Faith in the spotlight as Australians tipped to lose their religion

Jun 14, 2016

By Debbie Schipp

A push for Australians to mark “no religion” in the 2016 Census could see Christianity overtaken as the most popular “religion” and change the way government policy is made and projects funded in Australia.

It’s a subtle change, but overseas experience is that moving the “no religion” option to the top of the list of responses on the question of religion saw a dramatic rise in the number of people identifying with a particular faith.

This year’s Census has done that, with the option moved to the top of the list of possible responses to the “What is the person’s religion?” question for the first time since the “no religion” option was introduced in 1991. The “Catholic” option moves to second on the list.


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14 comments on “Faith in the spotlight as Australians tipped to lose their religion

  • For any Aussies reading, I’d like to hear some opinions on this phrase:

    … and change the way government policy is made and projects funded in Australia

    Is that true?

    My perception is that many, many, Australian politicians are very free about flaunting and promoting their religion in power – is that a factual perception?

    The mendacity, temerity and pugnacity of religious politicians in general suggests that policy is unlikely to be affected by a No religion vote in the foreseeable future?

    How likely is it that non-religious politicians will be emboldened to speak up for non-religious and religious-neutral policies?

    How likely is it that non-religious Australians will be increasingly likely to stand for elected office?

    Peace



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  • How likely is it that non-religious politicians will be emboldened to speak up for non-religious and religious-neutral policies?

    During the post war period the main religious issue in Australian politics was anti-communism, centred on opposition to anything remotely socialistic, by the Catholic church. The main figures in this were the Archbishop of Melbourne, Cardinal Mannix, and an eccentric polemicist Bob Santamaria, leader of the Catholic Social Movement (aka The Movement or The Group).

    In 1955 the Catholic membership in Melbourne split from the Australian Labor Party and formed what was to become the Democratic Labor party. It was centred in Melbourne and had little effect outside of Victoria, in fact Cardinal Gilroy of Sydney was opposed to the conservative values and methods of The Group.

    The DLP kept Labor out of Federal power until 1972, and for longer in Victoria. They never got much more than 12% in Victoria, but that was enough to swing elections as their preferences went to the Liberal/National coalition and Victoria had a lot of Federal seats. The loss of crucial Victorian seats sunk Labor, although they sometimes won the popular vote.

    The main effect of those long years of Coalition government was social stagnation. Of course the usual debates about sexual law, white Australia and communism continued, but they were generally more reflective of a conservative society than overtly religious. In fact the coalition was predominantly mainstream Protestant; Anglican, Methodist, Baptist etc., with some small offshoots of more extreme, hot gospelling American churches. None of the political figures in power was particularly noted for religious fervour, or for moral rectitude, and while they were careful not to antagonise religion, and to keep in with the Catholic hierarchy (they even knighted some of them!), they never really pushed the religious barrow.

    The areas in which religion played a part in those days were education and to a lesser extent the hospital service. The system of Catholic parochial schools was supported by the Federal Government and Catholic hospitals got tax breaks, as did private medical insurance which made their business possible. Generally there was not much controversy about these issues.

    The election of the Whitlam government in 1972 changed everything. The ALP had been predominantly Irish and Catholic, but Whitlam was different, a Protestant grandee from the Melbourne elite. The Catholic rump remained, but had little influence on the direction of the government. A national health system was introduced, important changes were made to family law, and abortion was legalised. The three years of Gough changed Australia for ever.

    The dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1975 brought in a period of economic and political reaction, but the change in attitudes was long-lived. Whitlam and his successor Frazer did not have much truck with religion, and the power of the Group and the DLP was insignificant. The Labor governments that followed were run by non believers, Hawke and Keating. The religious right had a go but didn’t get far.

    Then in 1996 disaster occurred as John Howard, a quietly zealous Methodist became PM. We had to endure him for eleven years. He was socially reactionary, and he farmed out some of the social services to private providers, including some religious organisations. Some of his social, political and economic ideas reflected the values of the religious right in the US (excessive veneration for the flag, wars on drugs and terror, low taxation, anti trades unionism, racial intolerance etc.)

    Since then there has been one atheist PM (Julie Gillard, Lab 2010-2013), two Catholics (Kevin Rudd Lab 2007-2010, 2013; Tony Abbott Lib 2013-2015). Abbott brought ultra Catholic belief into politics and had strong links, if not membership, of Opus Dei. The current PM, Martin Turnbull is an RC (converted from Presbyterian 2002), but has a liberal outlook on social and sexual matters.

    All in all religion has played a significant part in Australian politics, which seemed to be declining in the Whitlam/Frazer/Hawke/Keating period, 1972-1996, but which has rebooted somewhat in latter years, partly due to the rise in American-style mega churches with their attendant right-wing philosophies. The traditional churches have less power than they once enjoyed.



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  • Ah, yes, Kylie Sturgess, I remember meeting her when I was a member of the Atheist Foundation of Australia (AFA). She was quite proactive and was somebody who was actually doing something to counter religious bullying in Australia.

    I was a member there for several years, a paying member, and attended the Global Atheist Convention in 2012 and was an active member of their forums. Then, one day, when I fired back at a moderator who made an expletive-containing aggressive remark to me on the forums, I was instantly and permanently banned, without any discussion or appeal, after my years of membership and contributions.

