Imagine “No Religion”: the 2011 census data and Christianity in Australia

While the Wall Street Journal has used the census data to declare “Australia is turning its back on religion” – I’m not so sure.

Religious affiliation top responses Australia % 2006 %
Catholic 5,439,268 25.3 5,126,885 25.8
No Religion 4,796,787 22.3 3,706,553 18.7
Anglican 3,679,907 17.1 3,718,248 18.7
Uniting Church 1,065,795 5 1,135,427 5.7
Presbyterian and Reformed 599,515 2.8 596,667 3

The most common responses for religion in Australia were Catholic 25.3%, No Religion 22.3%, Anglican 17.1%, Uniting Church 5.0% and Presbyterian and Reformed 2.8%.

23% of people identifying as Christian were born overseas.

From the ABS

In the past decade, the proportion of the population reporting an affiliation to a Christian religion decreased from 68% in 2001 to 61% in 2011. This trend was also seen for the two most commonly reported denominations. In 2001, 27% of the population reported an affiliation to Catholicism. This decreased to 25% of the population in 2011. There was a slightly larger decrease for Anglicans from 21% of the population in 2001 to 17% in 2011. Some of the smaller Christian denominations increased over this period – there was an increase for those identifying with Pentecostal from 1.0% of the population in 2001 to 1.1% in 2011. However, the actual number of people reporting this religion increased by one-fifth.

This is interesting too..

“The number of people reporting ‘No Religion’ also increased strongly, from 15% of the population in 2001 to 22% in 2011. This is most evident amongst younger people, with 28% of people aged 15-34 reporting they had no religious affiliation.”

The Wall Street Journal did include this perceptive little analysis of why religion in Australia might be on the decline:

“Proponents of religion frequently promote it as a route to happiness. But in Australia, whose prosperity has soared in recent years thanks to a mining boom fueled by developing Asia, some believe it might be the country’s rising level of contentedness that’s actually driving the decline of religion.

“We’re a nation that is very comfortably off and one that managed to ride out the global financial crisis,” said Carole Cusack, associate professor of religion at Sydney University. “Why would you need God here?”

That sentiment finds support from an Organization for Economic Cooperation report last month, which marked Australia as the happiest industrialized nation based on criteria including jobs, income and health. Unless something radical happens that interrupts that path to prosperity, said Ms. Cusack, the trend toward secularism here is likely to continue.

 

The problem is – using the census data as an indicator of religiosity is a terribly flawed method and it paints a pretty distorted picture of the Australian landscape. The religious affiliation question is optional and big changes in the number of Australians indicating “no religion” occurred with a change to the wording of the question to include the words “if no religion mark none” in 1971. Interestingly – the migration boom since 1971 also radically altered and diluted the religious pool in Australia, a conclusion which the data since, including the 2011 data, supports. Church attendance and indications of religious commitment rather than “affiliation” are surely better measures than ticking a box – especially when both the Australian Christian Lobby actively lobbied to skew the data, while the Atheist Foundation of Australia lobbied for more honest reporting.

Here’s what the ACL said in their Census media release:

“Not every person who holds judeo-Christian values attends a church, but if enough of them leave this section blank, some will use this to minimize the importance of basic Christian values in this country.  We need to prove the size of the constituency who hold these values.”

I’d say it’s a simple indicator that the constituency doesn’t actually share our values – and perhaps never has.

I have my doubts about whether Australia can ever have been considered a “Christian nation” even if the majority of Australians still culturally identify as Christian – you can read about the history of the census question, and Australian Christianity, in much longer form in an essay I wrote for Australian Church History if you like – but here’s the conclusion:

The Census data on religious affiliation, which focuses on individual identity rather than community belonging, provides an insight into the failure of the Australian church to articulate what Christian identity entails, and paints a confusing picture about the role of religion in Australia in both the past and the present. While some wish to claim Australia has a “rich Christian heritage,”the reality  is that an equally viable claim could be made for Australia’s secular history, and advocating either view at the expense of the other is historically reductionist.
My essay tracked the decline in church attendance in Australia, cultural changes, and changes to the census question, as well as looking at some of the factors behind church attendance in the Colonial days. I think the conclusion that Australia might have culturally identified as “Christian” in the past, but has never truly practiced being Christian – except for a brief period of revival in the mid 20th century – best represents the data, and it’s misleading for Christians to argue for superiority on the basis of data where the question is measuring cultural affiliation rather than actual belief and practice.
What is really cool about the census data this time around is the ability to generate postcode specific reports with QuickData – here’s the religious affiliation of those living in my postcode – which incidentally is in the catchment area for Creek Road – the church we’re plugged in to. There’s heaps of useful data for building a profile of the people in your patch – and it’s so readily accessible. It’s wonderful.
Religious affiliation, top responses 4152, Qld % Queensland % Australia %
Catholic 13,352 31.4 0 5,439,268 25.3
No Religion 7,936 18.7 0 4,796,787 22.3
Anglican 6,588 15.5 0 3,679,907 17.1
Uniting Church 2,419 5.7 0 1,065,795 5
Presbyterian and Reformed 1,610 3.8 0 599,515 2.8

1 Comment Imagine “No Religion”: the 2011 census data and Christianity in Australia

  1. Travis Doecke

    I always find the census data a little odd and often misleading. Sure it gives a snapshot, but as you point out, the results can easily be skewed. Plus, with a shift from ‘religion’ to ‘i follow jesus’ people can be unsure about which box to tick…because “I’m not religious, I follow Jesus”. Therefore, they may tick ‘no religion’. That’s my thoughts. Love ya blog!

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