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Australia, religion and the appeal of eternity

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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

nones, rinos and new australians – we’re becoming more secular, but also more religiously complex

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So the census data on religion, and everything else, has just come out, and it wasn’t as I’d predicted (in my mind). I expected a rise in the nones but I opted for a more conservative result, partly because of so many wrong predictions (in my mind) in the recent past, but mainly because I didn’t really expect the accelerating rise in recent censuses to continue for too much longer, I expected a few wobbles on the path to heathenism. Not so much two steps forward and one step back, more like a mixture of giant strides and baby steps.

So the result is encouraging and more people are taking note and it has clear implications for areas of social and political policies in which religion plays a part, such as funding for religion in schools, marriage equality, abortion rights, euthanasia, tax exemptions for religious organisations, school chaplains and the like.

So let’s take a closer look at the findings. The graph I present at the top of this post is identical to the one I posted about 5 years ago, except that the last bar, representing the 2016 figures, is added. And it’s quite a spectacular finding, showing that the acceleration is continuing. The drop in the assertively Christian sector is way bigger than expected (in my mind), from a little under 60% to just over 50%. That’s really something, and there’s no doubt that figure will be well under 50% by next census. So much for the twilight of atheism – at least in this benighted backwater. The figure for the assertively non-religious has taken a bigger jump than in any previous census – we only started measuring the category in 1971. That was a surprise, as was the size of the drop in Catholics (and the Anglican population continues to diminish). The figure of 30.1% for the nones, up from 22.3% in 2011, should be supplemented by a goodly percentage of the ‘not-stated/inadequately described’ category, which makes up about 10%, barely changed from last census. This would make for a figure of more than a third of our population professing no religion.

The figure for ‘other religions’ continues to rise but it’s still under 10%. It’s hardly cause for concern exactly, but we should always be vigilant about maintaining a thoroughly secular polity and judiciary. It has served us, and other secular countries, very well indeed. Meanwhile the mix of other religions makes for greater complexity and diversity, and hopefully will prevent the dominance of any particular religious perspective. We should encourage dialogue between these groups to prevent religious balkanisation.

These results really do give hope that the overall ‘no religion’ figure, now at around 30%, will overtake the overall Christian figure, at about 51%, in my lifetime. If the trend continues to accelerate, that may well happen by 2026. Meanwhile it’ll be fascinating to see how these results play out in the political and social arena in the near future, and what Christian apologists have to say about them.

Of course, the census hardly provides a fine-grained view of the nation’s religious affiliations. I’ve not said much about the ‘rino’ population before – that’s those who are ‘religious in name only’. In fact I only heard that acronym for the first time two days ago, but I’ve long been aware of the type, and I’ve met a few ‘Catholics’ who fit the bill. It really does gripe me that more of these people don’t come out as non-believers, but of course I can’t get inside their heads. Certainly church attendance has dropped markedly in recent years, but it’s impossible to know whether these nominal believers would follow religious lines on hot-button topics like euthanasia or abortion.

The census results, as always, have been published with accompanying ‘expert’ commentaries, and on the religious question they’ve said that the figures don’t really give comfort to Christians or atheists. It’s cloud cuckoo talk, but it doesn’t surprise me. The results speak volumes and give plenty of comfort to those who want religion to be kept well out of politics, and who never want to see a return to powerful Christian lobbies and their incessant and often ridiculous propaganda. Politicians, please take note.


Christianity’s future: 3 national perspectives.

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Since I’m currently off work due to illness I feel like cheering myself up by doing another number on how Christianity is faring in various countries, such as the USA, Britain and France – where I’ll be heading, hopefully, in March-April (France, that is). A nice gloating session might be just what the doctor ordered. So here goes.

the not so united kingdom


Would that nationalism was in as sharp a decline as Christianity is, but that’s one for the future. The UK’s last census was in 2011, as in Australia, so comparisons are irresistible. As of that census, the percentage of Christians was 59.5 (down from 71.8 in 2001), slightly below ours at 61.1 The no religion faction comes in at 25.7%, and unstated at 7.2%. In Australia the nones are still down at 22.3% with 9.4% not clearly stated. So the UK still seems to be ahead of us in the race, but of course I’m being overly simplistic. It’s unlikely that the exact same questions are asked in both censuses, and framing makes an enormous difference. And in any case self-reporting is hardly the best way to get a handle on such a socially pressured subject as religious belief. Not that it lacks any value – the fact that a decreasing percentage of Britishers are saying they’re not religious tells us something about the way those social pressures have eased over time. I think all we can really say from the census figures on Christianity in the UK and Australia is that they’re both travelling in the same direction at roughly the same rate – at least over the last decade or so, because the religious question was only introduced as a voluntary option in the British census in 2001. The term post-Christian is beginning to be used.

However, unlike Australia, the UK has other major surveys of religion, the 3 major ones being the Labour Force Survey, the British Social Attitudes survey and the European Social Survey, all of which, of course, ask different questions. The census in England and Wales asks the question ‘What is your religion?’ and provides a list of option boxes, with ‘no religion’ at the top. Scotland, my birthplace, has a different question – ‘What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?’, and this slightly more alarming question might account for the larger percentage of the non-religious in that country (or is it just a region?) Some 36.7% of Scots answered ‘none’ to this question in 2011. I find this quite satisfying in that Scotland came under the influence of Calvinism for centuries – a harsh form of protestantism infected with ‘predestination’, a variously understood and variously modified concept which in its bleakest interpretation is entirely fatalistic. Maybe a long dose of that craziness has helped the Scots come to their senses more quickly than their neighbours.

Wikipedia summarises the results of the other surveys thus:

The Labour Force Survey asked the question “What is your religion even if you are not currently practising?” with a response of 15.7% selecting ‘no religion’ in 2004 and 22.4% selecting ‘no religion’ in 2010.
The British Social Attitudes survey asked the question “Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?” with 41.22% of respondents selecting ‘no religion’ in 2001 and 50.67% selecting ‘no religion’ in 2009.
The European Social Survey asked the question “Which religion or denomination do you belong to at present?” with 50.54% of respondents selecting ‘no religion’ in 2002 and 52.68% selecting ‘no religion’ in 2008.

All of which emphasises, again, that the responses are vitally connected to the framing of the question. None of these surveys, I would argue, are reliable in any scientific sense as an account of the actual religiosity of the nation. They all involve self-reporting. That doesn’t mean that they’re worthless of course. They’re particularly useful if you keep asking the same question over time, which is why I don’t favour chopping and changing the question in the forlorn hope of getting a more ‘accurate’ picture.

