Irreligion in Australia

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Major religious affiliations in Australia by census year[1]

Atheism, agnosticism, deism, scepticism, freethought, secular humanism or general secularism are increasing in Australia.[2] Post-war Australia has become a highly secularised country.[3] Religion does not play a major role in the lives of much of the population.[4]

In the 2011 Australian census, 22.3% of Australians (or 4,796,787 people) described themselves as having "no religion". This was more than three percent higher (and 1,090,232 people more) than in the 2006 census and was the second largest category.[5] Another 2.014 million (9.4%) were in the "not-stated or inadequately-defined" category: so more than 31% of Australians did not state a religious affiliation in the 2011 census.[6]

In the 2006 Australian census, 18.7% of Australians (or 3,706,555 people) had described themselves as having "no religion". This was three percent higher than in the 2001 census and was the largest growth in total number of any religious option in that census (800,557 people).[2] A further 2.4 million (11.9%) did not state a religion (or inadequately described it).[7] So just over 30% of Australians did not state a religious affiliation in the 2006 census.

According to a 2004 study by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, 25% of Australians do not believe in any gods.[8]


Before European settlement, the Aboriginal Australians followed a spiritual system known as the Dreamtime.

European settlement in 1788 brought with it mostly Christian denominations.

Since the 1901 census, the percentage of the population not aligning with a religion has grown from 0.4% to just over 30% of the population. This census question about religion has been clearly labelled as "optional" since 1933. In 1971 the census has instructed, "If no religion, write none." This was followed by "a seven-fold increase" in the figures from previous years for those declaring lack of religious beliefs.[9]

Melbourne hosted the 2010 Global Atheist Convention (branded as the largest event of its kind in the world,[10]) sponsored by the Atheist Foundation of Australia and Atheist Alliance International. It took place at the Melbourne Convention Centre from 12 to 14 March 2010. Over 2,000 delegates attended, with all available tickets selling out more than five weeks prior to the event.[11]

In 2010 The Australian Book of Atheism[12] was published as "the first collection to explore atheism from an Australian viewpoint".[13] The book was prompted by the disparity between Australia's increasing secularism and the increasing political and educational influence and funding of religion in Australia and contains essays by 33 authors (including Leslie Cannold, Robyn Williams, Tim Minchin, Graham Oppy, Philip Nitschke, Ian Hunter, Lyn Allison, Russell Blackford and Ian Robinson) on atheism-related topics in areas including history, law, education, philosophy and neurobiology.

Irreligion in politics[edit]

John Latham, who in the 1930s served as Deputy Prime Minister and later as Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, was an atheist and early member of the Rationalist Society of Australia.

Australians tend to be very suspicious of religion being intertwined with politics. Critic and commentator Robert Hughes stated "Any Australian political candidate who declared God was on his side would be laughed off the podium as an idiot or a wowser (prude, intrusive bluenose)."[14] Conversely, Australia has had many openly atheist or agnostic political figures elected to high positions, including prime ministers Gough Whitlam (whose philosophical position has been called "post-Christian",[15]) John Curtin, John Gorton, Bob Hawke and Julia Gillard. Governor-general Bill Hayden was voted as the Australian Humanist of the Year by the Council of Australian Humanist Societies. Politicians Gareth Evans, Olive Zakharov and Lionel Murphy have also received this award.

A 2010 survey by The Sunday Age asked all 30 members of the First Rudd Ministry about their religious beliefs. Fifteen declined to comment, ten said they were "Christian" and three stated that they were atheists: health minister Nicola Roxon, defence personnel minister Greg Combet and financial services minister Chris Bowen. The remaining two, finance minister Lindsay Tanner and treasurer Wayne Swan, both described themselves as agnostic Christians, with Swan believing that "values, rather than religion, are important in public life". Tanner added, "I doubt whether it would make much difference to a political career for someone to describe themselves as atheist."[16]

According to a 2009 Nielsen survey, 84% of 1000 respondents agree that religion and politics should be separate.[17]

Irreligion in popular culture[edit]

Many of Australia's most famous satirists and comedians have criticised religion, including Tim Minchin, who has written several songs about religion and creationism; Wil Anderson, whose 2006 stand-up comedy tour "Wil of God" dealt with intelligent design; The Chaser, who are highly popular in Australia for their irreverent larrikin humour; John Safran, whose television show John Safran vs. God won the 2005 Australian Film Institute award for best comedy series.

