What the census statistics on religious affiliations reveal

What the census statistics on religious affiliations reveal

Michael Gilchrist

Australia's culture war: who is to halt the triumph of secularism?

The recent Synod of Oceania, and the document Statement of Conclusions, released just after it, both pointed to secularism as the major challenge facing the Catholic Church in Australia. The statement said: "The People of God look to their shepherds for guidance and leadership now more than ever in these confusing and increasingly secularised times." In essence, the document was a "wake-up call" for the Church in the face of continuing declines in belief and practice and in the number of priestly and religious vocations.

The statement's challenge to the bishops to arrest the decline has a note of urgency, given that the Catholic Church seemingly represents the only substantial religious obstacle to the secularisation of Australian culture, particularly as regards marriage and family, the sanctity of human life, moral values and bio-ethical developments.

Latest statistics

This is underlined by the latest statistics from the 1996 census as analysed in Religion in Australia: Facts and Figures by Dr Philip J. Hughes (Christian Research Association).

The most telling figures relate to those who placed themselves in the category "No Religion" and "No Stated Religion." These categories are not the same, as those in the latter would include people preferring not to identify their religious allegiance, or who simply forgot to fill in the details. However, some of these could no doubt be added to "No Religion" which would include atheists, agnostics, rationalists and others of a secular disposition.

In the first census of 1911, only 2.7 percent put themselves in the "No Religion" category. By 1991, this had grown to 12.9 percent (with another 10.2 percent of "No Stated Religion"). By the 1996 census, "No Religion" had increased to 16.6 percent (with "No Stated Religion" at 9 percent). This represented a 35 percent increase in just five years, when the general population grew by only five percent.

That this rapid increase is set to continue can be seen from the age profile of "No Religion" people.

The incidence of "No Religion" increases markedly in the younger age categories, for while only 4.2 percent of over 70 people identified themselves as such, 19.4 percent of 40-49 year olds did so, with the percentage increasing to 24.9 for 30-39 year olds and 26.9 for the 20-29 age group. In other words, even allowing for some return to religious allegiance among older people, there is an inbuilt increase factor.

One is constantly aware of how the mass media, advertising and entertainment industries and higher education sectors treat "religious" issues to appreciate the strength of "No Religion" in pivotal opinion-shaping sectors - which in turn impact on the political processes.

The episode just over 12 months ago of the Serrano "art" exhibition in the National Gallery of Victoria (involving the intervention of Archbishop Pell) highlighted the disdain those in control have for Christian sentivities and their apparent conviction that the Christian Churches are 'soft' targets.

This attitude is understandable when one examines the latest statistics.

While non-Christians have enjoyed rapid statistical growth from tiny base figures, largely as a result of Australia's more tolerant immigration policies of the past 20 years, these still constitute less than 3 percent of the Australian population. Muslims, for example, have grown from 22,000 in 1971 to over 200,000 in 1996. Hindus have increased similarly.

The Eastern Orthodox Churches have also grown substantially over a longer period, particularly since 1947, when immigrants from non-English speaking European countries arrived in large numbers. In 1947, there were just 17,000 Eastern Orthodox adherents in Australia. In 1996, there were 475,000 - with Melbourne the world's second Greek city outside Athens, having 6.2 percent of its population Eastern Orthodox. However, nation-wide, Eastern Orthodox Christians account for under 3 percent.

Rapid growth

The various religious sects, such as Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons and Pentecostals, while experiencing rapid growth - with many of their converts former Catholics - amount to barely 2 percent of the national population.

The smaller Protestant denominations - Baptists, Lutherans, Churches of Christ and Salvation Army - have remained generally stable in the period since 1911, and all told make up about 4 percent.

The two largest non-Catholic Churches, however, have fallen on hard times since 1911. Anglicans, who made up 38.4 percent of the population in 1911, are now 22 percent. The constituent parts of the Uniting Church - Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational - totalled 26.5 percent of Australia's population in 1911, whereas in 1996, the Uniting Church amounted to 7.5 percent and the Continuing Presbyterian Church (made up of Presbyterians who declined to merge into the Uniting Church) represented 3.8 percent of the population - 11.3 percent in all.

In other words, whereas Anglicans and members of the Uniting Church (and Continuing Presbyterians) claimed the allegiance of almost two-thirds of the population in 1911, today this is barely one-third.

Part of this decline is no doubt due to the make-up of Australia's immigration intake over the past 50 years, which has seen a declining proportion of British immigrants. It is also true to say that sections of the Anglican and Uniting Churches have been in the forefront of accommodating Christian beliefs and practices to secularism and political correctness - as evidenced in the participation of a group of Uniting Church ministers in Sydney's Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

Catholic Church

Lastly, the Catholic Church has grown from 22 percent of the population in 1911 to 27 percent in 1996, having become the nation's largest single denomination following the 1981 census. It has benefitted to a large extent from the composition of Australia's post-World War II immigrant intake, e.g, southern and eastern Europeans. Over 20 percent of Catholics were born overseas - compared with 3 percent of Anglicans.

But while this statistic looks impressive, the reality is that an increasing proportion of Catholics are becoming nominal members of their Church, no longer attending Mass and adopting a 'cafeteria' approach to the Church's teachings. The weekly attendance rates up to the early 1960s of around 50-60 percent have fallen to less than 20 percent in most parts of Australia, and continue to fall at an alarming rate.

The Catholic proportion of the population disposed to play even a minimally active role in countering secularism is not an impressive 27 percent, but a more likely 5 percent, at best. The other Churches mentioned above would be hard-pressed to muster an aggregate of 5 percent. Most of the smaller more zealous Churches tend to be inward-looking or serve a cultural/ethnic function.

This rough 10 percent estimate of potentially "active" religious adherents puts the rapidly growing and influential secularist component of the population in perspective.

In other words, if the Catholic Church fails to get its house in order, the final triumph of secularism in Australia seems a certainty.

'Religion in Australia' can be ordered through the Christian Research Association, tel (03) 9816 9468.

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