Making atheists and doubters count in the next Census

Jul 18, 2021

While fundamentalist Christians are busy infiltrating the Liberal Party the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) and other groups have launched a campaign – the Census 21 Campaign – to encourage people to tick the no religion box in the August 10 2021 Australian Census.

The ABS says that: “The 2016 Census of Population and Housing found that three-fifths of the Australian population (61 per cent, or 14 million people) are affiliated with a religion or spiritual belief. Christianity is once again the dominant religion in Australia, with 12 million people, and 86 per cent of religious Australians, identifying as Christians.”

Of course, ticking the Census religion box and actually attending a religious service are different things. In the 1950s about 40% of Australians attended religious service and that’s been dropping ever since with only about one in seven of those who ticked the Christianity box actually regularly attending a service.

The Census 21 campaign argues that when religious organisations are attributed more support than they actually have they receive an unfair amount of public funding as evidenced by the huge sums the Government gives to rich religious schools; and, it gives religious organisations a stronger voice and more influence than they actually deserve.

In the lead up to the campaign the RSA has published a report, Religiosity in Australia, by RSA Fellow Neil Francis. The report itself is a terrific read although the highlight is an elegant Foreword by a Christian, The Hon Michael Kirby who is a Patron of the RSA. If this seems paradoxical Kirby says, in explaining why he accepted the patronage, that “I strongly support secularism in the public space. Indeed, I regard secularism as one of the greatest gifts of the British to Australia’s constitutional ethos.”

Kirby says: “Simply to impose one’s own opinions constitutes an abuse of power. Trying to reflect the beliefs of earlier generations is bound to fail. Guessing modern attitudes without data would be perilous. Striving to reflect the changing convictions and needs of contemporary citizens will be assisted by this up-to-date research. It portrays a community in the throes of substantial change. And, in this, Australia is not alone.”

He also notes that, despite the common belief, the US is also undergoing significant change in religious affiliations with a 29 March 2021 Gallup Poll indicating that the proportion of Americans who consider themselves members of a church or synagogue has dropped below 50% for the first time.

The Francis Paper points out that when asked specifically whether they belong to the religious organisation they are supposedly part of 62% of Australians say they don’t. Only small minorities saying it is possible to connect to their God through their religious institution.

The paper, in marketing style, creates categories of religious and non-religious population segments such as Devouts, Regulars, Occasionals, Notionals and Not Religious.

It then evaluates issues ranging across tax, abortion, marriage equality, government economic competence, homosexuality and climate change and analyses attitudes to each according to where they fit in the defined population segments.

It’s impossible to summarise all these permutations although one thing stands out: older Australians are more prone to religiosity while younger generations tend to be in the no-religion category. As death gets closer they may change their mind as Pascal’s Wager looks attractive – but in terms of social and economic policy in the next decades, the decline in religiosity will continue and possibly accelerate.

It argues that religion is in long-term and recent steep decline and that the Devout category is least likely to be working in leadership roles which suggest the Morrison Cabinet is an outlier.

“Firstly, this detailed and comprehensive review of Australian religion by the numbers reveals that religion in Australia is considerably less prevalent than indicated by the census and as claimed by clerics. The incidence of religion has dropped considerably in recent years and the indications are that the drop will continue, if not accelerate.

“Furthermore, even those who say they are affiliated with one or other denomination mostly disagree with their clerics on a range of social issues such as abortion, VAD, and marriage equality, and few are even certain about fundamental tenets of their religion, such as the existence of God, heaven, hell, religious miracles, and life after death.

“Secondly, it’s worth emphasising that it is the minor Christian denominations — not for the most part Catholic and Anglican laity — who hold the most devout beliefs, harsher attitudes towards their fellow Australians, most strongly oppose social reforms, express the greatest interest in money matters, and are most likely to say that God is concerned with everyone personally, even those who reject God.” This no doubt reminds you of one very prominent Australia.

That also says a lot about both the Morrison Government and its supporters and enablers.

For the rest of us, it is important to remember an important distinction the report draws between the views of the religious hierarchy and its lay flock. “It is mostly bishops, rabbi and mufti who espouse highly conservative views, while the views of their flocks are significantly more progressive and clearly disagree with organisational doctrine.”

Indeed it seems we might well echo that cry from almost a millennium ago (albeit via a 20th century play): who will save us from these turbulent priests, rabbis and mufti?

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