The next – and probably last – UK Census is to take place on the 27th March 2011. For the second time it includes a controversial voluntary question about religious affiliation.
Many commentators are critical of the design of this question and even the originators – the Office of National Statistics - accept that it only measures the weakest form of religious affiliation. Given that the question is voluntary and it is not clear why the ONS want the data, it might have have been better omitted from this census.
The design of the 'religion' question is based upon an outdated view of identity where each of us is assumed to have a strong and exclusive identity with just one major faith / religion / belief system / philosophy. This is clearly unreasonable: many have sympathies or strong connections with more than one such 'religious ideology'. So we have jewish - buddhists; christian humanists; pagan - vegan - buddhists; islamic - buddhist - humanists; and just about every other combination that is possible.
One cannot help wondering whether the real purpose of this question is to get a (misleadingly) large christian vote as a proxy for 'britishness'.
However, even though the question and the thinking behind it are flawed, it seems important that we heed the UK’s Network of Buddhist Organisation (NBO) campaign to encourage us to Tick the Box for Buddhism. Unfortunately, the figures from the last census question on religion have been directly used to justify government policy towards faith groups.
During the year I spent as the NBO development officer, I found that although Buddhism and its values are widely respected, some practitioners – mainly western converts - are reticent and sometimes confused about the nature of their involvement with Buddhism. Even those who turn up regularly to Buddhist retreats may be uncomfortable with declaring themselves as Buddhist.
There are other complex factors.
Declaring oneself a Buddhist seems to imply for some, a more serious devotion to their practice, and to require beliefs (perhaps rebirth) with which they are uncomfortable. So to be Buddhist requires that we must be some sort of 'pious saint'. This is obviously a distorted view, since like most spiritual paths, Buddhism supports all levels of involvement and conviction.
Many Buddhists have a knee-jerk opposition to anything that smacks of government control or monitoring. There is a concern with what appears to be ever greater invasions of privacy though CCTV, questionnaires, and databases of various kinds. Although these may be well-intentioned, they are often clumsy, based on flawed thinking (like identities) and the data has a way of falling into the wrong hands.
And there are others who have a rather undiscriminating (naive?) view of politics and avoid any civic involvement which might involve some sort of Buddhist influenced opinion – this is the ‘don’t mix Buddhism with politics’ attitude. Whilst I strongly agree that Buddhist practice traditions should keep well away from political affiliation and party political activity, at a mundane or grassroots level we are all involved in deciding on policies in our communities and we can all influence those who govern us.
And as citizens of a democratic country we have the right (often hard won and with great sacrifice by our ancestors) to make our opinions known and to stand up for what we believe will help our communities. And we can all peacefully and patiently publicise campaigns, activities and attitudes that are motivated by compassion and kindness, rather than their opposites.
And if we start to be more open and public about Buddhism and our practice we are helping others to become aware of the benefits of this path.
I am not suggesting a chauvinistic or aggressive proselytising Buddhism, but simply taking opportunities to present the ways that Buddhist practice helps us to understand our human condition and to lead better lives. Looking at what is going on in the world under the banner of ‘religion’, where even an act of cold-blooded and cowardly murder can get applauded by 'religious' leaders, there seems to me an urgent need for more sane and moderate religious practitioners to stand up and be counted.
And looking at the way that greedy capitalism and inequality seem to dominate our social structures and livelihoods and the way these are leading us into environmental degradation and huge social problems, we also need well-motivated social activism and engagement, and this is also a strength of the Buddhist path.
I think it would be a very helpful outcome for all if the Census showed an increase in numbers of Buddhists. I don’t see this from a partisan perspective of wanting Buddhism to dominate in some way; just that I see Buddhism as strongly espousing good basic human values and behaviour, and this is what we need at the moment: kindness, courtesy, a willingness to listen and the avoidance of dogmatic attitudes.
So spread the word. Encourage friends and networks to Tick the box for Buddhism at the Census on March 27th.