Australia’s Religious Communities: Facts and Figures from the 2011 Australian Census and other sources by Philip Hughes, Margaret Fraser & Stephen Reid

Australia’s Religious Communities: Facts and Figures from the 2011 Australian Census and other sources by Philip Hughes, Margaret Fraser & Stephen Reid (Melbourne; Christian Research Association, 2012)

“When the 2011 Australian Census figures were first released on 21st June 2012, the percentage of Australians ticking the ‘no religion’ box made headlines.  Newsreporters noted how Australia had become more secular.  On talk-back radio, people either celebrated or lamented the increased numbers of atheists in Australia.  However, the real story of the Census is somewhat different: it is a story of the persistence of religion.”(from CRA bulletin Pointers, 22:3, Sept 2012)

(NOTE: unless otherwise stated, figures refer to percentage of the total Australian population)

The Christian Research Association do excellent research and analysis of social trends regarding religion and spirituality in Australia.  You can download this publication for a small cost and browse other useful material from their website:  This particular publication describes some of the key trends in religious affiliation based on 2011 census figures.

In the Australia’s Religious Communities report, the authors identify five social trends that are affecting the social expressions of religion and spirituality in Australia:
– immigration
– changes in Australian culture (eg. the encouragement of ‘questioning’)
– shift in the how religious affiliation is expressed (ie. decline of traditional denominations)
– localised population growth and decline
– difference in level of involvement across different religious groups

“Religion is Australia is not disappearing.  Indeed, overall, the numbers identifying with a religious group are continuing to grow.  The numbers identifying with a Christian denomination have grown from 12.8 to 13.1 million between 2001 and 2011.  Migration has had a very considerable impact on that growth.  However, almost all religious groups are losing more people than they are gaining.  Most are not keeping all the children born into them… [W]hat is described here is not a rejection of all religious beliefs, but rather people are ceasing to identify with specific religious organisations.”

When the growth of those with no religion (from 15.5% in 2001 to 22.3% in 2011) is read in the context of the general decline of institutionalism as the key shift in religious expression for Australians, we notice a number of other significant trends.

The well publicised rise of Pentecostalism during the 1990s that was one early indicator of a shift away from institutional denominations, has remained stable from 1.0% in 2001 to 1.1% in 2011.  In contrast, there are now half a million Australians who chose to declare their faith ‘outside of the box’ by writing in their own particular answer to the question of religion on the census form (an increase of 41% from 1.8% in 2001 to 2.6% in 2011).  A further 8.6% simply left the question unanswered (which was a surprising 17.3% decline from 2001).  Taken all together, that means 32.1% of Australians declined the invitation to use one of the traditional world religions as an identity marker.

Secularisation is a complicated picture which is not just about religion and this reports argues that religious affiliation is affected by generational change and immigration in Australia.  Those with no religion tend to be from cultures (Australian and overseas born) long subjected to the process of secularisation (73% of this group described their ancestry as primarily Australian or British) and are from younger generations (only 20% of Australians are under the age of 40 but they represent two thirds of those who declared themselves to have no religion).  Furthermore, for some of the traditional denominations, most notably Anglican, secularisation might better be expressed by the very low involvement rate in church activities (only 6% of Anglicans go to church monthly or more) which is perhaps a better indicator of religious commitment than ticking a box on the census form.  Interestingly, the average percentage of those attending more than monthly is almost identical for both Christian (24%) and other-than-Christian (23%) religions.

The CRA crew conclude that religion is still an important identity marker when studying culture and population trends for Australia.  I don’t disagree, but I think it is interesting to note where ‘religion’ and/or ‘spirituality’ comes up in conversation.  I talk about spirituality fairly constantly with my girlfriends of both religious and irreligious persuasions: it’s a part of how we tick and how we make life work in the crazy business of juggling home, work, family and friends. On the other hand I hear very little conversation about spirituality in the public media or political spheres in Australia.  At church, I think I am probably asked more questions about theology rather than spirituality (theory rather than praxis maybe) and in the scores of polite, seemingly inane chit-chats with shop keepers and neighbours I hear a lot of folk tales and sayings that suggest there is something beyond ourselves.

Being religious may not have the social status it once had, but it is far from being unusual!  One thing is clear though, Australians have a diverse understanding of God and an equally diverse expression of their human spirituality.


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