A surely more telling indication of the decline of Christianity in the UK is church attendance. It amuses me to note that, though both denominations are in decline, the overall church attendance of Catholics in the UK is higher than that of Anglicans, mainly due to immigration. It was only a few centuries ago that Catholics were being executed for their faith in England. Fat King Henry must be turning in his gravy. Wikipedia again well summarises the situation:

Currently, regular church attendance in the United Kingdom stands at 6% of the population with the average age of the attendee being 51. This shows a decline in church attendance since 1980, when regular attendance stood at 11% with an average age of 37. It is predicted that by 2020, attendance will be around 4% with an average age of 56. This decline in church attendance has forced many churches to close down across the United Kingdom, with the Church of England alone being forced to close 1,500 churches between 1969 and 2002. Their fates include dereliction, demolition and residential conversion

I’m sure you all get the drift of the drift.

So the UK has come a long way since Guy Fawkes, along with his aristocratic confederates, tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament and the royal family with them, in the hope of bringing the nation back to the OTR (One True Religion). Since the Act of Settlement (1701) all monarchs have been obliged to ‘join in communion with the Church of England’, which disqualifies Catholics (and all other denominations and religions), but pressure has been brought to bear to end this discrimination, as well as to disestablish the Anglican Church. This seems inevitable, given the rapid decline of that institution. 

the not so united states


The USA has long been in a right religious mess, and some of the reasons for it were canvassed in a short essay at Salon in May. Many other westerners could be forgiven for thinking that the country is a basket case, full of the most bizarre scientific denialism and educational vandalism, a breeding ground for hate preachers, life-denying cultists and home-schooled ignoramuses, but a closer look will reveal much that’s hopeful. The USA, we shouldn’t forget, is the third most populated country in the world, with a population diversity second to none. Even assuming that only 10% of that population is non-religious (a conservative estimate) that’s way more than the entire population of Australia.

The USA, like France, doesn’t measure religiosity in its census, but there are a number of important surveys that can fill in the picture for us. The Pew Research Religious Landscape Survey of 2007 found that 16.1% of the population was ‘religiously unaffiliated’, which is not so far behind Australia’s ‘no religion’ set, though the extent to which those two sets are comparable could be argued till the end of days. A more recent Pew survey, results published in late 2012, put the unaffiliated figure at just under 20%. Encouragingly, these people overwhelmingly state that they’re not looking for a religion to join (though many believe in gods or are ‘spiritual’) and consider that established churches are overly concerned with money, power, rules and politics. The extreme noisiness of the religious right in the US is having a negative effect on the majority. And the change is really quite rapid, as rapid as that of many other western countries. Here’s an interesting quote from the summary of the 2012 results:

In addition to religious behavior, the way that Americans talk about their connection to religion seems to be changing. Increasingly, Americans describe their religious affiliation in terms that more closely match their level of involvement in churches and other religious organizations. In 2007, 60% of those who said they seldom or never attend religious services nevertheless described themselves as belonging to a particular religious tradition. In 2012, just 50% of those who say they seldom or never attend religious services still retain a religious affiliation – a 10-point drop in five years. These trends suggest that the ranks of the unaffiliated are swelling in surveys partly because Americans who rarely go to services are more willing than in the past to drop their religious attachments altogether.

This seems to indicate that drops in involvement lead more or less quickly to a drop in actual belief.

Other surveys show a range of results. A 2007 Gallup poll had the number expressing disbelief or uncertainty at around 14%. The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) of 2008 had some 76% of respondents identifying as Christians compared to 86% in 1990. Another survey organisation is the Association of Religious Data Archives (ARDA), which basically provides an overview of all the major surveys, but I’ve found it hard to get anything clear out of its data. It is clearly a pro-religious organisation.

The Wikipedia website dealing specifically with Christianity in the US points out the usual decline, but notes that church attendance is still way up on that in France and Australia. The ARIS survey of 2008, in its commentary, states that the drop in religiosity has slowed considerably since the 90s:

The “Nones” (no stated religious preference, atheist, or agnostic) continue to grow, though at a much slower pace than in the 1990s, from 8.2% in 1990, to 14.1% in 2001, to 15.0% in 2008

The challenge to Christianity in the U.S. does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion.

Asian Americans are substantially more likely to indicate no religious identity than other racial or ethnic groups.

So multiculturalism, as a diluter of traditional Christianity, is one of the many factors contributing to what is undeniable, in spite of arguments that can be had about the pace of change. Christianity is fading, even in its self-proclaimed heartland, and there’s no real likelihood of a reversal.



 France presents the same story only more so. With no census stats, the various major surveys range from 40% to 58% of the people self-describing as Christians, with the non-religious at between 31% and 35%. The average age of believers is rising and church attendance has suffered a spectacular collapse. Evangelical protestant churches are growing, but from a very low base in an overwhelmingly Catholic country. The idea that the evangelists are onto something ‘great’, as this commentator has it, seems grossly exaggerated.

Again, what fascinates me is the incredible variation in findings, with only one clear trend identified, that of overall decline. According to some, the non-believers already well outnumber the believers, and Salon has listed France, along with Australia, one of the best countries for atheists.

France appears to be abandoning Christianity more quickly than other western countries, but it’s hard to tell for sure from all the contradictory surveys and questions. As something of a Francophile, I have a particular interest in the history of France’s connections with Christianity, so that’ll be the focus of the rest of this post.

Back in the days of the Roman Empire, from the second century CE, Christians were providing headaches for the administration in Gaul as well as elsewhere. Blandina of Lyon became one of the first ‘celebrated’ martyrs of the region, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. While the Romans were tolerant of the religious practices of subject peoples generally, Christianity, with its inwardness, its intransigence and its rejection of eclecticism and syncretism, posed more problems than others. Nevertheless, the persecution of Christians was not by any means as widespread as some later commentators have asserted. The treatment of Christians largely depended on the whims of particular emperors, local tensions and character clashes, and the waxing and waning sense of ‘internal threat’.

Things changed, of course, with the Christianisation of the empire, and the politicisation of the church. One of the first powerful rulers of the region known to us, the brutal Merovingian king Clovis (r.481-511) started out pagan, married a Christian, converted and was baptised at Rheims by the leading bishop. By this time it had already become clear that the secular and the ‘spiritual’ powers needed each other’s support. In fact the network of bishops encouraged by Clovis and other leaders helped to unify the Franks and the Celtic Gauls under a Latinised administrative system, which was a useful adjunct to highly unstable hereditary monarchies. The successors of Clovis squandered his legacy and the secular power eventually fell to a new line, culminating in the reign of Charlemagne, whose association with Pope Leo III helped to bolster his own legitimacy and the power of the papacy. In 799 Leo fled from Rome to the court of Charlemagne, his life in danger from a gang of Roman nobles. Charlemagne chose to support Leo (though he didn’t think much of him), and entered Rome to ensure his reinstatement. In return, Leo crowned Charlemagne emperor. It was the most spectacular example up to that time of the effectiveness of church-state collaboration, and it jump-started the soi-disant Holy Roman Empire, a somewhat vague institution that languished on until 1806.

