The 2011 Census, ethnicity and religion in Australia

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Radio National has been keeping an eye on the 2011 Census and the information derived from this about the faith (and no faith) composition of Australia. Here, Prof. Des Cahill is interviewed about what the Census indicates about belief and practice in Australia.

The Religion & Ethics Report is keeping a weather eye on the results of the 2011 census. The details are being released progressively and we’re especially interested in whatthey reveal about the faith landscape of Australia — not just about who believes and who doesn’t but about how ethnicity is shaping religion in 21st century Australia. Professor Gary Bouma of Monash University recently gave us an initial overview of belief and unbelief. Now we look at the countries of origin that are remaking Australian religion, with Professor Des Cahill of RMIT University in Melbourne. In a recent paper, he argues that the census shows a paradox, in that Australia has at once become more secular and more religious.

Andrew West: Now here on the program we’ve been keeping a weather eye on the results of the 2011 census. The details are being released progressively and we’re especially interested in what they reveal about the faith landscape of Australia. Not just about who believes and who doesn’t, but about how ethnicity is shaping religion in 21st century Australia.

A few weeks ago Professor Gary Bouma of Monash University gave us a great initial overview of belief and unbelief. Today we want to drill deeper into the countries of origin that are remaking Australian religion with Professor Des Cahill of RMIT University in Melbourne. In a recent paper Des Cahill argues that the census shows a paradox in Australia where we have at once become more secular and yet more religious. So how does that work?

Des Cahill: We’re becoming more religious but religious in a different way, particularly through the non-Christian religions, Hinduism especially at this time.

Andrew West: And they’re up there at about eight per cent now aren’t they?

Des Cahill: Yes. About 1 in 14 Australians now belongs to a non-Christian religion. And I think it’s fair to say that their practice of their religions is probably greater than in the Christian traditions. But the problem is that we have to find new ways of measuring religiosity rather than just say going to church on Sunday.

Andrew West: How might we measure that?

Des Cahill: We’ll have to use an index looking at how people pray, what sort of rituals do they do.

Andrew West: And even that measure, as I understand it, Des for Christian religions, can be pretty flexible.

Des Cahill: Yes, I think that’s true and certainly among the Orthodox churches you kind of have that…feeling is there are some who do attend every week. But it tends to be much more flexible and it’s part of a community commitment, a cultural commitment to the particular religion that’s the core of the particular culture.

Andrew West: And that’s because in some of the Eastern churches the church itself is the repository of a broader national culture in the diaspora. It’s not just a spiritual experience?

Des Cahill: That’s right and we see this particularly in the studies on the Greek Orthodox Church and the way that they’ve been able to keep a people ticking the Orthodox box in the census because there is this close alignment between religion and cultural maintenance.

Andrew West: Let’s talk about this no-religion category. When we raised it with Professor Gary Bouma of Monash University a few weeks ago he said, yes, no-religion has grown as a category, now the second biggest in terms of religious observance. He argued that they weren’t all atheists. Now, that generated quite a response from some listeners. What’s your take on the no-religion category?

Des Cahill: Well, I think it’s important to say that the no-religion category is the largest in all the states and territories except the three largest states. I think both the no-religion category and the non-stated category are made up of very diverse people, and certainly we know that those who actually write ‘atheist’ into the box on the census form is relatively small, whereas in fact there are many more atheists out there in the community, and there’s within that no-religion group, the spectrum is from those who are aggressively anti-religious to those who have perhaps come out of a religious tradition and have switched over and may have some feeling there, perhaps are maybe a-religious but not anti-religious, and we know, for example, from the Catholic figures from other studies that we know about that there must be more than one million former Catholics living in Australia just as in the United States there are 22 million former Catholics there. It’s the second largest religious group, I’m told.

Andrew West: And surely that no-religion category must include those who call themselves agnostics, not atheists?

