For divorced atheist remainers like me, this census was a minefield | Zoe Williams

Filling in the form should have been a piece of cake. But domestic, cultural and political quandaries sent me into a tailspin

Completing the census should have been simple – all you have to do is say who and where you are. In the grand scheme of history, it’s not like journeying to Bethlehem with nowhere to stay. But still – it was an ordeal.

Separated parents who share custody equally are expected to list the kids at the house they are in on the night of 21 March. I would happily have done that if my kids were due to be with me today, but they are not. So, when the question came up, I merrily texted my former spouse: “Sod it. I’m putting them down anyway.” “You can’t put them down anyway,” he said, with some dignity and patience. “It’s a census.” “You know what, King Herod? Screw you!” I replied with gusto.

Then I did what I always do when faced with a difference of opinion – took the issue to Twitter. Apparently, population scientists study this exact conundrum: what do you do about divorcees who double-count for sentimental reasons?

A couple of people said there was flex built in, to account for anyone who was staying somewhere other than their main residence on 21 March. Most people said: “Just put them in the house they are in that night and stop being an idiot.” One censorious tweeter said simply: “Time to be generous.” That was my mother, ladies and gentlemen. Boldly siding with my ex in the open waters of social media. And you think you have problems.

Whether or not to mess with the system was not my only decision: the humanists were in touch almost daily, to remind atheists that we should answer “no religion” to the religion question. In about the strongest language I have heard a humanist use, they called the faith question on the form “biased and leading” and worried that it had previously “encouraged many people with no religious beliefs and no religious identity to nonetheless tick a religious box out of cultural affiliation”.

It’s rather consequential, all this: if you get an inflated read on how many Christians live in the country, it not only encourages faith schooling, but also people who love the phrase “Judeo-Christian worldview”, which is the classy way to kick off a racist rant. (It is not that they mind foreigners – no, it is just that everyone ought to adhere to the Judeo-Christian worldview.)

Atheism is a peculiar thing: so many of us live it – 39% of those in Great Britain, according to ONS data from 2019 – yet the word retains connotations that were already a bit rum by the 50s. To say you are an atheist is a needless provocation – why can’t you just say agnostic? Why deny God altogether when you could just not know? If atheist is insufficiently respectful, it’s also not respectable – it’s like saying you don’t have a driving licence. It’s fine, society can live with it, but it’s not going to fall over itself to get you into the golf club.

So atheists should definitely say so, yet I have this embarrassing hunch that in 2001 I put Jedi. (It was funny then, OK? Times change.) In 2011, I may even have put Christian, thinking with a toddler-mashed brain that I should try to get the kids into one of the faith schools that I emphatically don’t agree with.

Finally, there was a petition afoot to subvert the national identity question. Instead of putting British, English, Welsh, Northern Irish or Scottish – if any applied – the idea was to tick “other” and specify “European”. That way, if you disagreed with something significant that had happened recently – perhaps you thought Brexit wasn’t a brilliant idea – you could really stick it to the man. Let him know how you felt. He would definitely be listening.

This sent me into a tailspin of futility. First, I don’t think the man is listening – and if he happens to hear, he will only smirk. Second, I have no view on my national identity. Mr Z has incredibly strong views – if you accidentally say “English” about anything, he will correct it to “British”, unless you are talking about mustard or bull terriers (it’s surprising how often I am). He hates nationalist or regionalist sentiment of any stamp; he probably has views on Catalonia, should anyone be so foolish as to ask.

I, conversely, think nationalism is the outward sign that there is nothing more interesting going on, much like there is always a scrap at the end of a festival because the bands have stopped playing. I would feel a bit fraudulent putting “European”, given my scant language skills. If I were to put “British”, though, it would feel like the end of an era.

So, there was my answer: I would place the kids in my house, even though they were at their dad’s, and leave myself off altogether, so as not to mess up the numbers. I would no longer exist, but at least the children would be European atheists (thanks for asking, census-takers).

Of course, when it came to it, I filled in the form accurately. If there is one thing I hate more than a crisis of national identity, it’s a £1,000 fine.

  • Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

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