Naturally the Carolingian dynasty faded, and the French nobility was weakened by its lengthy adventures in the crusades, and it wasn’t till the 12th century that a new dynasty, the Capetians, was able to dominate the region. Again, alliance with the church proved essential to the maintenance of power, not only through administration and productive associations with key figures such as the Abbé Suger, but in terms of ritual and display, including the tradition of a sacramental coronation in Rheims.

Of course, tensions between Rome and the French church were bound to arise, and when the Pope tried to interfere with the ecclesiastical decisions of the French king, or vice versa, this would often lead to real blood-letting, with fragile alliances, betrayals and pointless heroics in a political world based on power and gloire. The notoriously 13th century ascetic Louis IX, aka ‘Saint Louis’, actually moved the French monarchy away from the Vatican, anticipating the later idea of divine right direct from Mr Supernatural. He also strengthened the Roman Law system and heavily patronised the arts, and he and his successors presided over a greater nationalisation of religious ideas and practice, as well as the building of many of the great French cathedrals that still bedazzle tourists. Paris became the centre for theological discourse – the only intellectual game in town – with the likes of Thomas Aquinas and Peter Abelard doing their utmost, this side of heresy, to remake the Old Testament god into the BOOB (benevolent omnipotent omniscient being) we’ve come to know and scratch our heads over.

With the printing press in the fifteenth century came a new challenge to Catholic hegemony, leading to the Reformation, as literature and ideas became more widely disseminated, and the practises of the church came under greater scrutiny. The precursor to full-blown protestantism was a kind of religious humanism, associated with such figures as Erasmus of Rotterdam and England’s Thomas More. Jean Calvin, a theology student at the Sorbonne, was influenced by humanist methods of direct connection and interpretation of Biblical texts, and his conclusions regarding faith and predestination naturally caused alarm in some circles. The prominent French Renaissance king, François I, who was at first well-disposed towards the new intellectual trends, finally found them personally threatening, and the persecution of protestants began, and were further stepped up by his less amiable successor, Henry II. Over the next century France was one of the major theatres of the wars of religion, culminating in the Thirty Years War. The only bright period was the reign of Henry IV (1589-1610), a protestant who pragmatically converted to Catholicism in order to ascend the throne. Much to the disgust of Pope Clement VIII, he issued the famous Edict of Nantes in 1598, granting substantial rights to the Huguenots (Calvinist protestants) while affirming Catholicism as the ‘real religion’. Remarkably liberal for its time, it lasted for less than a century, being revoked by Louis XIV in 1685. The revocation led to an exodus of protestants, and tensions with neighbouring protestant countries (and when I say ‘tensions’, I don’t mean in the modern sense of babble about ‘shirt-fronting’ national leaders, but battles, sieges, massacres and the like – the standard European stuff of those centuries).

The enormous privileges granted to the clergy and the nobility under the ancien regime were a decisive factor in bringing about the French Revolution of 1789. Various failed attempts were made to get these elites to pay taxes or make concessions, but they of course refused, suicidally as it turned out. The revolutionaries declared null and void the King’s divine right to rule, and issued a Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, and the Supreme Being was redefined in non-denominational terms. The clergy were made to swear an oath of allegiance to the new Constitution, which most of the higher clergy refused to do. The revolutionaries’ insistence on this measure caused both domestic and European unrest. Pope Pius VI condemned the revolution in 1791, but the French got their own back when their troops expelled him from the Papal States in 1798. The next Pope, Pius VII, was in continual conflict with Napoleon. The 1801 Concordat between the two was used by Napoleon to gain the support of traditional Catholics, as it granted rights to the clergy that had been taken away from them by the National Assembly, but it was heavily tilted towards the French state and away from the Papacy. The Concordat declared that Catholicism was ‘the religion of the great majority of the French’, but not the state religion (as it had been before the revolution), thus preserving religious freedom.

Finally, the Concordat was largely abrogated by the 1905 French law on the separation of the churches and the state, which clearly established state secularism (which had also been declared by the Paris Commune of 1871, but it didn’t last). According to Wikipedia:

The law was based on three principles: the neutrality of the state, the freedom of religious exercise, and public powers related to the church. This law is seen as the backbone of the French principle of laïcité. The French Constitution of 1958 states “The Republic neither recognizes, nor salaries, nor subsidizes any religion”. However, France’s republican government had long been strongly anti-clerical. The Law of Separation of Church and State in 1905, subsequent to prior expulsion of many religious orders, declared most Catholic church buildings property of the state (cathedrals) communes (existing village churches), and led to the closing of most Church schools.

France’s 1905 law is still controversial, and it didn’t prevent governments from spending taxpayer funds on Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran and religious Jewish building projects well into the 2oth century. However, the impact on the Catholic church was most substantial, though reconciliation processes between successive French governments and the Vatican have since eased the pain.

This has been a blustering tour through the complex religious history of France, another far from unified nation, with complex regional histories and dynamics. My hat-tip is to Cecil Jenkins’ Brief History of France for much of the detail. It has brought me up to speed on far more than France’s religious skirmishes; it has given me a basis for understanding something more of that country’s queer and unique dirigiste economy and social history.

Written by stewart henderson

December 8, 2014 at 6:35 am

the rise of the nones, or, reasons to be cheerful (within limits)

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This is a presentation based on a couple of graphs.

The rise of the nones, that is, those who answer ‘none’ when asked about their religious affiliation in surveys and censuses, has been one of the most spectacular and often unheralded, developments of the last century in the west. It has been most spectacular in the past 50 years, and it appears to be accelerating.

The rise of the nones in Australia


This graph tells a fascinating story about the rise of the nones in Australia. It’s a story that would I think, share many features with other western countries, such as New Zealand and Canada, but also the UK and most Western European nations, though there would be obvious differences in their Christian make-up.

The graph comes from the Australian Census Bureau, and it presents the answers given by Australians to the religious question in the census in every year from 1901 to 2011. The blue bar represents Anglicans. In the early 20th century, Anglicanism was the dominant religion, peaking in 1921 at about 43% of the population. Its decline in recent years has been rapid. English immigration has obviously slowed in recent decades, and Anglicanism is on the nose now even in England. In 2011, only 17% of Australians identified as Anglicans.  The decline is unlikely to reverse itself, obviously.

