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.


Cultural Diversity in Australia: Reflecting a Nation: Stories from the 2011 Census

Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2071.0  view on-line:

(This is the first of two posts reflecting on the 2011 Australian Census results.)

Here is a very select selection of Australian census stats, as they relate to my reddresstheology interests!


27% of Australia’s population were born overseas and a further 20% have at least one parent who was born overseas, which means almost HALF of the nation are first or second generation Australians.

In the last four years we have welcomed more migrants from India (13%) than we have from the UK (12%) and seven out of the top 10 birthplaces for recent arrivals were from Asia.


61% of Australians identify themselves as Christian; 7% as religious of an other-than-Christian variety;
and 22% as having no religion at all.  A further 9% simply didn’t answer the question!

There are now more no-religionists in Australia (22%) than there are Anglicans (17%)
and if you add to that the number of Australians who simply ignored the religion box (31%) that is more than the number of Catholics in the nation (25%).


49% of adult Australians are currently married plus a further 10% declare themselves to be in a de facto relationship; 11% are separated or divorced and 6% are widowed.
That means around a third of Australians over the age of 18 are currently not, and never have been, married.

‘A Battle Beyond Belief’ by Gary Bouma

Opinion piece in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper, 12/4/12

Finally, an opinion piece about the so called New Atheism which resonnates with my personal observations of the world I inhabit.  One in which Harvey Cox described in The Future of Faith: a world which has turned toward experience and subjectivity, and therefore religion, despite expectations to to the contrary only half a century ago. (see the reddresstheology post on Future of Faith.) 

Gary Bouma exquisitely demonstrates the value of good sociological analysis on religious phenomena, which I would argue must come prior to critiquing the content of the phenomena itself.   He asks, “why are the New Atheists so evangelical, so fanatical about putting their case?”  And I would ask, ‘why are some Christians so fanatical about refuting them?’

Here’s a snippet of Gary’s wisdom:

The answer comes from an understanding of the difference between competition and conflict. Competitors respect each other and vie for the rewards – in this case, state recognition, popular support, and influence on policy decisions. However, in conflict, one group seeks the elimination of the other; or a coalition of groups seeks to eliminate one group.

The New Atheists seem to me to be acting out of a fear of being overwhelmed and eliminated. They are not experiencing competition. Under fair competition, they too would have been awarded an appropriate level of state funding for their conferences in Melbourne, parallel with that given to the Parliament of the World’s Religions held in 2009. But, no, religious groups opposed that and won.

New Atheists sought to offer a secular form of ethics education in the time allocated for ”religious instruction” in Victorian state schools. Again, the answer was no.

What the New Atheists are experiencing is conflict, the attempt to drive them out, to eliminate the competition.

Read the whole article here:

The Unknown Nation: Australia After Empire by James Curran & Stuart Ward

(Melbourne; Melbourne University Press, 2010)

As I have pondered questions of Australian spirituality through-out the year, I have increasingly wondered whether the ambivalence Australians express towards religion and spirituality may well be more about the disassociation we feel regarding our national identity than our feelings about God or the mystery of the Universe however loosely defined.  In other words, maybe our spiritual shyness is a symptom of the ambiguous relationship we have with this land on which we live, the social construct of which we call ‘Australia.’

Curran and Ward argue that Australia is yet to establish a post-British identity, beyond the simplistic association of ‘no longer British’! Perhaps it is because we kind of slid into post-Empire through a number of different interlocking processes, with no such defining moment of independence as happened in places like India. To make their case, Curran and Ward focus on the ‘new nationalism’ discussions of the 1960s and 70s and reflect insightfully about several opportunities for nation-making landmarks which failed to provide a more positive affirmation of what it is to be Australian. The ongoing question of our ‘national day’ is an obvious one.

A great quotable quote is recalled from 1981. When reviewing the fifth volume of Manning Clarke’s A History of Australia, “Gough Whitlam confessed that his generation ‘was not equipped at school to understand Australia or the world as it has developed during our working lives’” (p.58). Well I started high school in 1983 and I don’t think my schooling did much better, however my children’s citizenship syllabus is remarkably different.

I think that Curran and Ward are right. I think that Australians know we are ‘no longer British’ but the question remains, what the f*#k does that actually mean? (Pardon the language but I think that’s how most Aussies would phrase it!)  This has been uppermost in my own mind with regard to Australian Anglicanism – what on earth makes it distinctive and authentic in a way which draws our souls towards God in an outpouring of prayer?

