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The Evolution Of Religion And Secularity In Australia

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Australia has a long history of religion and spirituality. Traditional owners have had a relationship with the land for thousands of years before Westerners arrived on their shores (Brunn, 2015). When Westerners arrived with the First Fleet, in 1788, they brought with them Christianity, as well as a small number of other religions (Symonds, 1898) with a high percentage of the settlers following these religions. Thompson (1994) suggests that this number could have been as much as 75%.

Over the last 230 years many cultures have migrated to Australia bringing with them their own religions and beliefs. This increase in population and variety of religions/beliefs has lead to a decline in the overall percentage of Christians (Dunn & Piracha, 2015). According to the 1911 Australian Census results, 96% of Australians had a religious affiliation. One hundred years later this had dropped to just 61% of Australians, by 2016 this had declined a further 9% in just 5 years (ABS, 2018; Dunn & Piracha, 2015). This paper looks at the change in the affiliation to religion in society, the possible causes for this change and ultimately, questions: Are we still a religious country or are we now tending to move towards a more secular nation? An argument is put forward by Taylor (2007) and Hudson (2016) that Australia is now a secular society, though they have different long term views on the results of this. Through this essay it will be discussed just how secular is Australian society when defined in Taylor and Hudson’s terms, with a conclusion following that of Taylor and Hudson: Australia does appear to be heading towards a secular society.

So, is Australia a secular nation? Some say yes (Hudson, 2016; Taylor, 2007), while others says no (Donnelly, 2014), then there are others who say we are post secular (Dunn & Piracha, 2015). Where do we go from here? Firstly we need to look at what exactly the word secularisation means. Bouma (2017) and Maddox (2007) note secularisation used to be described as one of two options, those who don’t believe in religion and those who practice religion privately, Bouma then goes on to say there are more than just these two understandings of secularism. Prior to Bouma’s reference to this, Taylor had introduced a three way definition of secularisation, the first definition being secularisation where religion is no longer seen in public spaces. People have beliefs though they are practiced in the home or at Church. To quote Taylor, public spaces have been, “allegedly emptied of God”. The second sense of secularisation is thought to be present when there is a decline in the number of people following religion both in practice and belief. The third definition, according to Taylor, is where the option of following Christianity is just one of the many beliefs to choose from (Taylor, 2007). This third sense of secularisation and how it has come about is demonstrated through Hudson’s (2016) examples.

Hudson (2016) almost chronologically discusses, in lengthy detail, how people transition from one belief to another, or into unbelief or disbelief. Hudson describes unbelief as a desire to accept religious tenets, but, an inability to follow this desire. Disbelief is described as behaving unsympathetically towards those who believe and consider the religious systems of belief are artificial or irrational.


Our views on secularism are framed by our religious beliefs and other experiences throughout our lives, things from the past that we assume others may know, as well as experiences not known by others. Taylor points out it is best not to take for granted what people know and to frame our work fully to avoid misunderstandings. A decline in religion as mentioned above could mean a decline in all religions, as one could interpret it from a different framework, however Taylor explains in his work that his frame is based on the presence of Christianity, not necessarily all religions as a whole (Taylor, 2007).

Due to Taylors use of Secularisation based in Christendom, there is a chance this may give a skewed view of his idea of the presence of secularisation. According to the 2016 census “other faiths” are on the increase. This indicates that although Christendom may be decreasing in the overall percentage of Australian Society, religion (using the term to include all religions) is not actually disappearing. It is changing (Hughes, 2016).

An increase of different religions and beliefs supports the ideas that Australia is a pluralistic country, that is, we have many religions co-existing (G. D. Bouma, 1995). When the breakdown of religion is examined in the Census glossary, it can be seen that Australia is not just a pluralistic country, but also has plurality within the plurals, for example the Catholic Church contains six subheadings, or “choices” of Catholic belief and the Pentecostal has fifteen choices. In the census we are given six options, but this actually covers over 100 different sub-denominations (ABS, 2011).

Secularism as described above is based on whether religion is on the increase or decrease, largely by the results of the Australian Census. We also take into account whether “no religion” in the census is increasing or stable though some of these results are questionable. In the 2011 census, 22% of the population that answered the religion question stated that they had no religion (ABS, 2013). In 2016 this rose to 30.1% (ABS, 2018). This is not to say they have no religion they just chose not to share it, although it seems to have become more acceptable to have no religion (ABS, 2018). How do we determine which is which? This kind of data can sway many important decisions such as who gets a job and who doesn’t.

A lot of weight is placed on the outcome of the Australian Census. The 2016 census report states that places like the armed forces use these statistics to decide what percentage of time they should allocate for a set denominations chaplain. Basically the census can decide if a chaplain obtains a job or not based on outcomes that could be incorrect.


Australia is slowly moving from a fully religious society (up to 96% of the population) to secularisation (currently 52%). An increase in the body of knowledge over time and the sharing of this knowledge, firstly through written publications and seminars to more recently a more readily available form online (Bieber et al., 2002), have helped speed this process up.

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Hudson (2007) demonstrates this process through examples of people who were religious and during their life took on agnostic, atheistic or other pseudo-religious standpoints. Their change of belief is usually due to persuasive individuals through publication or seminars. Two examples he included in his work, that of Christopher Brennan (1870-1932) and Ada Cambridge (1844-1926), are summarised here.

Religious beliefs of early writers were directed through readings and personal experience, as with people of every age. Brennan in this example lost his faith after reading the work of the agnostic British philosopher, Herbert Spencer. Brennan was born a Catholic and his disbelief after Spencers work led him to spiritual experiences where he later attended a theosophical Liberal Catholic Church and became involved in the British Society for Psychical Research. He interpreted things as though they were a religion, the example given being his interpretation of Symbolism in neo-mystical terms. Brennan’s thoughts continued to develop and change as he came to know more philosophers work and incorporated their ideas into his own, ultimately leading to a new definition of Gnosticism.

