Academic journal article Population

Official Statistics on Religion: Protestant Under-Reporting in Nineteenth-Century French Censuses

Academic journal article Population

Official Statistics on Religion: Protestant Under-Reporting in Nineteenth-Century French Censuses

Article excerpt

In response to the grave misuse of public statistics from the 1930s to identify people of Jewish origin, several countries, including the United States, stopped asking questions about religion in censuses after the Second World War. In France, this decision was taken in the nineteenth century, in the early days of the Third Republic. It ended a brief period of just twenty years or so, the general population census of 1851 having been the first to include a question on religious affiliation. At that time, out of a total population of 35,783,000, France counted 34,931,000 reported Catholics, 775,000 Protestants, 74,000 Jews and 3,000 persons with no religious affiliation (Statistique générale de la France, 1855, p. XXV). The question was asked again in 1861, 1866 and 1872. From then on, questions on religious affiliation were only ever asked in the Haut-Rhin, Bas-Rhin and Moselle départements between 1919 (when they were returned to France) and 1965. In these départements, the separation of Church and State enacted in 1905 did not apply, so the Concordat remained in force.

Some scholars interested in French religious practice mourn the disappearance of this information source. Clearly, these data were no longer of much interest to the public authorities after the Separation Act of 1905. Since the state no longer paid any clerical stipends, there was no further need to count congregations in order to apportion budgets among the various religious denominations. In this regard, one could claim that it is no more justified to ask residents in France about their religion than about their membership of clubs or associations or their political leanings - data which are useful for describing French society but which are by no means vital to the government. Entering a universe perceived in France as pertaining to individual conscience may affect the respondents' propensity to reply sincerely to other questions in the census, thereby threatening its reliability. Such a consequence is clearly undesirable.

Contrary to appearances, and assuming indeed that it is founded,(1) the notion of a "return to religiosity" that has developed in recent years, is irrelevant here. In Europe, the religious revival often manifests not in a return to the church - either traditional or modern - but in a resurgence of beliefs (Lambert, 2004) whose "natural decline" was previously seen as irreversible. This is consistent with the trend already identified by Grace Davie, and summarized in the formula believing without belonging (Davie, 1994). To capture this ongoing movement, research must focus on representations, a task for which the census is clearly not the most appropriate instrument.

Classic survey techniques based on representative samples are much more suited to the study of religiosity, whatever their well-known imperfections. For minority religious beliefs, however, this approach raises specific problems: secondary analysis of ordinary national samples is impossible for reasons of sample size and hence of uncertain data reliability. The only way around this difficulty is to resort to aggregated surveys and/or very large national samples,(3) since the high cost of identifying respondents belonging to a rare religion from among the general population makes it difficult to constitute specific samples. Moreover, in the absence of periodic censuses, we have no information on the social structures of the populations concerned, yet these social structures form the basis of the sampling quotas habitually used in France.

These real difficulties doubtless explain why the disappearance of the "religion column" in the French census is so sadly lamented, notably by specialists of minority religions, for whom surveys are now the only available tool. Taking an opposite perspective, which now becomes understandable, Jean Baubérot qualifies the four nineteenth-century censuses that collected religious data in France as "life-size surveys" (Baubérot, 1988, pp. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.