The red striped bar represents Catholics – I’ll come to them in a moment. The grey hatched bar represents devotees of other Christian denominations. In the last census, just under 19% of Australians were in that category, and the percentage is declining. The category is internally dynamic, however, with Uniting Church, Presbyterian and Lutheran believers dropping rapidly and Pentecostals very much on the rise.

The green hatched bar represents the nones, first represented in 1971, when the option of saying ‘none’ was first introduced. This was as a result of pressure from the sixties censuses – that seminal decade – when people were declaring that they had no religion even when there was no provision in the census to do so. Immediately, as you can see, a substantial number of nones ‘came out’ in the 71 census, and the percentage of ‘refuseniks’ (the purple bar) was almost halved. But then in the 76 census, the percentage of refuseniks doubled again, while the percentage of nones increased. The Christians were the ones losing out, a trend that has continued to the present. Between 1996 and 2006 the percentage of self-identifying Christians dropped from 71% to 64% – a staggering drop in 10 years. The figure now, after the 2011 census, is down to 61%. If this trend continues, the percentage of Christians will drop below 50% by the time of the 2031 census. Of course predictions are always difficult, especially about the future.

One thing is surely certain, though. Whether or not the decline in Christianity accelerates, it isn’t going to be reversed. As Heinrich von Kleist put it, ‘When once we’ve eaten of the tree of knowledge, we can never return to the state of innocence’.

The situation after the 2011 census is that 22.3% of Australia’s population are nones, the second biggest category in the census. Catholics are the biggest with 25.3%, down from 26% in 2006 (and about 26.5% in 2001). The nones are on track to be the biggest category after the next census, or the one after that. Arguably, though, it’s already the biggest category. The refusenik category in the last census comprised 9.4%, of which at least half could fairly be counted as nones, given that the religious tend to want to be counted as such. That would take the  nones up to around 27%. An extraordinary result for a category first included only 40 years ago.

Let me dwell briefly on this extraordinariness. As you can see, in the first three censuses presented in this graph, the percentage of professed Christians was in the high nineties. That’s to say, in the first two decades of the twentieth century, virtually everyone one identified as Christian. This represents the arse-end of a scenario that persisted for a thousand years, dating back to the 9th and 10h centuries when the Vikings and the last northern tribes were converted from paganism. We are witnessing nothing less than the death throes of Christianity in the west. Of course, we’re only at the beginning, and it will be, I’m sure, a long long death agony. Catholicism still has an iron grip in South America, in spite of the scandals it’s failing to deal with, and it’s making headway in Africa. But in its heartland, in its own backyard, its power is greatly diminished, and their’s no turning back.

The rise of the nones worldwide


But there’s an even more exciting story to tell here. The rise of the nones isn’t simply a rejection of Christianity, it’s a rejection of religion. And with that I’ll go to my second graph. This shows that the nones, at 750 million, have risen quickly to be the fourth largest religious category after Christians, 2.2 billion, Moslems, 1.6 billion, and Hindus, 900 million. These numbers represent substantial proportions of the populations of Australia and New Zealand, Canada, the USA and western Europe, as well as nations outside the Christian tradition, such as China and Japan. Never before in human history has this been the case.

One thing we know about the early civilisations is that they were profoundly religious. The Sumerians of the third millennium BCE, the earliest of whom we have records, worshipped at least four principal gods, Anu, Enlil, Ninhursag and Enki. These, as well as the Egyptian god Amon Ra, are among the oldest gods we can be certain about, but it’s likely that some of the figurines and statues recovered by archaeologists, such as the 23,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf, represented deities.

Why was religion so universal in earlier times?

We don’t know if the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians and Indus Valley civilisations were universally religious, but it’s likely that they were – because supernatural agency offered the best explanation for events that couldn’t be explained otherwise. And there were an awful lot of such events. Why did the crop fails this time?  Why has the weather changed so much? Why did my child sicken and die? Why has this plague been visited upon our people? Why did that nearby mountain blow its top  and rain fire and burning rocks down on us?

Even today, in our insurance policies, ‘acts of god’ – a most revealing phrase – are mentioned as those unforeseen events that insurers are reluctant to provide cover for. Nowadays, when some fundie describes the Haitian earthquake or Hurricane Katrina as a deliberate act of a punishing god, we laugh or feel disgusted, but this was a standard response to disasters in earlier civilisations. Given our default tendency to attribute agency when in doubt – a very useful evolutionary trait – and our ancestors’ lack of knowledge about human origins, disease, climate, natural disasters, etc, it’s hardly surprising that they would assume that non-material paternal/maternal figures, resembling the all-powerful and often capricious beings who surrounded us in our young years, and whose ways are ever mysterious, would be the cause of so many of our unlooked-for joys and miseries.

Why has that universality flown out the window?

It’s hardly surprising then that the rise of the nones in the west coincides with the rising success and the growing explanatory power of science. For the nones, creation myths have been replaced by evolution, geology and cosmology, sin has been replaced by psychology, and a judging god has been replaced by the constabulary and the judiciary. I don’t personally believe that non-believers are morally superior to believers because we ‘know how to be good without god’. We’ve just transferred our fear of god to our fear of the CC-TV cameras – as well as fear for our reputations in the new ultra-connected ‘social hub’.

It’s obvious though that the scientific challenge to ye olde Acts of God is very uneven wordwide. In the more impoverished and heavily tribalised parts of Africa, India, China and the Middle East, the challenge is virtually non-existent. Furthermore, it’s a very new challenge even in the west. To take one example, our understanding of earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic activity has greatly increased in recent times through advances in technology and also in theory, most notably tectonic plate theory. This theory was first advanced in the early 20th century by Alfred Wegener amongst others, but it didn’t gain general scientific acceptance until the sixties and didn’t penetrate to the general public till the seventies and eighties. Even today in many western countries if you ask people about plate tectonics they’ll shrug or give vague accounts. And if you think plate tectonics is simple, have a look at any scientific paper about it and you’ll soon realise otherwise. Of course the same goes for just about any scientific theory. Science is a hard slog, while the idea of acts of god comes to us almost as naturally as breathing.

