Thought For The Day - Clifford Longley

"And so it came to pass," says St Luke's Gospel, "that Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be made of the whole world." Everyone had to be registered in "the city they came from." That is why Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary journeyed to Bethlehem, and where Jesus was born.

Thanks to the internet and the postman, in order to take part in yesterday's official census we didn't have to return to whatever city our families originally came from. It didn't even ask that question.

But did it thereby miss an important trick? Filling in the questionnaire yesterday, it seemed to me it treated everyone as an atomised individual, rather than as members of society whose identity comes from their personal relationships and the communities they belong to. It will fall a little short, therefore, of being a complete snapshot of modern Britain, because it misses what David Cameron calls the Big Society.

Human beings are social animals. That is how God made us or, if you like, how we evolved. That crucial part of ourselves is expressed by our family life and by our membership of civil society.

Asking us what jobs we do, as yesterday's census did, may tell us how many people are economically active per household. But what about asking how many are active in civil society, what groups they belong to, ranging from neighbourhood watch to local bird-watchers, trade unions to the Mothers' Union?

That huge demonstration against government cuts in central London on Saturday was a manifestation of civil society in action. The series of uprisings in the Arab world are about civil society asserting itself against authoritarian government. Of course not everything in civil society is good. The Nazis in Germany before 1933 were also part of civil society, even as they worked to undermine it.

The individualism of the census form applied equally to the question about religion. It asked me whether I was a Christian, for instance, but not which church I belonged to. But these institutions are vital elements in civil society. Indeed, you could argue they invented it. I fully agree with the British Humanist Association that people with no religious belief at all should tick that box on the census form. But like belief, membership can be a pretty ill-defined thing.

You have to make room for the Jewish friend of mine who said he wasn't so much a pillar of his local synagogue, supporting it from within, but more like a flying buttress, propping it up from outside. Yet it was still part of his social identity and source of his values, and vital to his own stake in civil society. Like in the census ordered by Caesar Augustus two thousand years ago, it was "the city he came from." Caesar Augustus clearly knew something we might be in danger of forgetting.

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