Polls, surveys and statistics[edit]

People who are affiliated with no religion, agnosticism, atheism, humanism, or rationalism as a percentage of the total population in Australia at the 2011 census, divided geographically by statistical local area

Although many Australians identify themselves as religious, the majority consider religion the least important aspect of their lives when compared with family, partners, work and career, leisure time and politics.[18] This is reflected in Australia's church attendance rates, which are among the lowest in the world and in continuing decline.[19][20] In explaining this phenomenon, writer and broadcaster Paul Collins said "Australians are quietly spiritual rather than explicitly religious" and the prominent historian Manning Clark defined Australian spirituality as "a shy hope in the heart .... understated, wary of enthusiasm, anti-authoritarian, optimistic, open to others, self-deprecating and ultimately characterized by a serious quiet reverence, a deliberate silence, an inarticulate awe and a serious distaste for glib wordiness."[21]

Donald Horne, one of Australia's well-known public intellectuals, believed rising prosperity in post-war Australia influenced the decline in church-going and general lack of interest in religion. "Churches no longer matter very much to most Australians. If there is a happy eternal life it's for everyone ... For many Australians the pleasures of this life are sufficiently satisfying that religion offers nothing of great appeal", said Horne in his landmark work The Lucky Country.[3]

  • In 2008 an Intelligence Squared debate was held with the topic "We Would Be Better Off Without Religion." The debate ended with 54% for the motion and 36% against.[23][24] The Sydney Morning Herald, an Australian newspaper, asked its readers "Would the world be better off without religion?". Eighty-one per cent responded in the affirmative.[25]
  • A 2008 Christian Science Monitor survey of 17 countries reported that youth from Australia and the United Kingdom were the least likely to observe religious practice or see any "spiritual dimension" to life.[27]
  • Secular marriages in Australia have increased. They accounted for 41.3% of marriages in 1988[28] but overtook religious marriages in 1999. In 2013, 72.5 per cent of marriages were celebrated by civil celebrants.[29] This is slightly greater than the rate in England and Wales in 2012 (70%).[30]
  • Secular Funerals: In May 2014, the Sydney Morning Herald published results of a national study of 104 funeral directors and an online survey of 514 people over 50. The study reported that 6 in 10 funerals were conducted by civil celebrants.[31]
  • A survey of 1718 Australians, conducted by the Christian Research Association at the end of 2009, found that 16 per cent attended a religious service at least once a month, compared with 23 per cent in 1993. More than 40 per cent of those brought up as Anglicans or Lutherans, 36 per cent of those brought up in the Uniting Church and 28 per cent of those brought up as Roman Catholics now described themselves as having no religion. Thirty-three per cent of 15 to 29 year olds identified with a Christian denomination in 2009 compared with 60 per cent in 1993.[4]
  • In 1996, 17.9% of Roman Catholics attended Mass on a typical Sunday.[32] This fell to 15.3% in 2001, 13.8% in 2006 and 12.2% in 2011.[33][34] Of the 13.8%, the median age of all Catholics aged 15 years and over was 44 years.[35][36]
  • In 1996, 27% of Roman Catholics aged 50 to 54 years regularly attended Mass. This fell to 15% in 2006.[35] Similarly, 30% aged 55–59 years regularly attended Mass in 1996, but only 19% in 2006.[35]
  • From 1996 to 2006 Mass attendance for Roman Catholics aged between 15 to 34 declined by just over 38%, going from 136,000 to 83,760 attendees.[35]
  • In December 2009, 24% of 1000 respondents claimed they do not believe in both God and a "universal spirit", while 8% did not know, refused to answer or were unsure. The same survey indicated that 8363 of respondents (50%) claimed religion was important in their lives, whereas 8217 (49%) did not. A further 81 respondents did not know.[17]
  • In 2009, the National Church Life Survey asked 1718 Australians "How important is your religious faith or spirituality in shaping your life's decisions, such as career, relationships and lifestyle?". 430 (25%) claimed that religious faith or spirituality was important, while just 231 (13.4%) claimed that it was very important. A further 1057 (61.5%) claimed that it was of little importance or not important whatsoever, a number which rose to 73% for those aged between 15–29 years.[37]
  • In April 2011, an Ipsos MORI survey discovered that 32% claimed no religion.[38]
  • A study in August 2011 into same-sex marriage and religion surveyed 1060 respondents in which 43% claimed no religion.[39]