I also think Curran and Ward have no idea how to rectify the situation.  They lamely offer some paragraphs on the notion of ‘commonwealth’ at the end of the conclusion, and assert that our ‘guiding story’ has to embrace all people in our history: the ancient indigenous peoples; the first penal settlements and colonisation; and twentieth century global migration movements which have brought many cultures to our shores. They do however note that we seem to be doing quite well without a unified national story and I wonder here at the possibilities of understanding corporate identity with a more postmodern conception of fragments of stories making up some kind of decentralised organic whole.

What do I think? I keep coming back to Land.

Every people who have Landed here have encountered a strange and surprising hospitality. Much of our Land looks inhospitable – yet it has nurtured us into a tentative kind of adulthood. Indeed, it sustained a vibrant culture who treated it with respect and grace for several millennia! The circumstances of the first European settlements were less than salubrious, and yet look at the life they made for themselves. Even in recent decades as we appalling ‘debate’ the arrival of desperate strangers and aliens who need our land’s hospitality, the Australian economy has somehow survived the GFC and remained generous to those of us lucky enough to live here.  Is there not a theme here? In the history of Australia our Land has offered us constant, undeserved hospitality though we arrive in desperate straights. I wonder too about our future when Australia’s climate is particularly affected by the heating up of the globe.

Maybe these are musings prompted by the gorgeous sunny day here in Melbourne.  I certainly feel blessed to be living here in the ‘lucky country’ and would be thrilled to be part of a nation that had grace, generosity and hospitality as core values.







Religion and Spirituality, edited by Martin Dowson and Stuart Devenish

I recently reviewed a Sociology of Religion text for Crucible, an Australian on-line journal on theology and ministry which is under the auspices of the Australian Evangelical Alliance.  Religion and Spirituality, edited by Martin Dowson & Stuart Devenish (Information Age Publishing, 2010).  It is a volume in a series called, International Advances in Education: Global Initiatives for Equity and Social Justice.

Religion and Spirituality is a collection of research essays on this theme in educational contexts.  The basic question is how does spirituality and/or religion work to raise issues of social justice in educational contexts.  To read the whole review go through to Crucible here.  The 3 sentence summary is:

This collection of essays on ‘Religion and Spirituality’ maps some of the terrain for the argument reintegrating spirituality and religion with our efforts towards a stable and just society. “From the 1950s onward, in response to the perceived failings of modernity (eg. War; depression, global inequality, environmental degradation), attempts to bring together education and, at lest, generic values or morals increased… Religious educations were confronted with the challenge of bringing together the secular and the sacred, even as science and religion grew ever more distant from one another” (viii).

The journal has some creative thinkers working on it and is worth checking out:

Crucible’s aim is to enhance creative  thinking about the relationship of biblical and theological truths to the life, ministry and mission of the church. It is a forum for scholars and practitioners to publish material, interact and resource the Christian community. 

Crucible publishes three types of material:

  • The Cauldron:  formal, academic, ‘blind’ peer reviewed scholarly articles.
  • The Test-tube: ministry resources related to the life, ministry and mission of the church. 
  • The Filter:  book reviews

Losing My Religion: Unbelief in Australia by Tom Frame

(UNSW Press; Sydney, 2009)

Losing My Religion has been out for a while and there are plenty of reviews around.  If you want to know more of what is actually in the book I suggest Geoff Page (Australian poet and self-confessed agnostic).  I’m going to respond to it with my own thoughts – so this post is more about me than Tom Frame!

I have been bemused by the preoccupation with Atheists of late.  As a single mother of small children I don’t watch TV news or listen to news radio and I hardly ever get to pick up a newspaper.  Most of my interactions at the time of the Atheists convention in 2010 were with other school and kinder Mums and pastoring a church in a time of transition.  I would have missed the event if it had not been for the extraordinary public response from Church.  Tom Frame recognises that social research reveals most positive atheists are men aged over 60 years and this is definitely reflected in my experience.  In fact, the Atheists convention was just as bewildering to my friends as our discussions on Christian attitudes to sexuality!  However, with these same girlfriends, when I raise the experiences of prayer, meditation, grace, love, forgiveness and a spiritual power for living through the difficult years of early child rearing, we can talk for hours!  Spirituality is part of the conversation  just as is swapping strategies about how to get the kids to eat their vegetables and sleep in their own beds!