    There were some lovely people on the forum, but then were a collection of “in-group mentality” mods who ran the show and didn’t let you speak as freely as they would permit, and you get a nice permanent insta-ban. In other words, they are not as open-minded as they think they are.

    Many of the good long-standing members had already left 12 months earlier in a mass departure over the running of the site; perhaps that was a sign of which I should have taken more note.

    Props to Ms Sturgess, but the AFA had problems with individuals making biased decisions that kept you shut out if you didn’t toe the line. Sounds familiar doesn’t it.



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  • Just stumbled on this. It didn’t make the news services I follow.

    @SofW

    My perception is that many, many, Australian politicians are very free about flaunting and promoting their religion in power – is that a factual perception?

    There is a solid religious conservative minority in Australia that exerts political power far above their numbers. Read Eejit’s excellent summary of the DLP madness. They are stuck in the 1950’s. Dad off to work. Mom at home with the kids. Dinner on the table at 6. They are conservative on all social issues. Abortion. Marriage equality. Global warming. Covertly racists.

    An illustration of their power is in the recent politics of our conservative political party. They’re called the Liberal Party which I find strangely ironic. The religious conservatives have a large power base that dominates this party. They are in power. The Prime Minister Tony Abbott was from the centre of this christian conservative faction. Catholic family man. Opposed to all social reform. Famously said that “Climate Change is a load of crap.” Abbott is very popular in the conservative powerful wing of the Liberal party, however he was toxic with the wider Australian population.

    The Liberal party had just won a landslide election replacing the Labor Party. Abbott was so bad that his ratings rapidly fell such that if an election was held, the Liberal Party would be wiped out, even after previously winning a massive majority. The Liberal Party conservatives did a deal with a popular but socially liberal member of their party, Malcolm Turnbull to replace Abbott and give them a chance of being re-elected, but the hand over of power had conditions. The religious conservatives still have the numbers so Turnbull was muzzled on the social issues that made him popular with the wider electorate. Wants to act on climate change. Supports Gay marriage. Whats to take Australia from a monarchy (The Queen of the UK is our head of state) to a republic. So Turnbull now won’t say anything about his former social values…… and no surprise, his ratings have slumped as well.

    The point of all of this is that there exists in Australia, a very small conservative religious block that wields great power. However it is rapidly dying. I worked on the last Census. On religion, Catholicism was Australia’s largest religion, but atheists have rapidly climbed into second place. Catholics 25%. Atheists 22%. Then the Anglicans and other protestant faiths. If the rate of climb for atheists continues, we are likely in 2016, to be the largest “Religious (??)” block.



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  • On religion, Catholicism was Australia’s largest religion, but atheists have rapidly climbed into second place. Catholics 25%. Atheists 22%. Then the Anglicans and other protestant faiths. If the rate of climb for atheists continues, we are likely in 2016, to be the largest “Religious

    Let’s not get too excited, it’s Non-religious that are 22%, not atheists. I’m sure many of the non religious are still theists but do not subscribe to any organised religious denomination.



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  • David R Allen #9: The religious conservatives still have the numbers so Turnbull was muzzled on the social issues that made him popular with the wider electorate.

    Thanks for the excellent update David. I’ve been out of Australia for eleven years and so I am not really au fait with the ins and outs of current politics. Before you ask, leaving was a catastrophe, but it’s too hard to move back.
    Before I left, under Howard’s tutelage, I had begun to see the machinations of the Christian group in the Liberal party, which as I said seemed to draw its inspiration from the American neo-cons and the mega churches. They are behaving in a manner typical of religio-political groups, of any faith – covert highly organised groups, number crunching, secret agendas, targeting important centres of power, infiltration, underpinned by a belief in sexual repression and free markets.
    I didn’t realise that Abbot’s demise was so expensive for Turnbull, much less that the Christian grouping was so powerful that it could dictate terms. It’s all very depressing.



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  • Stephen of Wimbledon: eejit has likley answered you with much more depth, but I thought I’d answer as an Australian, anyway.

    A lot of Australian politicians identify as Christian, but that’s basically lip service – you may be thinking it’s more serious due to Tony Abbott, our previous PM, who was very much religious and wanting you to know it.

    I feel that non-religious people are quite accepted in Australian society, with religion being considered a private matter for the most part.

    Regarding religion and politics, this quote from an news.com.au article a few years back may be of interest to you: “Julia Gillard is the fifth Australian prime minister to publicly admit to not believing in a Christian God, after John Curtin, John Gorton, Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke (an agnostic).”



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  • Hi Chris [#12],

    Thank you.

    Between them eejit and David have covered the angles that interested me most, and I welcome your added perspective.

    I hoped that someone would highlight (I assumed it existed) that a religio-political cabal probably has influence far beyond the strength that might be guessed from the numbers who identify with those religions. David was my White Knight.

    In short; I thought it important to show that being the largest ‘religious’ grouping may not be enough.

    One of the things we forget, at great cost, if we’re not careful is that all organised religions are political by definition. Most non-religious people are turned off by identity politics and this is what makes them difficult to organise. But organise they must, if they don’t want to live in a covert theocracy – and this appears to be what can happen under a Liberal government.

    It’s time to herd those Aussie cats!

    Peace.



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  • It’s a pity that the question itself is flawed.

    “What is the person’s religion?”

    This is akin to asking “What is your favourite opera?”. It makes the assumption that you have one. A better, and less leading format would be:

    Do you have a religion? YES/NO

    If YES, please choose from the following list…



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