not forthcoming, the interviewer may prompt using the categories in the box below. (A prompt is often required to follow up a response such as those responding as ‘Christian’ or ‘Protestant’ with the question ‘And what type of ‘Christian or Protestant is that?’). The use of show cards and prompts should be acknowledged when comparing data.

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What is the recommended religion question for a survey in England?

This is the recommended religion question and layout for use on a survey in England.

 

Recommended religious affiliation question for England
Interviewer to read:
What is your religion?
Interviewer to read options
No religion 
Christian (including Church of England, Catholic, Protestant and all other Christian denominations)
Buddhist      
Hindu
Jewish
Muslim
Sikh
Any other religion, please describe
 

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What is the recommended religion question for a survey in Wales?

This is the recommended religion question and layout for use on a survey in Wales.

Recommended religious affiliation question for Wales
Interviewer to read:
What is your religion?
Interviewer to read options
No religion 
Christian (all denominations)
Buddhist      
Hindu
Jewish
Muslim
Sikh
Any other religion, please describe  

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What is the recommended religion question for a survey in Scotland?

This is the recommended religion question and layout for use on a survey in Scotland when wanting to harmonise with the rest of GB and the UK. The recommended breakdown for Christian denominations for Scotland (like Northern Ireland) is different to that of England and Wales. This is in order to provide data on which to examine the differences between the main Christian groups. However, categories can be aggregated at the main level of category for a full GB or UK output.

If it is more important to compare data sources within Scotland it is recommended to use Scotland’s 2011 census question on religion (which asks ‘what religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to’) or Scotland’s recommended question for social surveys which asks the same question but includes a ‘Pagan’ response option.

Recommended religious affiliation question for Scotland
Interviewer to read:
What is your religion?
Interviewer to read options
No religion
Church of Scotland
Roman Catholic 
Other Christian
Buddhist      
Hindu
Jewish
Muslim
Sikh
Any other religion, please describe  

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What is the recommended religion question for a survey in Northern Ireland?

This is the recommended religion question and layout for use on a survey in Northern Ireland. The recommended breakdown for Christian denominations (like Scotland) differs slightly to that of England and Wales. This is different in order to provide data on which to measure/examine community background (that is ‘Catholic’, ‘Protestant’ or ‘Other’) and for other purposes rather than looking at Christian and non Christian. However, categories can be aggregated at the main level of category for a full GB or UK output (see below).

If an interviewer is asking a question, the use of a show card is not recommended. The interviewer should read the question and wait for a spontaneous response (note that ‘interviewer to read options’ is omitted from display). If a response is not forthcoming, the interviewer may prompt using the categories in the box below. A prompt is often required to follow up a response such as those responding as ‘Protestant’ or ‘Christian’ with the question, ‘And what type of ‘Protestant or Christian is that?’ The use of show cards and prompts should be acknowledged when comparing data.

 

Recommended religious affiliation question for Northern Ireland
Interviewer to read:
What is your religion?
No religion
Catholic
Presbyterian  
Church of Ireland 
Methodist       
Baptist
Free Presbyterian
Brethren
Protestant – Other, including not specified
Christian – Other, including not specified
Buddhist
Hindu
Jewish
Muslim
Sikh
Any other religion, please describe  

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What about the ‘Other’ category?

The list of religious categories provided in the recommended question is by no means definitive and does not capture all religious diversity in the UK. For this reason, a write-in option for the ‘Any other religion’ category is available. This category is very important for the acceptability of the question and response rates.

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What if more religious categories are needed?

Measurement of religious diversity must take into account practical issues surrounding data collection and presentation. If categories are not sufficient, a longer classification could be produced (provided they can be aggregated to the main category) or it might be necessary for some authorities to expand the ‘Other’ religion category. However, this could lead to identification of smaller religious group. If figures produced are too small to publish then they can be suppressed or aggregated to the relevant category or included within ‘Other’ religion (footnotes should be included to explain what is included),

A longer classification is often used to allow greater variety of aggregations, however this can also allow for identification of many smaller religious groups. Therefore, caution is required with analysis of such numbers (to ensure reliability and to avoid disclosure).

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How to avoid misinterpretation of religion data by users?

Because there are several dimensions to religion, talking and reading about religion or specific religions without qualification can be confusing and lead to misinterpretation by data users. Therefore, if presenting data from the harmonised religion question it is important to be explicit and refer to the specific ‘concept’ being measured and that is ‘affiliation’. It is also recommended that when presenting data on religious affiliation it should be accompanied by a short note, such as:

  • Respondents were asked the question, ‘What is your religion?’ which measures affiliation - that is the identification with a religion irrespective of actual practice or belief.

There should also be caution when using inappropriate terminology which can lead to confusion, for example: 

  • The term faith should not be used as an alternative to religion when referring to statistics as this may imply a stronger connection to a religion than is actually meant. In this instance it would be misleading to say that a ‘percentage of people have a faith’.

  • Writing about people ‘being religious’ rather than ‘having a religious affiliation' may be inferred as a reference to levels of practice or belief. For example it may be misleading to state that ‘Chinese people are the least religious; in 2001 more than half said that they had no religion’ when what is meant is ‘Chinese people are the least likely to say they have a religious affiliation’

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Content from the Office for National Statistics.
© Crown Copyright applies unless otherwise stated.