So what is going on?  Is this a gender divide or a life stage divide?  Are Gen Xers rejecting atheism just as they are rejecting institutional religion because it is overly rational and irrelevant to our lives?  Are women more in tune with the emotional and intuitive aspects of believing in God?  Is this experience limited to me and the friends I attract?  The social research is revealing an increasing number of ‘spiritual but not religious’ Australians, and those in their 30s and 40s are more represented in these categories.  It is also true that middle class Australians (of which I am undeniably one) are more into religion and spirituality than working class Australians who, unless they are from a recent migrant population, are much more likely to tick ‘no religion’ on any social survey.  Are my friends simply indicative of a particular Australian cohort?

The spirituality I encounter in my non-religious peers is not interested in argument.  We are primarily interested in what gets us through the day, keeps our marriages in tact (analysing the ones that don’t stay in tact!), things that help us grieve the aging of our parents and, above all, whatever enables us and our children to be happy.  By in large, any experimentation with attendance at a local church does not provide for those things and instead seems to promise more burdens on depleted supplies of time and energy!  If we are a cohort of Australian spirituality, then the church is not where we find solace (and yes, I bravely include myself in this declaration).

Tom Frame focuses on unbelief from the perspective of the conscientious intellectual objector, but neither does he dismiss the existence of my cohort it is just not explored fully in the book.  For many Australians belief has simply become irrelevant and unnecessary.  There is no denial of faith required.  There is no defense of faith required.  It just is what it is and if it helps you live better well and good.  The most frequent response I receive when I declare my occupation as an anglican priest is – “Wow, good on you!”  People are interested.  They want to know how my personal spirituality functions.  I have often said that I love living where I live because my lifestyle as a radical follower of Jesus is honored for what it is without fear or favour –  just as the lesbian couple with IVF children are respected for their lifestyle and integrity and the recent migrants are welcomed even though we find them less comfortable because of the language barrier.

If the church’s response to unbelief in Australia focuses on intellectual argument to the exclusion of exploring new types of connections with fellow spiritual travellers, the church will slide further into obscurity.  The numbers of spiritual but not religious are on the rise, and the numbers of dogmatic atheists will continue to decline with the fragmentation of Enlightenment Rationalism as a cultural paradigm.  Similarly, if our faith communities functionally require a complete investment of time, energy and relationship to the exclusion of other neighborhood, family and friend networks, the church will attract only those who are interested in an approach to spirituality and religion that retreats from the wider culture to create an alternative world.  Whilst this might be biblical justified (Jesus followers are sojourners in a strange land), it does not make for easy entry for spiritual seekers and I fear that they may miss out on the depths of knowing Jesus – the most blessed source of life and love and hope.


Australian Soul: Religion and Spirituality in the Twenty-first Century by Gary Bouma

(Cambridge University Press; Melbourne, 2006)

“‘A whisper in the mind and a shy hope in the heart’ is a phrase used by Manning Clark to describe… a key characteristic of the ANZAC psyche or spirit… ‘A shy hope in the heart’ aptly expresses the nature of Australian religion and spirituality.” (p2)

Gary Bouma reviews qualitative and quantitative material to construct a sociological picture of Australian religion and spirituality which are accompanied by some observations and reflections.  He identifies several changes in Australian culture which have marginalised religion in it’s institutional forms, which to some extent has suited institutional Christianity by freeing it from the bonds of nominalism and an inherited negative associations with English colonial rule.

“The origins of post-1788 Australia have set the pattern for a distinctive Australian religion and spirituality:  low to moderate levels of participation in organised forms of religion and spirituality, individual responsibility, distrust of organisations – especially those associated with the Crown – and the expectation tht formal religion will be organised by professionals for ordinary people while they must tend to their own spirituality.” (p.45)

The move to the margins has enabled some elements of traditional Christianity to take up more critical positions against the State and others to ignore the State and develop their own self-contained, religious-social world.  Bouma sees some signs of religious rejuvenation within this.   However, the decline of ‘British protestantism’ has given way to an eclectic and anti-institutional approach to spirituality.