In spite of this science is beginning to win the challenge, due to a couple of factors. First and foremost is that the scientific approach, and the technology that has emerged from it, has been enormously successful in transforming our world. Second, our western education system, increasingly based on critical thinking and questioning, has undermined religious concepts and has given us the self-confidence to back our own judgments and to emerge from the master-slave relationships religion engenders. The old god of the gaps is finding those gaps narrowing, though of course the gaps in many people’s minds are plenty big enough for him to hold court there for the term of their natural lives.

The future for the nones

While there’s little doubt that polities such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the European Union will become increasingly less religious, and that other major polities such as China and Japan are unlikely to ‘find’ religion in the future, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that any of the major religions are going to disappear in our lifetimes or those of our grandchildren. Africa and some parts of Asia will continue to be fertile hunting grounds for the two major proselytising religions, and Islam has as firm a hold on the Middle East as Catholicism has on Latin America. If you’re looking at it in terms of numbers, clearly the fastest growing parts of the world are also the most religious. But of course it’s not just a numbers game, it’s also about power and influence. In all of the secularising countries, including the USA, it’s the educated elites that are the most secular. These are the people who will be developing the technologies of the future, and making decisions about the future directions of our culture and our education.  So, yes, reasons to be cheerful for future generations. I look forward to witnessing the changing scene for as long as I can

the trend away from religiosity, or not – various countries, part 2

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100127Italy (2)

Okay, to continue my survey of religiosity in more or less arbitrarily selected nations. Most of this data comes from Wikipedia, which has a series of entries, ‘Religion in (name your country)’, so I haven’t bothered with the time consuming process of linking to every source.


As you might expect, with the ‘Papa’ nerve-rackingly nearby, most Italians identify as Catholic Christians – with recent polls ranging from nearly 92% to 77%. The 2005 Eurobarometer poll, quoted in my summaries of other countries, found that:

  • 74% of Italian citizens responded that they believe there is a God;
  • 16% answered that they believe there is some sort of spirit or life force;
  • 6% answered that they do not believe there is any sort of spirit, God, or life force.

Italy’s 1947 constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and under a revised accord with the Vatican in 1984, the disestablishment of the Catholic Church was made complete. However, the dominance of the Catholic church has continued to be problematic, with Protestants being persecuted even up to recent times. There have been protests against the displaying of Catholic symbols in state schools, with governments and courts evading the issue by claiming these are ‘cultural’ rather than ‘religious’ symbols. However, in an entry on freedom of religion in Italy, Wikipedia reports this:

In 2009 the European Court of Human Rights, in a case brought by an Italian mother who wanted her children to have a secular education, ruled against the display of crucifixes in the classrooms of Italian state schools. It found that ‘The compulsory display of a symbol of a given confession in premises used by the public authorities… restricted the right of parents to educate their children in conformity with their convictions’ and that it restricted the ‘right of children to believe or not to believe’.[3] This ruling was in marked contrast with the position of the Italian courts that had ruled in 2005 that crucifixes were allowed to be present in polling stations and, in 2006, that display of crucifixes in state schools was allowed on the basis that the crucifix symbolised core Italian social values.

The same Wikipedia entry states that according to a 2006 poll (but no details are given), four million Italians are atheist or agnostic, a much higher number than for any other religion apart from Christianity. We should also be sceptical that those identifying as Catholic are anything other than nominal Catholics.


I’ve picked this country out at random as an Eastern European country. Needless to say, there’s no such thing as a typical Eastern European country. Bulgaria does have a religious question in its census, and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, a variant of eastern orthodoxy, is the prevalent and traditional religion in the country, with 59.4% of the population identifying with it in the 2011 census. No previous censuses are recorded, sadly. Some 9.3% identified as atheists, and 21.8% didn’t answer the question. 7.8% identify with Islam, a result of years of Ottoman rule, and interestingly neither Protestants nor Roman Catholics can claim even 1% of the population. The number of Jews in Bulgaria is minuscule, and anti-Semitism appears to be rife. Also, the number of practising orthodox Christians is quite low, and likely falling, though I have no figures on that.

United Kingdom

I was born in Scotland, so this region still interests me, in spite of the transcendental cosmopolitan plane that I now inhabit. The situation there is much the same as in other western European countries – predominantly Christian but with church attendance dropping sharply in the late twentieth century and still declining, and with immigration bringing an increase in other religions, but from a very low base. Anglicanism became the established religion in England thanks to the shenanigans of Henry VIII, but Scotland has remained, at least until recently, largely Presbyterian. There’s been much talk about disestablishing the Anglican church in England in recent times. I think it’s inevitable. It has already been disestablished in Wales and Ireland. Wikipedia presents census figures for England for 2001 and 2011, which shows that identification with Christianity has dropped from 71.7% to 59.4% in 10 years – a really significant drop. Various other surveys show lower figures though, indicating again that the framing of the question makes a big difference. Everything suggests that a large proportion of the population identifies with Christianity out of habit rather than conviction. This can perhaps be more accurately described as cultural religiosity, which, as I’ve reported, is a common feature of Catholicism. Finally in Britain, as elsewhere, secular law is becoming less deferential to the claims of religion. The Equality Act of 2010 is making life more uncomfortable for denominations that continue to discriminate, though it remains to be seen how the law deals with the rise of largely unenlightened religions such as Islam.

South Korea

I’ll finish where I started, with an Asian country that appears to have embraced many western values and practices, including secular democracy. Needless to say I’m not doing justice to the enormous complexity of religious tradition in any of these countries, but it seems that Koreans, like many of their Asian neighbours, have been eclectic in their religious practices over the centuries. Korean shamanism, or Muism, goes back a long way, and has been overlain with Confucianism, Buddhism and more recently Christianity, which had its heyday there from the sixties to the nineties, leaving South Korea the most Christianised Asian population apart from the Philippines and East Timor. The South Korean National Statistical Office reported these figures in 2005: 46.5% non-religious (but many of these apparently maintain shrines to traditional religions in their homes), 22.8% Buddhist, 18.3% Protestant, 10.9% Catholic. The Wikipedia entry here points out the difficulties in measuring religious practice and adherence, with Confucianism, for example, being practically impossible to measure. There is also a proliferation of smaller religions in Korea that are likely to be under-reported. The late Sun Myung Moon started up a new Christian-based religion in South Korea in the sixties, hailing himself as the new Messiah, etc. It enjoyed moderate success in his home country and in the USA in the seventies, possibly because of its strong anti-communist rhetoric. It seems that in recent years Christianity has been fading, and there has been some slight resurgence in traditional Muism, but I can’t find any figures on religious trends in general.