  • In October 2011, McCrindle Research conducted a study on attitudes towards religion and Christianity in 21st Century Australia. 50% of the 1094 respondents did not identify with a religion, compared to 40% who identified with Christianity. Of the 50%, 31% claimed no religion whereas 19% were spiritual, but not religious. When asked "Was Jesus a real person from history?", 17% claimed he did not exist.[40] As part of a joint-research venture, more research was conducted about Spirituality and Christianity in Australia. The research discovered that 30% claimed no religion; 64% identified with Christianity and a further 6% belonged to other religions. Of the 64%, 40% defined themselves as Christian more than spiritual, while 24% claimed that they were more spiritual than Christian. Of the 40%, just 9% were actively practising and regularly attending.[41]
Males and Females who claim no religion from 1971 to 2011
  • The Australian Census of 2001 found that 20% of people aged between 18-24 claimed no religion.[9] In 2006, 23.5% of people aged between 15-34 claimed no religion. This rose to 28% in 2011.[42][43]
  • A study in 2011 by the Christian Research Association discovered that the attendance of Uniting Churches has declined by 30% over the past 10 years. President Philip Hughes predicts the decline in church attendance will continue "at least for the next 20 years". The study also found that the average age of people attending Catholic and Anglican churches is around 60 years.[45]
  • A survey by McCrindle Research asked Australians about their attitudes towards Christmas, how they celebrated Christmas or whether they celebrated Christmas at all. The survey discovered that Christmas was predominantly secular. 46% claimed the highlights of Christmas revolved around celebrations and holidays with family and friends; 36% claimed the highlights of Christmas were gift giving, the Christmas tree and the general Christmas spirit; and just 15% claimed attending services, carol singing and nativity plays were the highlights of Christmas. The same survey discovered that 1 in 5 (19%) would "definitely" attend a Christmas service, compared to 2 in 5 (38%) who have never attended. Furthermore, 87% of people who are not religious still celebrated Christmas to some extent.[46]
  • According to Gregory Paul (2002), 24% of Australians are atheist or agnostic.[47]
  • On 9 April 2012, in an episode of Q&A, viewers were asked "Does religious belief make the world a better place?". Over 20,000 votes were cast, of which 76% said "No".[48]
  • According to NORC of Chicago, 20.6% of Australians don't believe in God and never have, while 9.7% are "strong atheists". Of those aged under 28, 26.8% have never believed in God and just 14.7% are certain God exists.[49]
  • In 2012, a worldwide poll conducted by Win-Gallup International, discovered that 48% of Australians claimed no religion; 37% were religious; 10% declared themselves "convinced atheists"; 5% did not know or did not respond. Australia placed in the bottom 14 for religiosity and in the top 11 for atheism.[50]
  • According to a survey by McCrindle Research, just 8% of Christians attend at least once per month. The survey also discovered that 47% of respondents do not go to church because it is "irrelevant to my life", 26% "don't accept how it's taught", while 19% "don't believe in the bible".[53]
  • The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that in 2011 adults aged 18–34 were more than twice as likely as those in 1976 to have no religion (29% compared with 12%). The highest proportion of people who had no religion were young adults. However, the increase in the response was also noted in the general population.[54]
  • According to the Australian Census of 2011, 24.5% of Australian-born Australians claim no religion.[55]
  • The Australia Bureau of Statistics reported further details of the 2011 census in their Australian Social Trends report, showing that the number of males claiming no religion was higher than females, that women claiming no religion were more likely to have no children, and that marriages were mostly performed by civil celebrants.[56][57] Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory had the highest rates of citizens reporting no religion, at 29% while the rate was lowest in New South Wales (18%).[58][59]
  • In 2014 Roy Morgan Research announced that they had surveyed 4840 Australians between October and December 2013 to poll religious affiliation, and found that 52.6% of Australians were Christian, while 37.6% had no religion.[60] Norman Morris, the company's communications director, noted that the change in religious affiliation could indicated a growth of atheism and agnosticism, or a move away from identification with organised Christianity by theistic believers. He identified possible causes for the change, including "morally conservative religious doctrines" contrasting with progressive attitudes on abortion, same-sex marriage, the use of condoms in the global fight against the HIV pandemic. He also noted the drop coincided with public media attention around alleged religious cover-ups of child sexual abuse in the Child Abuse Royal Commission.

See also[edit]


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  10. ^ Atheist convention's first secular success
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