Des Cahill: Yes, I think that is true, but I think there’s also another issue coming through here in the no-religion category, that no one’s really talked about, and that’s the Chinese group who tick the no-religion box, and I suppose a lot of them come out of a communist system where religion certainly wasn’t encouraged, and because of the huge jump in the numbers of China-born it’s jumped by over half, 54 per cent, and so there’s been a considerable jump in the no-religion. I would suspect when we finally get the figures that the no-religion category has probably been increased by about 60,000 China-born people, and also because of groups who come from countries like Vietnam—there’s a group there who would tick the no-religion box—as well as New Zealand, a big jump in the number of New Zealanders, but also the increase in the number of UK-born people, which includes a sizeable percentage of those who also would tick the no-religion box.

Andrew West: Yes, so immigration has been a source for both the irreligious and the religious.

Des Cahill: Absolutely, yes.

Andrew West: Let’s talk about the distribution, as it were, the population distribution of religion. You mention that the no-religion category was the biggest in all but New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. What accounts for this?

Des Cahill: Oh, the impact of immigration, which is particularly strong in New South Wales and Victoria and Queensland, which wasn’t impacted as much up until the late 1970s, early 1980s, but since then the immigrant component of Queensland has grown. Whereas in a state like Tasmania, for example, where again the no-religion category is the largest, for the first time it has been Anglicanism, and there I think it’s partially because of the relative lack of migration into Tasmania.

Andrew West: Yes, Sydney itself is the magnet, and I think Victoria, Melbourne as well, but particularly Sydney, the magnet for a lot of immigration, and that’s bolstering not just churches but non-Christian religions, keeping them in the game.

Des Cahill: Yes, but I think in the case of Sydney there hasn’t been the same regional migration occurring in New South Wales as has happened particularly in Victoria, because of the attitude of the Carr government which didn’t encourage regional migration, whereas Victoria did.

Andrew West: It didn’t encourage regional migration, but people still kept flocking to Sydney. I mean, surely that’s why we’ve seen this bolstering of Catholicism by Filipinos.

Des Cahill: Yes, Filipinos and other groups, and we were surprised by the rise by 313,000 in the number of Catholics in Australia, and this is partly through the migration factor led by the Filipinos. We were very much focused on India and a lot of immigrants coming from India in the rise in the Catholic population, but it’s the Philippines, India, New Zealand…

Andrew West: Vietnam, I think?

Des Cahill: Ireland and so on. There are two factors impacting on the Catholic figures: one is the migration of Asian Catholic minorities with the Philippines as a special case, and secondly the migration of the Eastern Catholics in the last five to ten years led by the Chaldean refugees from Iraq and…

Andrew West: Yes, this, yes, I want to get into this. This is a very fascinating revelation.

Des Cahill: And the Chaldeans and the Syro-Malabar Catholics from Kerala in India, and so they’re adding greatly to the presence of Eastern Rite Catholics adding to the Maronites and Ukrainians and the Melkites and so on.

Andrew West: Yes, at least a sizeable proportion of the refugee flow out of the Middle East is Christian, despite popular perception.

Des Cahill: Yes, that’s correct, and I think the interesting one is Indonesia, because among the Indonesian-born, which has increased quite considerably over the last five years, the Catholics would seem to be the largest religious group, certainly larger than Islam and the Buddhist groups, coming from Indonesia, but as well as that you have South Korea, where the Catholics were in 2006 the largest religious group who tend to head to Sydney.

Andrew West: The Irish seem to have walked away in much greater numbers from the Church than Catholics in Asia.

Des Cahill: Yes, that is true, because I think there’s a minority status factor, I think, that’s quite important here, that in countries where Catholicism—and this is true of other religious groups—is a minority, particularly if it’s a beleaguered or persecuted minority there tends to be a greater strength of faith. We see this with the Chaldeans, for example, who are extremely strong in their faith and it’s their bulwark against the terrible situation that they face, and a student of mine who’s just completed her PhD where she has shown, among religious people, not just Catholics or Christians but also among Muslims, coming from the Horn of Africa and from Iraq, that religion is a positive thing during the refugee experience both before they leave the country, during their time in a refugee camp and during their settlement in Australia.

Andrew West: Professor Des Cahill, thank you very much indeed for your time.

Des Cahill: Thank you, Andrew.

You may listen to this interview on this page

Source: Religion and Ethics Report (used with permission)

Photo Credit: Religion and Ethics Report