Ada Cambridge was a clergyman’s wife from Melbourne. Her religious struggle came about after becoming aware of Higher Criticism of the Bible, through authors such as David Strauss. Cambridge was also influenced through Henry Thoreau, an American Transcendentalist, by his ethical concerns. She became aware of a need for earthly joys to take precedence over religious duties and turned her back on organised religion. Over time Cambridge turned to radical individualism and mysticism.

These two examples demonstrate how people can change their views on religion through external contributions such as the influence of others with persuasive beliefs and arguments. Hudson’s chapter is full of examples such as these, highlighting how easy it is for people to be led in different directions. Taylor (2007) supports Hudson’s idea when he discusses a “default option” in our beliefs in which we can be swayed to follow the distraction or return to our original belief, one being the default.

The effect of persuasive influence can be observed affecting more than just the individual. In some places this can be an organised project to introduce secularism into a workplace, or even a field of expertise. Schmalzbauer and Mahoney (2012) demonstrate this in the field of higher education where the decline of religion was influenced through funding, networking and strong leaders, though the reversal of this decline was also noted.

If the above examples are extrapolated, we can see how a whole population can soon be looking for different belief alternatives to what they already have. Basically, shopping for the best and most suitable belief option, whether it is valid, religious or not and depending on how good the salesman is.

Dunn & Piracha (2015) highlight that just after the 1780’s the Church of England could be referred to as the State Faith. The Church of England (now Anglican) was receiving Government help with funding and other general support. Over time this funding and support was also given to other churches (Symonds, 1898). This reduced the hold the Church of England possessed over the State. In 1900, with the introduction of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, Australia was prevented from having a dedicated religion. It states:

“The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.“ ('Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act,' 1900)

An article by a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University says that Australia is still a religious country, because, despite the above constitution, many laws were put into place before this came into action, meaning Christianity has been included in the structure of Australia. Examples of these are; beginning a parliamentary session with the Lord’s Prayer, the (now optional) swearing on the Bible in a court of law and the morals and ethics of the Christian beliefs woven through our legal system (Donnelly, 2014).


So are we religious or secular?

Despite Donnelly’s (2014) claims that Australia is a Religious State, there appears to be little other research to be found to support this, in opposition there is a large volume of research stating otherwise. Taylor (2007) and Hudson (2016), along with the other authors mentioned, frame our current situation as fitting in with Taylors third sense of Secularism. In fact Taylor described sense one and two in just one page and the rest of the chapter is devoted to sense three; multiple religious beliefs, available in society, though none are dictated by the state.

So it appears from this research that Australia is indeed a Secular Nation, comprising of over 100 different styles of religion as well as the non-religious groups that make up the nation. Basically it could be seen as religious consumerism. Hudson reinforces this idea through his exploration of various believers and nonbelievers and their religious journeys. Some of Hudson’s characters appear to switch from one belief to another, multiple times trying to find what suits them at the time, a trend now appearing across Australia, similar to purchasing the latest iPhone that does everything they want.


  1. ABS. (2011). Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2901.0 - Census Dictionary; Religion in Australia Retrieved 20 May, 2019, from
  2. ABS. (2013, 17 March 2014). Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013, 4102.0 - Australian Social Trends-Losing my religion? Retrieved 9 May 2019, from
  3. ABS. (2018, 11 July). Australian Bureau of Statistics ‘Randwick 2071.0 - Census of Population and Housing: Reflecting Australia - Stories from the Census, 2016; Religion in Australia Retrieved 28 April, 2019, from
  4. Bieber, M., Engelbart, D., Furuta, R., Hiltz, S. R., Noll, J., Preece, J., et al. (2002). Toward virtual community knowledge evolution. Journal of Management Information Systems, 18(4), 11-35.
  5. Bouma, G. (2017). How religion rises–and falls–in modern Australia.
  6. Bouma, G. D. (1995). The emergence of religious plurality in Australia: A multicultural society. Sociology of religion, 56(3), 285-302.
  7. Brunn, S. D. (2015). The changing world religion map: Sacred places, identities, practices and politics: Springer.
  8. Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, 116 Stat. (1900).
  9. Donnelly, K. (2014). Constitutionally Australia is a religious country. Eureka Street, 24(21), 24.
  10. Dunn, K. M., & Piracha, A. (2015). The multifaith city in an era of post-secularism: The complicated geographies of Christians, non-Christians and non-faithful across Sydney, Australia The changing world religion map (pp. 1635-1654): Springer.
  11. Hudson, W. (2016). Australian religious thought. Clayton, Victoria: Monash University Publishing.
  12. Hughes, P. (2016). Charting the Faith of Australians: Thirty Years in the Christian Research Association: Christian Research Associati.
  13. Maddox, M. (2007). Religion, secularism and the promise of public theology. International journal of public theology, 1(1), 82-100.
  14. Schmalzbauer, J., & Mahoney, K. (2012). Religion and knowledge in the post-secular academy. The post-secular in question, 215-248.
  15. Symonds, E. (1898). The Story of the Australian Church. In R. Mammana (Ed.), Project Canterbury. Colonial Church Histories. London: Society for promoting Christian knowledge.
  16. Taylor, C. (2007). Introduction. In C. Taylor (Ed.), A secular age (pp. 1-22). Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  17. Thompson, R. C. (1994). Religion in Australia: A history: Oxford University Press Melbourne.
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