HUGH MACKAY. What the Census really said about religion.

Aug 23, 2017

When the 2016 Census results were released, anti-religionists and anti-theists worked themselves into a lather of excitement about the apparent increase in the number of Australians ticking the ‘No religion’ box.  In the five years since 2011, that figure rose from 21.8 to 29.6 percent.  Or did it?

After a great deal of lobbying from interested parties, the Australian Bureau of Statistics moved ‘No religion’ from the bottom of the list of religions, where it had always previously been located, to the top of the list of possibilities.  This was done, it was said, to correct the bias associated with ‘No religion’ being at the bottom of the list.  If there was such a bias, of course, moving the item to the top of the list simply changed the nature of the bias: if the number of people choosing ‘No religion’ had been artificially deflated by being at the bottom of the list, then, logically, it has been artificially inflated by being placed at the top.

As of now, therefore, we simply don’t know the true figure: did it increase because the number of people not wishing to identify with a religion had actually increased, or did it increase because, as predicted, items at the top of the list attract more support than those at the bottom?

Given recent trends here and elsewhere, the strongest probability is that there was an actual increase, but perhaps not as great as the 7.8 percent reported.  To establish the true figure, we would need to put ‘No religion’ back on the bottom of the list next time, and see whether the increase holds, and then put it back on top five years after that.  (Or maybe we could replicate all this with a sample survey of people offered the same options as in the Census, but with the items presented in a range of different orders to test the bias hypothesis.)

If there was some artificiality built into the 2016 figure, it would have been boosted somewhat by the unprecedented pre-Census propaganda urging people to tick ‘No religion’ unless they were actively practising members of some faith community.  This must have been the first occasion in the history of the Census when such overt persuasion was focused on trying to influence people’s behaviour on Census night.

Whatever it means, the increased figure for ‘No religion’ caused great crowing among anti-religionists, and some enthusiastic calls for greater secularisation of Australia (perhaps confusing Australia’s commitment to freedom of religion with the anti-religionists’ goal of freedom from religion).  In the days after the release of the Census data, the claim was repeatedly made that ‘No religion’ is now the biggest single category of religious identification.

Not so.  If you add all the religions together (Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, etc.), the figure for Australians wanting to identify with some religion is just over 60 percent (rising to 66 percent in NSW), compared with the 30 percent who claim no religion.  So a more accurate interpretation of the figures would be to say that twice as many Australians identify with some religion as those identifying with none.

While it’s true that more people ticked ‘No religion’ than any one of the individual Christian denominations, the cumulative ‘Christian’ figure was 52 percent: that is, over 12 million Australians.  The figure has dropped sharply from the 62 percent in the previous Census, but it still represents a majority of Australians choosing to identify as Christian.

To compare the ‘no religion’ figure with the figure for any one Christian denomination is to make a false comparison.  ‘No religion’ is no more homogeneous a category than ‘Christian’ is.  Just as ‘Christian’ embraces Catholic, Anglican, Pentecostalist, etc., and Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Jewish all consist of several (sometimes warring) sub-groups, so, if you were to break ‘No religion’ down, you would find a similarly diverse range of sub-categories.

They would include the large and growing band of people, especially young people, who identify as SBNR (spiritual but not religious); the militant anti-religionists who would like to adopt ‘No religion!’ as a slogan; the roughly eight percent of Australians who do not wish to associate themselves with any particular religious group but still claim to believe in God ‘or some higher power’; those who are completely uninterested in the whole topic; the agnostics who are not prepared to commit themselves to the leap of faith in either direction – theism or atheism – but who would not rule out some form of religious practice in their future, even if it has no role in their present life.  And, if the pre-Census propaganda bore any fruit, the ‘No religion’ figure would also include an unknown number of people who still think of themselves as basically Christian in their values and orientation, while not being associated with any religious institution.

So it would be quite wrong to equate ‘no religion’ with ‘anti-religion’: indeed, there’s a strong streak of ‘faith envy’ among those who don’t have any religious faith but wish they did.  While the Census points to the sharp decline of Christianity, the religious picture has become more complex and diverse than it once was – just as Australia’s culture is more complex and diverse than it once was.  Even within Christianity, about 15 percent of Australians still attend church at least once a month, and the figure rises to over 25 percent at Christmas and Easter.  The number attending informal ‘house churches’ in private homes is unknown but appears to be increasing.  (By the way, we have never been a ‘church-going nation’: even in the 1950s, only about 45 percent of the population attended church regularly. )

But anyone predicting the death of religion would be missing not only the lessons of history, but also the present situation globally.  About 73 percent of the world’s population identify with one of the four great world religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.  The respected Pew Research Centre estimates that that figure will rise to 80 percent by the middle of this century, by which time Islam will have passed Christianity as the biggest of the four, there will be more churchgoers in China than in the US, and China will have simultaneously become the world’s biggest Christian and Muslim country.

Meanwhile, in Australia, further decline in Christian faith and practice seems likely, but Islam is not the ‘threat’ so often imagined: at present only 2.6 percent of the Australian population is Muslim, and our fastest-growing religion is actually Hinduism (around 2 percent and growing rapidly, in line with immigration from the Indian sub-continent).  In New Zealand, Hinduism is already the second biggest religion after Christianity, and that is likely to happen here, as well.

Religion survives, even in places like Scandinavia which has the lowest rate of church attendance in the world, because of the answers to existential questions it offers the faithful; because of the inspiration and comfort people draw from its grand narratives (increasingly, in the West, such inspiration relies on the metaphorical truth in the stories rather than the literal truth of the stories); and because of the powerful sense of belonging people derive from their membership of a faith community.

And then there are the benefits of faith itself: psychologist Martin Seligman’s research has led him to conclude that the one essential ingredient we need for a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives is faith in ‘something greater than ourselves’.  Seligman doesn’t specifically recommend religious faith, but, for most Australians, God (however defined) still supplies that ‘something greater’.

At its best, and in spite of the corruption of religious institutions, religion encourages people to live noble, rather than merely moral, lives.  Perhaps it’s no wonder than 60 percent of Australians still choose to identify with it, in one form or another.

Hugh Mackay’s most recent non-fiction book is Beyond Belief: How we find meaning, with or without religion, published by Macmillan

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