So that’s a few blurry snapshots of religious trends in an assortment of countries, which show I think that Christianity at least has peaked in western Europe and in some Asian countries. I’ve also heard, in the wake of the new Latino pope, that Catholicism is on the wane in Latin America, a trend that this papal election is unlikely to substantially reverse. Generally it seems that Christianity sells well in poorer countries these days, but starts to fade as the nations find their feet economically, and their inhabitants get access to a decent education. Many of the world’s poorer countries are in Africa and the Middle East – but nations like Pakistan and Afghanistan are too doctrinally Islamic to be much of a hunting ground for Christians. Rural China remains a promising area of course, but the scenario changes daily. My attitude is that we shouldn’t be too impatient, we should just keep plugging away with our fascination with this world, the only one we have.

Written by stewart henderson

April 7, 2013 at 6:17 pm

the trend away from religiosity, or not – various countries, part 1

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who says they don't have a soul?

who says they don’t have a soul?

I wrote a piece a while back on what the Australian census tells us about religiosity in this country, and in that piece I talked also about trends, comparing the censuses of the past. I also wrote more recently on the overall trend away from religiosity in the west, quoting some interesting recent figures out of the USA.

So, as I find this quite an exciting and encouraging topic, I’ve decided to look at more countries to get a broader and deeper perspective on religiosity and how it’s faring, particularly in the west.


This is a country I’ve long wanted to find out more about, because it’s so often cited as a non-religious country, or the least religious country in the world, and so forth. The traditional religions of Japan have been Shinto and Buddhism, and more often than not a combination of the two, but these entwined religions have faded from the landscape over the last century, and especially since the war. Wikipedia tells us that about 70% of Japanese ‘profess no religious membership’, and it cites 2 sources for this claim, the first being a newspaper article in the Seattle Times (which itself doesn’t cite any source), the second being a rather more interesting meditation on religion and spirituality in Japan, from 2008, in an online mag called Japan Society. It contains the statement, ‘polls tell us that two thirds of Japanese profess no religion’.  A number of other figures are mentioned from censuses and surveys, and obviously the figures vary depending on the wording of the questions, sample sizes and so forth, but it’s equally obvious that the trend is towards secularization., and it’s safe to say that more than half of the Japanese population are not religious.  Apparently religion is measured in the Japanese census, as Wikipedia tells us ‘In census questionnaires, less than 15% reported any formal religious affiliation by 2000’. However, I can find no Japanese census figures online. As to Christianity, only 1% to 2% of Japanese have succumbed to that peculiar persuasion.

To get a clear trend, you need to keep the sample stable, and the question stable, over time. A stable sample, for example , would be the entire adult population of a nation, as in a typical census. I can’t access these censuses, so I can’t find out whether the same question has been asked over time, and the other surveys mentioned are all over the place in terms of sample sizes and questions asked. All I have to go on is the quote above – 15% with no religious affiliation by 2000, which, if reliable, proves a clear trend away from religiosity in one of the world’s least religious countries.


In May of last year, the Norwegian government voted almost unanimously to disestablish its state religion, the Evangelical Lutheran Church.  The Vikings of Norway had become Christianized by 1050. In the sixteenth century, the nation moved firmly away from Catholicism, and has since, it seems, moved firmly away from Christianity. A 2005 Gallop poll conducted in 65 countries found that ‘Norway was the least religious country in Western Europe, with 29% counting themselves as believing in a church or deity, 26% as being atheists, and 45% not being entirely certain’, which is quite an interesting finding (I mean the uncertainty factor). Interestingly Norway has phased out questionnaire-based censuses, conducting its last in 2001, and I haven’t even been able to find out if religion was part of the census. A Eurobarometer poll of 2010 has different results, though, with 22% of Norwegians believing in God, compared to 18% in Sweden and Estonia, and 16% in the Czech Republic. The same poll finds that 94% of Turks and Maltese and 92% of Romanians believe in God. Islam is now the second most practised religion in Norway, though still at very low numbers. However, this is definitely a cause of dissension, as it is in neighbouring countries.


France is typical of the European, or at least western and northern European trend towards reduced observance of religion. Again, a wide array of polls is mentioned in Wikipedia, with some funny findings. For example, a 2006 Le Monde poll found that 51% of French people claimed to be Catholic, but only half of these said that they believed in God! I mean, wtf!!! Seriously, though, a number of other polls probing Catholic beliefs in France raise questions about Catholicism everywhere, as clearly many of them are wedded to the religion for non-religious reasons, if that makes sense. There has been a lot of violent religious conflict, leading governments from the early 1800s to move to a more secularised political system. In 1905 a law was passed separating church and state, which clarified and regularised ideas first put forward in the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Nevertheless the law caused Catholic riots, as it profoundly affected Catholic prestige and funding. The government does not maintain any official figures on religious belief. The most recent private poll, from 2011, finds 45% to be Christian, 35% to be ‘irreligious, atheist or agnostic’, 10% not answering the question, and the remaining 10% dispersed among various other religions. Most French Christians are Catholic, but a recent poll amongst Catholics found that only 4.5% of them attended mass once a week or more in 2006, compared with 27% in the early fifties.


Germany brought in new constitutions in 1919 and 1949, guaranteeing freedom of faith and religion. It has never had a state religion, being in any case a newish country, growing out of nineteenth century Prussia and the complex Germanic and middle European principalities of earlier centuries.  The most recent poll in 2011 (the same poll that I referred to in the France section) has 50% of Germans identifying as Christian, 38% identifying as non-religious, and 6% not stating, but again other polls give different figures, though always with Christianity trending downwards in recent times. The Christian population is divided more or less equally between Catholics and Protestants, with more Protestants in the north and more Catholics in the south. The west is more Christian than the east, probably due to the influence of communism in the former East Germany. As an amusing aside, the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, Martin Luther’s birthplace, is now the most non-religious state in Germany.

Written by stewart henderson

April 5, 2013 at 9:22 am

jensen’s submissionary position

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I suppose I come across in these posts as a fairly reasonable, analytical sort of bloke, but I actually have to suppress quite an upwelling of emotion, especially angry emotion, from time to time. For example when I witness bullying behaviour, even if only in a movie, I become agitated, unable to keep still. If I’m alone I’ll start pacing up and down, I’ll change the channel, but too late, I’ll remonstrate with the bully, I’ll expose him, humiliate him, perhaps even murder him, or her. And then I’ll tell myself to calm down, why do I over-react like this, where does all this anger come from, almost with the flick of a switch, is there something really wrong with me, etc etc. I’ve gone through this little cycle – the flaring up of anger, followed by the calming-down, the wondering at my semi-unhingedness, the concern about my sanity – literally a thousand times. It can be brought on by stories told to me by third or fourth or fifth persons, or by something I’ve witnessed or been subjected to, or unreliable memories, or my reading of ancient history. But no matter how much I admonish myself, like Beckett’s Krapp telling himself to stop eating bananas, I’m unlikely to change.

