Beyond Belief: Why Australians don’t go to church, but call upon God in times of crisis


Most Australians claim they believe in God or some kind of “higher power” and yet fewer than one in 10 of us attend church every week. We don’t actively “worship” and yet are apparently comforted by the mere presence of the many churches that operate in our community.

And, despite not believing in God, we send our children to religious schools and turn to the Bible during times of crisis.

In his new book Beyond Belief, Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay argues a growing number of people, particularly young people, are abandoning religion in favour of a different kind of spirituality — one not restricted by institutions or guidelines.

We still crave answers and seek happiness, Mackay says, but more of us are finding it in secular realms: yoga, meditation, music.

Here, Mackay discusses why young people are embracing the Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) movement, why we still call upon God when luck fails us, and whether it is possible to find meaning without religion.

Let’s discuss ‘our need to believe’. Why do we need this sense of purpose?

I think the underlining reason is [that] life is a mystery; we want those big questions answered to why we are here. Humans are seekers of answers: Why is the bus late? Why is my child going off the rails?

We constantly need answers, we try to supply them from a religious path — where answers are provided — and so we are led to embrace religious stories. They make us feel calmer and [help] everything make sense.



PHOTO: People are leaving the church in droves but where are they going to fulfil their spiritual desire? (Courtesy Pan Macmillan)

Australians have steered away from institutionalised religion (fewer than one in 10 of us attend church weekly) while the movement of spirituality has become more important to us over the past decade. Why do you think this is?

First, in modern society, Australia included, we have been bombarded with propaganda over the last few decades, pressure from mass marketing — where we are told life’s greatest satisfaction is to “buy, buy, buy”.

We think we are entitled to more comfort and prosperity and it is all about ‘me’ … the industry is telling us we are entitled to be happy. If [we’re not happy], then we need to do something about it: read that book, buy this CD, take that pill.

We are not let to experience sadness, pain or loss; we are filled with expectations of happiness and the seductive idea that there is no reason why we can’t be happy. This is not healthy or harmonious happiness.

Second, the Christian church is a big, global corporation … [it is] not very welcoming … the experience is seen as boring and quite irrelevant.

Third, we have the dogmatic association with religion: to be Christian, you have to believe that miracles have happened.

People who were raised with a scientific background tend to think, “If I have to believe everything about Christianity, God, etc., then I don’t want to be involved at all”.

Why do you think young people in particular are attracted to the idea of being SBNR?

There is a trend among young people of them asking, “How can I unlock my spiritual potential? How can I be a better person without signing up or wearing the badge of religion?”

They still want the values that are taught with religion of “loving thy neighbour”.

Some people use yoga, mindfulness, secular meditation or pilgrim walks — there are lots of pathways young people are interested in when journeying down a spiritual path.

This can be a moment of change through music or nature. It’s something that happens in their life, a moment when they suddenly realise we are all one.

Some see modern spiritualism as ego-driven: meaning yoga and Eastern religions are interpreted as a path to self-fulfilment. Is this the right way to go about finding spiritualism?

We are currently in a soft revolution. It’s not a big movement; it’s steady: 61 per cent of Australians [say they are] Christian … but people are relying on something else now, saying they are SBNR, saying they don’t like the church, but at the same time saying they … know there’s a spiritual dimension out there.

They have a spiritual side [and an] awareness of a kinder, more compassionate and loving nature.



PHOTO: Beyond Belief author Hugh Mackay says people want to ‘unlock their spiritual potential’ without signing up to religion. (

Is it disrespectful to the true origins of Buddhism or Hinduism when people who are SNBR pick out certain elements of these faiths — such as practicing meditation or mindfulness — without identifying with the historical or cultural aspects?

We pick certain parts from many religions, making their beliefs our own. Many people don’t want all the rules that come with Christianity, so they take certain aspects: Love thy neighbour; love thy enemy … these are hard things to do, but when people do this, they are satisfied in their own version of a once-strict faith.

You say in your book that more and more people are identifying as SBNR but still turn to the church for milestone events. Why?

Eight per cent of Australians go to church. For big events, crises or weddings, we call upon God.

People call upon God when they find themselves in a bad situation — say, their partner has cancer or something critical has happened.

But there is a [shift] away from using the church for these milestone events.

A lot of [people who are SBNR] have no disrespect for the church — they respect its values and teachings.

Many Australians may feel embarrassed when sharing their belief in god in the traditional sense of Christianity. Why is this the case?

If someone mentions to a friend that they go to church, that friend thinks it’s strange.

In my book, I ask people who don’t attend church how they feel about church: 90 per cent of people were ambivalent.

They say they don’t like the institution, but like the fact that in their suburb there is a church.

Young people who find themselves becoming parents may have never gone to church, but still involve their kids in church secondary schools … people want to instil these Christian values from school into their children — they want them to understand love, compassion and kindness.

Where do you see faith, religion and spirituality in Australia venturing in the next decade?

I think there will be ‘SBNR’ boxes on the census in the future. Twenty per cent of Australians tick “no religion”.

Of course, this is bad news for churches, but good news for society.

Although people are not as drawn to churches, they still believe there is a spiritual dimension out there … they are thinking of everyone as a whole. They are seeing us all as connected, as one.

Do you personally believe we can find meaning without religion?

I believe we can find meaning without religion. When people say they are SBNR, almost always they say they care for others and not about “me” or “us”.

I believe we can all think beyond ourselves, where faith is no larger than self or some non-religious pathway



Is it possible to find meaning without religion? Author Hugh Mackay discusses why more Australians are abandoning traditional religion to pursue alternative spiritual paths.


Image Source


The Book:

Hugh Mackay speaking at Newcastle Writers Festival: