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religion in australia: what the census tells us

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The 2011 Australian census stats, recently released, are good news for secularists, and it’s well worth dwelling on this and the overall picture of religion in Australia. I’ve been gathering bits of info from all over the net, but the graphic above, from a Wikipedia article on religion in Oz, and updated to include the latest figures, is probably the most useful thing I’ve found for quickly comprehending what’s been happening.

The census question on religion has always been the only voluntary question. So there’s always a percentage [8.6% in 2011] who don’t answer it. And of course there’s endless speculation as to how many of these are non-religious, a question that can never be answered. At least the format of this question has been consistent over a long period of time. If the question format was changed to try to capture more accurately the percentage of non-religious, then comparisons between one census and another with a different question format would be difficult. My feeling is that the question format could definitely be improved, but that the cost, in inconsistency over different censuses, would be too great. It’s clear in any case that the question as it stands is measuring a movement away from religious belief in Australia.

An indication of how a different description on the census can alter percentages is shown in the graph. Note the ‘not stated/inadequately described’ section [purple] increased markedly in 1933, to 12.8%, from 1.7% in the 1921 census. This is largely explained by the fact that in 1933, for the first time, it was explicitly stated that people were not legally obliged to answer the question. Before that, ‘the voluntary nature of the question was not
referred to on the census form but there were instructions indicating that people could write ‘object to state” [Ian Castles, statistician, 1991]. The difference between positively stating an objection and just ignoring the question makes a big difference.

And another difference that made a big difference occurred in 1971. That was the year that the ‘no religion’ option [green stripes in the graph] was introduced for the first time. 6.7% of the population chose to claim ‘no religion’ that year. In the previous 1966 census, 0.8% had claimed no religion, though there was no clearly marked space for people to do so, and that was up from 0.4% in the 1961 census. Interestingly, the number of people who chose not to answer the question in 1971 dropped to 6.1% from 10% in 1966, suggesting that many previous refuseniks now availed themselves of the ‘no religion’ option, but this assumption has been confounded by later censuses in which the number of refuseniks has risen, and then oscillated incomprehensibly from census to census, while the number of the not religious has grown steadily.

I wouldn’t be willing to infer too much from the refusenik figures. Why has the 8.6% figure of last year dropped so much from the 11.1% of 2006? Who can say? Possibly it’s a result of the atheist campaign before the census to encourage people to ‘come out’ and positively state their non-religiosity, but there are so many possible factors, and there have been so many oscillations, it’s hard to be sure.

What is sure, though, is the steady growth of the positively non-religious. I can well understand why so many of my fellow unbelievers want to claim a majority of the refuseniks as belonging to our camp, as that would make us the single biggest category in the census. Currently, the professedly non-religious are at 22.3%, second behind the Catholics at 25.3%. In the 2006 census we were at 18.7%, level pegging with the Anglicans, who’ve been on the decline for decades, and who in 2011 were down to 17.1%. Further, in 2006, the category that included all other Christian denominations [except Catholics and Anglicans] was the second largest at 19.4%. They’ve declined to 18.7% in 2011. In fact that category has declined every single year since the first census. The Catholic category has also been in decline in the last 20 years, though much more slowly than the others.

So 2016 will be the big year to celebrate. Between 2001 and 2006, non-believers increased their percentage by 3.2%, and then by another 3.6% between 2006 and 2011. These are huge increases. We’re now only 3% behind the Catholics, whose percentage dropped by 0.5% in the last five years, and by 0.8% in the five years before that. If the current trend continues, we’ll easily be the top category in the next census.

Of course we shouldn’t get too excited. Australia can still call itself a Christian country, with 61.1% of Australians identifying themselves as such, a quite marked decline from 63.9% in 2006, but… Oh well, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, it’s not light yet, but it’s gettin there.

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Written by stewart henderson

July 11, 2012 at 10:56 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Exercising my prerogative as someone who grew up in the 1970s, I refuse to equate “religion” with “church affiliation”.

    In the 1970s the following ideas had currency:
    * One could be religious but never set foot in a church.
    * One could be political but vote informal on the ballot paper.
    * One could be musical but not listen to recorded music.
    * One could be artistic but avoid art galleries.
    * One could be a sports-fanatic yet never watch television.

    A 1970s radical, setting individualist, locally organised, participatory culture against corporatised, mass, consumer culture, would announce something like the following:
    * Churches don’t determine the boundaries of my religion.
    * Political parties don’t set the agenda for my politics.
    * The record industry doesn’t determine my musical tastes.
    * Life is art.
    * [Pant]

    To which the traditional response by the besuited or bemitred corporate executive was: “Well, good luck with that”. However, some executives, unwilling to allow any kind of cultural activity outside corporate-controlled media, created Web 2.0.

    Michael Robertson

    July 12, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    • Well Michael, these ideas all seem pretty much alive and well today – you’re not becoming a seventies nostalgick are you?
      As to the idea that ‘executives’ [a loaded term] created web 2.0 because they were ‘unwilling to allow any kind of cultural activity outside corporate-controlled media’, that’s just a baseless assumption – or have you read the minds of these variously-motivated individuals?
      Nice try, anyway.

      luigifun

      July 12, 2012 at 4:22 pm

  2. […] wrote a piece a while back on what the Australian census tells us about religiosity in this country, and in that piece I […]

  3. […] from dismissing Australians like me – where more than 23% professed to having no religion in the last census (2011), with some 9% also choosing not to answer the optional question on religion – seems […]


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