Certain benighted characters, from Josef Stalin to Gordon Ramsay, can trigger this cycle in me through the mere mention of their names, and some of them, like the current Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, don’t even seem to fit the general profile of a bully. It’s a puzzlement. But while I can’t expect to cure myself, I can perhaps reduce the symptoms by a little tried-and-true analysis.

So, to Jensen.

My most recent sighting of him was on ABC-TV [I think]  the other day, in relation to a quirky little piece on a recent marriage ceremony in which the female party chose to submit to her husband. This ceremonial wording, apparently deliberately chosen by the devout couple, has caused a bit of a stir, apparently. Switch to Jensen’s smiling dial as he ‘explains’ that men and women are different and need to have different roles within a marriage, because a man, you see, is a man, and a woman is a woman, and therefore, well, the conclusion is obvious, surely, and it’s so good that we’re having this debate at last.

Jensen is, of course, a staunch conservative, who’s totally opposed to the ordination of female clergy in the Anglican church, as well as gay marriage and homosexuality generally. The CNNNN team did a great job of questioning the Biblical basis of his views here, and though you could argue that the man was ambushed, he did a notably poor job of defending himself. For this reason I’m a bit uncertain of the value of this post. The fellow seems so feeble-minded, and his views so laughable, that I’m really not sure he’s worth expending energy on, or that his views should be given even the tiny piece of promotion my blog can offer.

However, for my own equanimity’s sake, I will continue. Jensen expands on his views in this article in the Sydney Morning Herald, and that’s what I’ll focus on.

Marriage really matters. Thank God we are talking about it. As Professor Patrick Parkinson said in these pages last week, marriage is ”by far the most stable, safe and nurturing relationship in which to raise children”. However, fewer people are choosing marriage as a way of relating to someone of the opposite sex and fewer people are nurturing children in a family with marriage at its heart.

I can understand that. Individualism leaves us with little reason to join our life to that of someone else. Apart from that, for many marriage has become an arena of suffering, exploitation and disappointment. We choose to bypass it. Yet I would say that we need to go back to biblical principles and understand, improve and support marriage rather than abandon it.

First, I don’t think we’ve ever stopped talking about marriage, which is the main reason it has changed so much over the past century, with both first and second wave feminism being at the forefront of these analyses and debates and changes. The quote from Professor Parkinson doesn’t really get us anywhere, because marriages are so diverse. You really have to look at each particular relationship in which children are reared to determine whether that relationship – or environment, in the case of single-parent child-rearing – is stable, safe and nurturing. The variations are so enormous that no statistical analysis is likely to be helpful.
Marriage isn’t exactly dying as an institution, as the above quote seems to be suggesting. I don’t have any particular investment in it myself, and my observation of the institution’s continued strength is quite a rueful one. The gay marriage push is yet another testament to that strength, and I note it with some ambivalence, but ultimately with the view that gay couples should be just as free to indulge in solemn vows, funny speeches, fancy outfits and horrendous catering bills as heterosexuals.
As to biblical principles, my reading of the Bible has uncovered no such entities, the Bible being as full of contradictory claims on the subject as you would expect from a work written over nearly a millenium by scores of authors. More importantly, the Bible reflects the attitudes of its various authors from about the eighth century BCE to the second century CE, who operated out of largely tribal, patriarchal societies which bear little resemblance to our own.


I freely admit that for me, the earthly title and vocation I cherish most is ”husband”. It all began with promises, and each day I try to live out the commitment I made. Marriage is not always easy and I know that for some it proves painfully impossible. But, mostly, making our promises before witnesses and trying to keep them is what works best.

Public promises make a marriage. Marriages are founded on promises of lifelong, exclusive bonding. Provided that the promises commit both man and woman in good times and in bad ”till death do us part”, and that both intend to relate only to each other, the promises are effective in creating the marriage. Husband and wife can certainly make identical promises.

None of the above is particularly objectionable to me, though I can take or leave the terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’. Preferably leave. They sound quaint and overly domesticated, tamed. In fact, ‘husband’ comes from Old Norse, meaning ‘master of a house’, with the second part, ‘bondi’ meaning someone with land and stock . To husband our resources means, basically, to be careful and thrifty with them. Jensen, hasn’t, so far, explained why he cherishes the term ‘husband’ or prefers it to, say, the term ‘partner’, assuming he does. In this passage he focuses on commitment and the usefulness of making promises in a public and ceremonial way, none of which seems problematic. What does seem problematic, and we await an explanation, is the term ‘husband’ and its patriarchal origins, given how far we’ve moved towards more equal relations between men and women.


But promises can reflect something even more profound. Since they unite not simply two people but a man and a woman – two different bodies for whom marriage holds different consequences, needs, expectations and emotions – the promises can express these differences, and traditionally have done so.

Many of our young people want to be ”wives and husbands” rather than simply ”partners” and in their weddings they come as ”bride and groom” rather than simply two individuals. They believe that expressing these differences, including different responsibilities, makes for a better marriage.

Here’s where Jensen’s views really start to reveal themselves, though the language continues to be slippery and evasive. For example, what is this ‘more profound’ thing that wedding vows can reflect? Well, apparently it’s that men and women are different and this means different ‘consequences, needs, expectations and emotions’. None of this is spelled out, and again I would argue for a great diversity of needs and hopes being tied up with marital decisions, without our being able to sort them neatly into gender divisions. What both feminism and a mountain of scientific research can agree on is that, whatever essential differences there are between men and women, they aren’t so great as to stop women being excellent doctors, lawyers, academics, business leaders and even Prime Ministers. In other words, men and women are not so dissimilar as previously accepted. This realization, quite recent but hugely transformational, has naturally had a big impact on marriage and the domestic sphere. When Jensen says that marriage vows traditionally expressed major differences between the sexes, he’s clearly harking back to the times when women were not allowed to attend universities, to pursue particular careers, or to have a drink in the front bar, and when men were ‘naturally’ the heads of households.
The vast majority of Australians already find these prohibitions, even though they were dispensed with only recently, quite quaint and bizarre, even primitive. This was brought home to me the other day, when as a community educator I was teaching someone [aged 91!] to find her way around the internet. She wanted to visit, one of those tricksy sites that offer a tiny glimpse of records that may or may not relate to your great grandcestor, then ask for money to take you further. What we did see was a scan of some census records from early in the twentieth century, in which the head of the family wrote his name and details first, followed by wife, and then sons and daughters. I can’t remember whether the title ‘head’ was actually printed on the form, but I did notice that each husband/father identified himself as ‘head’, clearly showing that this was an expectation of the form, and of society as it was constructed at that time. I wonder when this title became démodé?
It becomes increasingly clear what Jensen is on about. He makes the surely dubious claim that many of our young want to be ‘husbands and wives’ rather than ‘partners’, and it’s increasingly clear that he’s talking about a dominant-submissive relationship of the type most people now find quaint, or worse. His claim about the ‘many’ probably means that many young people who come to him want this type of relationship and these types of vows, because he’s a magnet for arch-conservative attitudes. This is called confirmation bias.
But note the slipperyness of Jensen’s language. He emphasises ‘different responsibilities’ and the difference between ‘husband/wife’ and ‘partner’, but is quite keen to avoid spelling out what those differences are. You have to wonder, if he’s so enamoured of the traditional husband/wife, dominant/submissive roles, why doesn’t he proclaim the fact in a loud, clear, unambiguous voice?