“The future of religion may be upbeat, but that of a particular religious organisation that may once have been central to a society but is now missing the trend may well be less rosy.” (p.205)

The cultural shifts which Bouma identifies as having most impact on the role of religion in Australia are:

  • a move from a preference for rationality to experience (moving into a post-secular culture)
  • end of Empire and Colonisation as elements of Australian identity
  • hyper-consumer culture
  • multi-culturalism and thereby multi-faith
  • reinvention of family life

He identifies three key drivers in the evolution of religion in Australia’s future:

  • the need for “hope, and meaning grounded in a connection with that which is more than passing, partial and broken.” (p.205)
  • increasing diversity
  • faith based education producing “a cohort of religiously articulate young people who have a much more developed sense of their spirituality than previous generations.” (p.206)

Christian Research Association – 2 recent releases

Spirit Matters:  How making sense of life affects wellbeing by Peter Kaldor, Philip Hughes & Alan Black, (Mosaic Press; Melbourne, 2010)

Shaping Australia’s Spirituality: A Review of Christian Ministry in the Australian Context by Philip Hughes et al (Mosaic Press; Melbourne, 2010)

These two publications examine social research into spirituality and religion  in Australia.  The first is the write up of a 2002 ‘Wellbeing and Security Survey’ which had a sample size of about 1500 Australians (conducted through Edith Cowan, Deakin & NSLC).  The second is an extended discussion prepared for the CRA 2010 National Roundtable conference on ‘Shaping Australia’s Spirituality’, which includes research from the 2009 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (conducted through ANU) which had a sample size of about 1700 Australians.  The two surveys are not exactly comparable due to variations in the survey questions, but there is enough evidence to suggest that the results back each other up, and that the patterns of spirituality and religiosity described in 2002 are continuing within Australian culture.  Shaping Australia’s Spirituality also draws on research from several other projects and census data.

To GROSSLY over simplify, here is my nutshell reflection:

  • Just under half of all Australians would be happy to call themselves spiritual, religious or both.  What is meant by those terms however, varies a great deal!  Less than half of this group would walk into a church building.
  • The other half of Australians are happy to say they have no religion, but only around 15% of this group intend this as a definitive statement about God or metaphysical realities.  That is, most people who have no religion do so because they don’t care or don’t know enough about it.

Take a look at this helpful table from Spirit Matters: (hope you can read it!)

There have been three perspectives on Australian religiosity and spirituality in recent years, each with a slightly different interpretation of our culture.  Gary Bouma (my old Sociology lecturer!) thinks that there is a ‘low temperature’ culture of religion which is still influential in the Australian psyche.  David Tacey thinks that there is a kind of spiritual revolution going on where Australians are rejecting religion but not spirituality.  Tom Frame argues that most Australians are predominantly secular.  Shaping Australia’s Spirituality suggests that there is evidence for all three perspectives!

This table is derived from the 2009 survey: (please have a giggle at my scanning skills!)

The CRA mob have some helpful suggestions as to where to dig deeper.

  • There is significant interest in a spirituality which connects with nature and grapples with the ecological crisis and may also have it’s roots in the experience of being Australian.  This extends across various categories in the spiritual and/or religious grouping.  If the church grapple with the earth story in a meaningful way, they may yet have a contribution to make to the Australian story.
  • Gender, ethnicity and age are all significant factors in mapping Australian spirituality/religiosity.  For example, the majority of atheists are men over 60.  The majority of ‘fundamentalist’ religious believers are over 70 and/or from a recent migrant population.  Young people (under 30) express more interest in spiritual things than their older counterparts, but simultaneously emphasize the need to create one’s own synchronistic meaning and also express the greatest amount of indecision as to what they believe.
  • The capitalist market approach to life has well and truly infiltrated the Australian cultural expressions of spirituality and religion.  This gives the church two options:  adapt; or define itself as counter-cultural.  Both approaches will gain some interest from some Australians, but counter-cultural sub-groups will by definition be marginal in society.
  • The broader social changes to community formation affect the way that spiritual/religious communities are formed.  Generally speaking, they fall into being either 1. close knit sub-group communities formed around a non-religious social grouping like ethnicity.   2.  networks of friends/family/acquaintances who are gathered by specific events or connections.

My questions:

  • What are the options for a market spirituality approach that remain authentic to Jesus’ vision for humanity?
  • What are the options for network communities of faith that remain authentic to Jesus’ vision for the church?