Secularism is described as the separation of church and state. According to some people, Australia may be considered a secular country depending on the definition of secularism that is used. Due to this, the federal government can’t establish a state church, although, they are free to provide funding to religious schools and organizations and recognize marriages officiated by religious celebrants. Australia still has many of its population that is religious. However, there has been a rise in the last 9 years in the number of people who have no religious connections (no religion). Since Australia is such a multicultural country, there is no toleration to religious prejudice and laws have been put into place to assist in preventing this. Secularism in Australia means no state church which gives people the freedom and choice to follow any religion if they choose to as long as the law isn’t broken. This also gives people the choice to not follow any religion. An increasing number of people today are choosing not to affiliate with any specific religion which could be due to a generational difference, age, family expectations, scientific influence, and media and pop culture. This essay aims to analyse the increase that has occurred in the number of people with no religious connection (no religion) in Australia.
Religion has played an important role in many people’s lives, one of the main ones being Christianity. European settlers, in 1788, introduced Christianity to Australia and over the next centuries this migration resulted in shaping the profile of Christian affiliations in Australia. Census data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that there has been an increase of 29.3% in the number of people who reported that they had no religion, since the year 1996. In that year, 88.2% of the Australian population followed Christianity, making it the dominant religion in Australia. The White Australia Policy was also abolished this year, leading to a growth in migrants from non-European countries. This lead to an increase in the percentage of people following religions other than Christianity, such as Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. This also lead to people being able to have no religion. A comparison of census data shows that 52.1% of the Australian population reported as being Christian and 30.1% as following no religion by 2016. The largest change in this trend was between 2011 and 2016, where another 2.2 million people reported as having no religion. The data also states that 27.1% of those born overseas did not have a religion compared to 34% of Australian-born people. In 2011, Catholicism was recorded with the highest number of followers (25.3%). However, in 2016, data shows that “no religion” had the highest reporting (30.1%) followed by Catholicism (22.6%). This data clearly shows that there is a rising trend in the number of people with no religious connections (no religion). It is to be noted that when looking at census statistics about no religion there is no individual data for atheism, agnosticism and other forms of non-religious belief. They are all covered under the broad classification of “No religion”.
Atheism, agnosticism, and irreligion are important terms when it comes to understanding the rise in the number of people who have no religious affiliations. According to Christian theologian and physicist Alister McGrath, atheism is defined as “The religion of the autonomous and rational human being, who believes that reason is able to uncover and express the deepest truths of the universe, from the mechanics of the rising sun to the nature and final destiny of humanity”. Simply put, atheism means the disbelief in the existence of God or Gods. Agnosticism is when a person does not believe in the existence or non-existence of a God or Gods. Irreligion or unbelief is a broader category that encompasses atheism, agnosticism and other forms of non-religious beliefs. This means that there is a generalized lack of belief in a God or Gods. As mentioned earlier, there is a rising trend in the number of people who are reporting that they have no religious beliefs or they follow no religion. There are many reasons that may have influenced the rising unbelief of people, generational differences being one of the significant reasons. Census data suggests that young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 years were more likely to report not having a religion (39%) compared to 16.1% of older people (aged 65 and over). The census also shows a pattern of similarity of religious beliefs between those who are 18 years and under and those who are between the ages of 35 and 49. This could suggest that the beliefs of those under 18 are mostly influenced by their parents. An example of this would be the case of Sabeena Mozaffar, who was raised in Pakistan as a staunch Muslim. She had doubts about her faith but due to family pressure, traditions and religious surroundings, she couldn’t voice these doubts.
