an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Archive for the ‘census’ Category

Australia, religion and the appeal of eternity

leave a comment »

 

The latest Australian census figures are out, and as always I zoom in on religion and our quite rapid abandonment of….

It’s not that I’m against religion exactly, I recognise it as an attempt to understand our world, before science came along. Often to understand it as story. The story of how the world formed, and who formed it. Religions, I notice, are always about personae, doing Very Powerful things. Creating the heavens and the earth, plants and animals, and of course humans. For some kind of moral purpose, which we must constantly try to discern, from the signs and stories of the creators. And some humans are better at pinning down this purpose than others, and they become elevated as intermediaries between the creators, to whom we owe everything, and our benighted selves, tossed on the waves of godly caprice, which only seems like caprice, because the gods have a higher purpose which even the most blessed and spiritual of mortals can only partially comprehend.

Anyway, the census. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), ‘A question on religion has been included in all Australian censuses since 1911. Answering this question has always been optional but is answered by nearly all respondents’. In that first census, over 100 years ago, pretty close to 100% of Australians described themselves as religious – essentially meaning Christian. And things hadn’t changed that much by the 1971 census, when still a vast majority – 87 to 88 percent – described themselves as Christian, and the number of people who dared admit to any other religious belief was virtually zero. But by the seventies, the hodge-podge of regulations that made up the White Australia Policy had been dismantled, so that by this latest census (2021), religious beliefs other than Christianity were being admitted to by just over 10 percent of respondents.

But Christianity has fared particularly badly over the past fifty years, as the graph above shows. I first started paying serious attention to this trend away from Christianity after the 2006 census, and from memory, I gave a talk to the SA Humanist Society after the release of the 2011 census, noting the trend, particularly the fact that the abandonment of Christian belief was accelerating. However, I predicted, at least to myself, that this trend would soon start to ‘plateau’. My reasoning was partly based on the breakdown of Christianity into denominations. Not a complete breakdown, from my very basic research. The ABS broke it down into Catholicism, Anglicanism and Other Christian, and it was very clear that Anglicanism was fading most quickly, and Catholicism most slowly. It seemed to me that Anglicanism, which, unsurprisingly, had been the most practiced Christian religion in the early censuses, had suffered in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries due to its reforms and increasing liberalism (though of course it has its conservative faction). Considering that religion is supposed to be about the eternal values of the creator, unchanging since our creation, rather than about values that simply change with the times – what some call social evolution – it may have caused many Anglicans to lose faith in religion altogether, or even to switch to something more ‘eternal’, such as the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church. My prediction was that Anglicanism would continue to lose support until it bottomed out, in the fairly near future, and that Catholicism would also start to level out, what with all those cultural Catholics who built their social lives around the Church. And there was also the popularity of those Big Church evangelicals and Pentecostals, the ‘Charismatics’ that I kept hearing about.

So I was taken by surprise by the 2016 census, which saw the biggest drop in the Anglican religion of any previous census, as well as a more substantial drop in Catholicism than anticipated. The ‘other Christian’ category had also dropped, and the no religion category had risen to just over 30%. These figures upended my expectations completely, so I was more open to what the 2021 census would bring. Even so, a jump from 30% non-religious to 39% in five years is pretty amazing – but rapid change has been the norm in modern times, at least in the WEIRD world. Today we talk in terms of generations – the baby boomers, the millennials, generations X,Y and Z, and it’s all a bit hard to parse. I don’t think the generation of the 1740s would have had much difficulty in dealing with gen 1760, except of course to complain about their youthful foolishness, as Aristotle was wont to do.

So, as you can see from the graph, ‘no religion’ is pretty well certain to replace Christianity as the largest religious category in the next census, while owing to our increasingly multicultural mix, other religions will continue to rise, though not substantially. Interestingly the largest jump in religious presence since the 2016 census is that of the Yazidis, a largely Kurdish-speaking religious group from northern Iraq and surrounding regions, fleeing from persecution by the so-called Islamic State. Though it only ‘took off’ in the 12th century, its origins are apparently pre-Islamic and pre-Zoroastrian, later tinged with Sufi and Islamic influences. So, I learn something new every day.

Of course, the cultural make-up of Australia is changing, but slowly. We could do with expanding our immigration program, and behaving in a less hostile and cruel way towards refugees. I’m not religious of course, but bringing into the country a wider variety of religio-cultural groups might tend to water down the influence of the very male Judeo-Christian god that has been worshipped in this country for so long. Even if these new religions have their own patriarchal features, as most do, the divisions between them might tend to dilute the patriarchy of Catholicism, the Christian religion that has always most concerned me. Catholicism began to challenge Anglicanism as the most practiced, or at least believed in, denomination in Australia in the post-war period, though there was always a large Catholic presence, particularly Irish-Catholic, before that. It continues to be the most persistent denomination, but it will clearly never be the politically dominant influence it was in the 1950s. Even so, it’s noticeable that the religiosity of our political leaders, our parliamentarians, in terms of numbers, is greater than the general population – just as the average age of parliamentarians is greater than the general population.

As mentioned, the above graph clearly shows that the biggest religious category in the next census will be ‘no religion’. And that category will continue to grow over the next decades, and even the immigrants with their different religious varieties may go the way of the majority.

But us oldies may not, or will not be here to witness what happens. What will these developments mean for the nation? How will it have changed our politico-social landscape after we have passed? That’s the sad thing, life is very addictive, and we don’t want it to stop. We always want to know what happens. No wonder eternal life is so profoundly appealing.

 

Written by stewart henderson

July 16, 2022 at 10:46 pm