Over the last few decades, the number of people who answer the census question about religion with ‘no religion’ or ‘not specified’ has been on the rise. But just because someone doesn’t subscribe to organised religion doesn’t mean they’re not spiritual. Unlike in France and the United States, the Australian census contains a question about religion. This year, for the first time, ‘no religion’ will be the first option.
This is because the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) thinks no religion will receive the largest response—the boxes are organised in descending order from the largest to smallest group.
A century ago, Anglicans were the largest group at over 40 per cent of the population. By 2011 they’d declined to 17 per cent, while Catholics were about 25 per cent and the Uniting Church on 5 per cent. Muslims were 2.2 per cent, Buddhists 2.5 per cent, Greek Orthodox 1.8 per cent, and Hindus 1.3 per cent. Christians altogether were 61 per cent.
But the group that has been growing steadily for many decades are those who mark ‘no religion’. They rose to 22.3 per cent in the 2011 census. ‘Young people today are finding … old fashioned religion exactly that. Not to their liking,’ says Gary Bouma AM, professor emeritus of sociology at Monash University, and an Anglican priest.
‘The child abuse thing has had a profound effect in making people shy away from it. So the take up of formally organised religion is much less now than it was before.’ Yet he also points out that if you ask Australians whether they are ‘spiritual’, there appears to be no decline at all. In fact, Australian social research firm McCrindle found in 2012 that nearly a fifth of Australians identify as ‘spiritual but not religious’, an option that will not be available as a tickable box on Tuesday.
What does ‘spiritual but not religious’ look like?
Despite being raised a Catholic, Jonathan Murphy will be ticking ‘no religion’ on this year’s census. The Sunshine Coast man is a yoga teacher and organises yoga events and festivals. ‘As a yoga practitioner my spiritual practice is how I live my life—how I’m treating others, family, how I live my life towards the planet and being responsible for my actions,’ Murphy says.
‘At the end of the day, self reflecting and simply trying to be the best human being I can be. ‘No religion can do that, we all have to reform ourselves.’
Murphy remembers shying away from religion as a little boy in the 1970s at a convent school in Redcliffe, north of Brisbane, and questioning how the nuns, who were ‘mean as mean’, could have been acting religiously or morally. Then at the age of 14 he became involved with martial arts, which introduced him to the concept of karma, before eventually starting yoga.
He says spirituality and morality are inherently linked, and being religious doesn’t necessarily mean you are spiritual. ‘Some people may be deeply religious but for me I may not regard them as being spiritual,’ Murphy says.
‘True religion is about how you treat people and it has nothing to do with the rank of being a priest, an archbishop, a pope … they’re no more holy than my beautiful aunty who’s raised many disabled children, someone who lives her life as a beautiful person, very kind. ‘I have seen in my generation the power being taken away from these religious establishments.’
Why does Australia collect religious data in the census?
First is the matter of money. Faith-based schools in Australia now receive significant government funding. So do universities. So do hospitals. Faith-based charities bid for government contracts. Land for schools and places of worship must be planned and allocated. Grants to faith-based organisations are sought. Some Australians form associations and interest groups along religious and ethnic lines.
Parliamentarians want to know and be able to respond to the demographics of their electorates—including their religious organisations and groupings. Religion and ethnicity are part of contentious public discourse.
Second, consider representation. Accurate demographic statistics help us with what we can and ought to expect in terms of our representation.
The Catholic ‘groupers’ of the mid 20th century fought for fairer political and social representation of Australia’s Catholic minority in education, the legal profession and politics. Protestant Australians of the 19th century would have been shocked to hear that at one point, the PM, the governor general and the chief justice of the High Court would all be Catholics: Paul Keating, William Deane and Gerard Brennan.
Catholicism had become normal, and Catholic Australians have represented their community in public life for decades. The statistics don’t lie: Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu Australians are next.
Third, census data on religion is used to plan better for social needs. In rural and regional Australia, places like Kingaroy in Queensland or Shepparton in Victoria have had noticeable success in the targeted regional resettlement of migrants and refugees. These new arrivals have helped develop sustainable communities, made industries more viable, and created employment opportunities.
These new settlers require the basic resources for integration if they are to say: familiar places where they can identify and connect with others, including religious associations and places of worship. Virtually every migrant community in Australia uses shared religious identity as its first point of anchor. The arithmetic matters, no matter which box you tick.
Source ABC Religion and Ethics