Religion question on census forms

On April 24th, Ireland will fill out the 2016 census form. As often happens around this time, we query the questions and the accuracy of the results to be drawn.


A “leading question” prompts or encourages the answer wanted.


The religion question – “What is your religion?” – has emerged again as a source of controversy. Many see it as a “leading question”, with calls for a two part question instead:


A: Do you have a religion?

B: If yes, what is you religion?


But do any other countries ask a two-part question? I had a good look for census forms in the English speaking world and came up with the following:


United Kingdom







New Zealand


South Africa



None of the main English speaking nations ask a two-part question (the US doesn’t ask about religion at all). I’ve summarised the various question formats into a handy table.

main table

Ireland is not alone in having an alleged leading question for religion on its census form. Some countries place the “no religion” option first on their forms, some last (Ireland).

Judging by the percentage choosing “no religion”, it appears that question type or position doesn’t prevent the reporting of large responses. It is also worth noting that no country has yet seen the need to move to a two-part question. One reason is to maintain continuity of results census-on-census. However, if the CSO (and its international equivalents – see table sources) felt the question was giving inaccurate results, would they not have changed it by now?

I’m in favour of a two-part question, but I doubt it will alter the results.

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