Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Statistical Temptations

The 2011 census of Nepal has just been published by the Central Bureau of Statistics. This has come to the attention of Christianity Today in the States because of the huge rise in the proportion of Christians in the country from the last census of 2001. It appears that CT got their information from AsiaNews, which is clearly a Roman Catholic website. It is a pity they didn't check their sources better, or they would have discovered that it was not Nepal's first census (it was Nepal's 11th) but rather the first since it became a Republic.

The statistic that is focussed on by Christianity Today is that of religion. We are told that the number of Christians in Nepal has risen from 0.4% in 2001 to 1.4% is 2011 to a total of 375,699. Now my students will know my opinion on census stats. While I am thrilled that, to use Luke's words, the word of God has spread and the number of the disciples has increased rapidly (Acts 6:7), two issues bother me with the publication of these numbers:

Firstly, censuses are not as reliable as they may seem. There is already disquiet among some communities in Nepal that the numbers in their group are not accurately recorded. While I can sympathize with the aggrieved protestors it is hardly surprising that the census is flawed. Even if the data gatherers really visited each home (rather than ask a passer by who lives in that house four hours up the mountain) the nature of questions predetermines the answers to a large extent. We are told there are 10 religions in Nepal: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Kirat, Christianity, Prakriti, Bon, Jainism, Bahai, Sikhism. I didn't see the census schedule but I suppose there was no Other box to tick. If there were, perhaps Nepal would have as many Jedis as the UK had in the 2001 census, after an internet campaign led many to identify themselves as belonging to that noble company! The AsiaNews article quotes a Protestant leader C. B. Gahatraj as moaning, "We believe our population is more than the report claims. The problem is that during the census period, many newly converted Christians were afraid to tell their religion, and so were registered as Hindu." So even if the census is good at counting, the respondents don't always give the answers they are looking for. After all, it isn't long ago that Christians were fairly systematically persecuted in Nepal. But the biggest problem with such statistical data is that they cannot say anything about the quality of the profession of faith that is made by the respondents and as such they are not significant spiritually.

Secondly, Christians have, especially since 1990 and the movement for the restoration of democracy (Jana Andolan), often sought to use such statistics to claim certain privileges for themselves. The push, about 10 or 12 years ago, for the public recognition of Christmas Day as a national holiday, is an example of this. Now, while I have no problem with Nepali followers of Christ wanting a day off on the 25th December, this is rather awkward. The national calendar of Nepal (Vikram Sambat) doesn't even follow the Gregorian calendar. When asked by fellow Nepalis if Christmas Day is the day Jesus was born they have to explain that, no it isn't but it is the day that Christians in northern Europe chose to celebrate as such a long time ago. Identity politics is founded on statistical data. The more people we can get recognized as part of our group the more political clout we can wield. Which is why Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai was at pains to warn the fractious communities of Nepal not to use the census to press for religious privileges. Followers of Christ in the New Testament did not appeal for privileges. They too lived in a religiously plural society and thrived in it in spite of persecution. They had no emotional need to march through the city and show the wider community how many are them there were. Paul told Timothy to instruct the church in Ephesus in this way: "I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people - for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2: 1-4). So I am with the Maoists on this one. Paul was not into claiming special privileges and neither am I. I appeal to my Nepali brothers and sisters - don't do it. Follow Paul and, as it happens, Baburam!

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