Both kinds of promise are provided for in the Sydney Anglican diocese’s proposed Prayer Book, which has been the subject of commentary this week.

There is nothing new in this – it is the same as the Australian Prayer Book which has been used for decades.

Where different promises are made, the man undertakes great responsibility and this is also the wording of the book, as it has always been. The biblical teaching is that the promise made voluntarily by the bride to submit to her husband is matched by the even more onerous obligation which the husband must undertake to act towards his wife as Christ has loved the church. The Bible says that this obligation is ultimately measured by the self-sacrifice of Christ in dying on the cross.

So apparently there’s some disquiet about a proposed new prayer-book for this arch-conservative diocese, which Jensen dismisses because it’s the same as the old one. If that’s so, why are they proposing a new one? Jensen just leaves us more confused with his slippery, evasive language.
More importantly, Jensen finally comes out here with the ‘submit’ word for females, which is ‘balanced’ by the male role term, ‘great responsibility’. This great responsibility comes with being the ‘head’ or the dominant member of the family. Note that the title of Jensen’s piece is ‘men and women are different and so should be their marriage vows’, from which it’s surely reasonable to infer that Jensen is advocating this dominance/submission marriage arrangement, this ‘great responsibility’, which he personally feels, about being Lord and Master in his own personal household. The references to Jesus are bizarre, and irrelevant to marriage in general. The last sentence from the above quote, in particular, has been received with great good humour on various netspaces. Who in the Bible says that a hubbie’s onerous responsibility is akin to Jesus’s death on the cross? Sounds like that ole feminist Paul of Tarsus to me. Better, marginally, to be crucified than to burn.


This is not an invitation to bossiness, let alone abuse. A husband who uses the wife’s promise in this way stands condemned for betraying his own sworn obligations. The husband is to take responsibility for his wife and family in a Christ-like way. Her ”submission” is her voluntary acceptance of this pattern of living together, her glad recognition that this is what he intends to bring to the marriage and that it is for her good, his good and the good of children born to them. She is going to accept him as a man who has chosen the self-discipline and commitment of marriage for her sake and for their children. At a time when women rightly complain that they cannot get men to commit, here is a pattern which demands real commitment all the way.

Secular views of marriage are driven by a destructive individualism and libertarianism. This philosophy is inconsistent with the reality of long-term relationships such as marriage and family life.

Actually, it is an invitation to bossiness and abuse. Domestic violence is most prevalent, unsurprisingly, in the conservative Christian heartland of the USA, and in highly patriarchal societies everywhere, not to mention rape, ‘honour’ murders and other forms of ‘control’ of insufficiently submissive women. I note that submission, generally regarded as the English translation of Islam, is a hugely popular concept among the fanatically religious. Humans are in the image of their god, but the gods of all the monotheistic religions are all male, so males must be more godlike, more Lord-and-Masterish, and boy are these gods Lord-and-Masterish. Men need a respite from this constant grovelling to their god, and that’s where women find their role. That given, I wonder why Jensen puts ‘submission’ in quotes here? It seems to be a pattern with him, trying to worm out of saying what he’s really saying – well it’s not really submission, girls, it’s, well it’s just a word…
Well, the obvious question, apart from the one about why I’m taking this seriously enough to write about it, is where does this submission begin and end in a world of female heads of corporations, heads of law firms, heads of academic institutions and heads of state? For Jensen, who’s implacably opposed to females playing any ‘head’ role in the Anglican church, at least in the Sydney diocese, the only place where he has any power, the answer is plain – a woman’s role is to be submissive in every sphere of life. Any other position would be incoherent – you can’t expect a female CEO to come home and serve her husband, accepting his ‘responsibility’ over her. And if she can’t be responsible in the home then obviously she can’t take on major responsibilities outside of it either.
Jensen’s remarks about secular marriage are just gratuitous, non-evidence based opinion, the only value of which is to reveal his own shallowness, as if that wasn’t already abundantly clear.
Okay, there’s little point in analyzing the rest of this article, it’s too silly and too depressing. The remark by somebody that Jensen wants to turn back the clock is quite precise, given the census data quoted earlier. We’ve virtually forgotten that, only decades ago, it was taken for granted that males were regarded as the heads of households. There’s no doubt in my mind  that society is much better for that no longer being the case. Jensen’s obsession with masculinity and submission does seem rather kinky, but unfortunately not in a fun way. It just strikes me as adolescent, as well as creepy.
While I accept that Jensen is hardly your typical Anglican, and that they’re by and large a fairly liberal lot, I still find it satisfying to note that that particular denomination is declining faster than any other Christian denomination in Australia [and they’re all in decline]. It’s hard to know when or if it will level out, but I suspect there’s still a fair bit of falling to do , but there’s absolutely no chance that the trend will reverse.
A note to end. While writing this piece and trawling for other responses, I came upon this delicious and highly recommendable website , at which I also found links to this piece, and another nice piece by a journalist named Catherine, I think, but I’ve lost the link. Anyway I was so enamoured of the above-mentioned website, loon pond by name, and written by the fabulously-resurrected Dorothy Parker, that I tried to leave a comment, but was defeated by the ‘prove you’re not a robot’ screening thingy, after a dozen attempts. Please Dorothy, let me into your heart!

Written by stewart henderson

September 3, 2012 at 9:00 am

another podcast

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this sounds like my kind of podcast

Here’s another podcast, at last, this one on the census.

Written by stewart henderson

August 18, 2012 at 3:34 pm

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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.

Written by stewart henderson

July 11, 2012 at 10:56 pm