Many years ago, on behalf of Atheist Nexus, I wrote a submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission on Freedom of Religion and Belief in Australia. Pulling together statistics on religiosity in Australia took months. The research was both scant and scattered.
It’s a big read at 150 pages, but well worth the effort. I highly recommend you find a comfy chair, snuggle down with a cuppa, and devour the whole thing. You’ll also find a short summary of the research by Paul Karp in The Guardian.
The aim of Neil’s detailed, statistical analysis is “to help inform legislatures, governments, regulatory authorities, media and the public about Australians’ actual religious attitudes and behaviours.” It is not ‘opinion’, it is information based on statistics and sound evidence.
Neil shows, definitively, that the Australian Census does not provide an accurate assessment of Australians’ attachment to religious faith. The 2016 census suggests that 60 per cent of Australians identify with a religious denomination. But, the census question does not ask whether the respondent practices that religion, whether they believe in its tenets, or if they ever attend religious services. In fact, as Neil’s study shows, when asked expressly if they belong to a religious organisation, 62 per cent of Australians reply in the negative.
Remarkably, 48 per cent of Catholics, 44 per cent of Anglicans and 27 per cent of minor Christian denominations say they are not practicing members of their professed faith. Consistent with these statistics, 71 per cent of Australians say religion is not important to them – including nearly 50 per cent of Catholics.
In “Felons, Ratbags, Commies and Left-Wing Loonies”, the chapter I wrote for Warren Bonnett’s (2010) The Australian Book of Atheism, I charted the history of Christianity in Australia, I agreed that, while convicts, colonists, pioneers and those who came after them may have been nominally Christian, Australia, at its heart, has never been a ‘Christian nation.’ (I made a similar argument in a speech about Jeremy Bentham in 2014.) Neil’s research confirms this is as true in 2021 as it was in 1788. We are a nation in which a small majority of the population are nominal, but not practicing, or even believing, Christians. That should have real implications for political policy-making.
Consider, if religion was an important factor in Australians’ lives, most Australians would choose – on what many consider the most important day of their lives – to get married in a church. And yet, 80 per cent of weddings are conducted by civil celebrants, not ministers of religion.
Further, Neil’s study shows, most Australians do not follow the conservative churches’ line on social issues. The majority of Australians support progressive social policies including abortion and women’s reproductive rights, voluntary assisted dying, marriage equality, the legalisation of recreational drugs and the need to address global warming. As Neil points out, the “Christian values” so loudly espoused by the Vatican, and from conservative religious pulpits around Australia, do not reflect the values of the churches’ own congregations.
In 2018, 40 per cent of Australians claimed to hold no belief in either a specific deity or even a generic “higher power.” That makes unbelievers the largest ‘religious’ grouping in Australia. But an even more startling finding in Neil’s study is that: just 1 in 5 Australians – only 20 per cent – are certain that God, heaven, hell, religious miracles, and life after death are real. That includes, on average, just 1 in 3 Catholics (32%), and around 1 in 4 Anglicans (23%) and Uniting/Methodists (23%).
This confirms my argument in Felons, Ratbags, Commies and Left-Wing Loonies that, for many, attending church is about networking, social status, socialising, culture and tradition, and a sense of obligation, rather than any particular commitment to the tenets and beliefs of the church.
With Neil Francis, the Rationalist Society of Australia has provided us with an evidence-based document that will help to counter the hollow propaganda of the religious right. Politicians who genuinely wish to represent the values of their constituents would do well to consider Neil’s findings.
Australia is not, and has never been, a ‘Christian’ nation and our governments’ policies should reflect the views of the majority, not the ideological propaganda of lobbyists whose views are not even consistent with those of the people they claim to represent.
See: Neil Francis, Religiosity in Australia – Part 1: Personal faith according to the numbers, Rationalist Society of Australia, May 2021
Paul Karp,‘Australians are very sceptical’: Michael Kirby warns against ‘excessive protection’ of religious freedoms, The Guardian, Australia, 11 June 2021
You can read more of Neil’s research on voluntary assisted dying at his blog, Dying for Choice.