However, after moving to Sydney for university she opened up and realized that she was an atheist and felt angry that she had wasted her life believing in a concept that she thought was false and was unable to have a say about her beliefs. Many young adults experience similar situations when faced with external pressure. Another significant reason is the scientific discoveries and technological advancements that are being made which is resulting in people turning to science instead of religion to answer their unanswered questions. People are starting to prefer a rational and evidence-based approach to life and some even believe that religion has become outdated. Another example is the story of Lisa Qiu, who grew up in a Christian household but is now an active atheist and the president of UNSW Agnostics, Atheists and Humanists. She said that she started using science and her intuition to answer questions rather than religion. She felt that religion wasn’t a part of her identity as her family had established religion as something to help her become a better person. In this day and age media, internet and pop culture are heavily influencing our everyday lives and are in turn having a great effect on religious beliefs as well. It has been observed that the media portrays religion in a bad light and focuses on the negatives of religion by using the actions of extremists against a whole religion. Younger generations are more likely to blindly believe the information bombarded by the media and let it influence their views resulting in fear or disbelief in religion. Television programs make a mockery out of religions which could lead to the framing of non-religious ideas, opinions, and beliefs by youth. In the episode, “All About Mormons”, of the popular television show, South Park, they mock the Mormon religion by implying that skeptics were “smart” and religious people were “dumb”. It also argues about the flaws in this religion’s founding. Younger generations are also heavily influenced by schools when it comes to religious beliefs. A person spends the majority of their younger life in an educational setting. With the rise in cultural diversity, non- religious schools aren’t able to incorporate religious holidays or teach in a religious context outside electives.
It is apparent that the concept of following no religion is considered by an increasing number of people as time progresses, and this upward trend is most likely to continue. According to the Win-Gallup study, there was a trend where the more developed the country was, the higher the decline of religious belief. The study also found that the more educationally qualified people were, there was a lower rate of religious belief. In developing countries, religion is considered to be used as a psychological response to reduce the anxiety of being in a deteriorating environment. Scientific discoveries and technological advances increase the standard of living, which reduces people’s dependence on religious beliefs. The idea of following no religion has a high probability of being passed on to the future generations resulting in it eventually becoming the norm as seen in places like the Chez Republic where over half the population follows no religion. This would lead to the weakening of Christianity’s grip on Australia, resulting in a diminished religious presence. Religion becoming the minority could, in turn, pose certain challenges to the country and its people such as losing government funding and subsidies for schools, hospitals, and welfare agencies as religious institutions play a significant role in providing these services. However, there has also been an increase in the number of people who identify as being “spiritual but not religious.” Malcolm Forbes, Clinical senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne suggests that Australians live their life with a view of morality that is inspired by Judeo-Christian traditions and that one does not need to be religious to continue to live by these values, implying that Australia’s moral progress is nothing to be concerned about. There have been scientific studies as well showing that there may be an inversely proportional relationship between the economic growth of a country and religious belief.
Australia is a very multicultural country and therefore religion isn’t as enforced as it once was, resulting in the rise in religious unbelief in the country. Secularism has slowly undermined religious beliefs assisting people in living their lives with no religious affiliations if they wish to. There are a few challenges that have been noticed due to this however, it has also brought about changes to the country in the way of how people think, express themselves and interact with each other. Research and data have shown that the number of people who have reported not having any religion is rising and is most likely to continue to rise. People nowadays prefer to think more independently and express themselves freely rather than be restricted by the rules and patterns of religion.
- Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2016). – Census of Population and Housing: Reflecting Australia – Stories from the Census, 2016https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/2071.0~2016~Main%20Features~Religion%20Data%20Summary~70.
- Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2016). 2016 Census: Religion.
- Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2016 Census Data Summary RELIGION IN AUSTRALIA.
- Evans C. Religion and the Secular State in Australia. ttps://www.iclrs.org/content/blurb/files/Australia.1.pdf
- Faith no more: Why young Australians are rejecting religion. (2018). https://www.sbs.com.au/news/faith-no-more-why-young-australians-are-rejecting-religion
- Forbes, M. Census 2016: Why Australians are Losing their Religion. https://www.abc.net.au/religion/census-2016-why-australians-are-losing-their-religion/10096674
- Life in Australia Australian Values and Principles. (2016). https://immi.homeaffairs.gov.au/support-subsite/files/life-in-australia/lia_english_full.pdf
- M Hoover, S. (2012). Religion and the Media in the 21st Century. Trípodos, 1(29), 27-35.
- McCrindle Research Pty Ltd (2017). Faith and Belief in Australia Report McCrindle 2017. https://mccrindle.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Faith-and-Belief-in-Australia-Report_McCrindle_2017.pdf
- Ormerod, N. (2010). Secularisation and the “Rise” of Atheism. Australian eJournal of Theology, 17, 13-22.
- Ruck, D., Bentley, R., & Lawson, D. Religious change preceded economic change in the 20th century.