Writing

I will be ticking ‘no religion’ in the census – there is so much more at stake than you might think

When non-religious people skip this optional part of the census form, or write a joke answer, or write ‘other’, the less represented we are, the less our values and views are considered

Written by Shaparak Khorsandi in The independent 6 months ago (Friday, March 19th, 2021)

Filling in the census form is very grown up. “Here is my existence. This is my life.” Count me in! But as with all form filling, it’s also completely boring and so I leave it until the very last minute before I’m fined for not letting the state know that I live in a terraced house.

Non-believers, however, have had fun in the past with the religion part of the form. In 2001, there was a movement in many English speaking countries to put “Jedi” down as your religion.

It was a geeky protest by atheists (and a few actual Jedis) against being asked to record a faith at all. Nearly 400,000 people put Jedi as their religion in 2001, including me. There were more Jedis that year than Jewish people and Sikhs. At the time I thought it was hilarious. Who doesn’t like to bring a Star Wars vibe to a tedious bit of admin?

Back then, I didn’t think about the bigger picture. Not registering ourselves as having “no religion” excluded us from being counted and therefore not considered when it came to spending money on public services, or deciding whose views are expressed on the school curriculum.

The protest was fun, but the reality was that we were saying, “you guys go ahead and do your thing, don’t worry about us. Wanna build a state-funded religious school with an incredible music department where our children won’t be allowed to go to even though we live around the corner? Go ahead! Ignore us, we’re still giggling smugly about the Jedi thing, while our kids play on guitars with one string.”

As Yoda said, “your path you must decide”, and this year I decided the right box to tick was the “no religion” box. Why have I become such a killjoy? I shall tell you. When non-religious people skip this optional part of the form, or write a joke answer, or write “other”, the less represented we are, the less our values and views are considered when it comes to spending money on public services.

If you have no religion, it doesn’t mean you don’t want your voice to be heard, or your values included. I have no religion. I believe in trying to go through life without causing harm, for the sake of us all in the here and now, and my beliefs are as valid as those in a religious framework.

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The views of Humanists and atheists can’t be dismissed as irrelevant. I’m a former president of Humanists UK and now vice president and let me tell you, I have met the most incredible minds in the role. I could give you a list of brilliant Humanist thinkers and artists so long and so far back in history that some of them we have only seen as oil paintings or statues (I won’t as I know I’ll miss someone out and they’ll see this and my heart can’t take the social nightmare).

They are people whose voices should be at the hub of any debate, any educational curriculum, any discussion of funding for a new school. But they won’t be if we don’t register ourselves.

As the Humanist UK’s “Tick No” campaign points out, there are many atheists, Jewish people or Sikhs who don’t want to relinquish that identity. I get that. There is an “ethnicity” question where it’s possible to ensure this identity is counted and you can still tick “no religion”.

Most state schools still don’t accommodate the views of the godless. In primary school, my children were taken to mosques, gurdwaras, a Hindu temple and churches. My daughter cheerfully sang, “It’s Diwali festival of light!” in assembly and it was gorgeous. She was Mary in the Nativity play.

I want my kids to learn about religion and to be respectful of other people’s faiths and to crash their parties, but I don’t want them to be left out. Belief systems without faith in a higher power are as valid. Humanist wedding ceremonies and funerals are among the most meaningful I have ever been to. If enough people tick “no religion”, Humanist weddings would have a better chance of being recognised in law instead of atheists having to get a council official involved in their special day. Ceremonies aren’t just for religious people; humans have always marked significant events, had rituals and gathered.

Iranian new year is on Sunday and on Tuesday night, like millions of other Iranians, my children and I built a small fire in the garden and jumped over it chanting a rhyme in Farsi about throwing our negativity into the fire and gaining from it health and positivity. Just because I’m an atheist, it doesn’t mean I don’t love the Zoroastrian traditions of my heritage and delight in having a cultural reason to play with matches.

Millions of us in the UK have no religion. We need to be counted properly. So, let’s put our lightsabers away and tick “no religion” in the census.

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