Australian Attitudes Towards the Variety of Religions

The First European Settlers to Australia thought of Christianity as the only ‘civilised’ religion and had no interest in the religions of Chinese miners, Hindu peddlers or Islamic Afghan camel drivers. Since the 1970s, attitudes to other religions have changed markedly. The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (2009) provides the most recent perspective.

Most early European settlers regarded the Aboriginal people as entirely uncivilised, and barely human. The fact that they did not wear the clothes of ‘civilised’ people, or live in ‘civilised’ houses was evidence enough. The Asian people who came to Australia during the Gold Rush and in the following years were seen as little better. They were also regarded as uncivilised. Mostly, the European settlers looked down on them and had little to do with them. This was true in relation to the Chinese miners, the Afghan camel drivers, and the Indian peddlers.

Within this understanding of ‘civilisation’ was the belief that human beings were progressing o v e r t i m e . ‘Civilisation’ represented the goal of this progression. It was seen as the goal that all human beings might expect to attain given time and opportunity. Attitudes began to change in the years following the ‘Great War’. When Europeans reflected on the terrible human cost of what we now refer to as World War I, there was little basis for feeling superior to other peoples.

As confidence in European civilisation fell, so did confidence in the Christian faith as its foundation. Within this period of questioning, some Australian intellectuals began to explore new ways of thinking about life. In doing so, they began to look more seriously at Eastern religions.

Some other Western intellectuals in Australia rejected religion altogether. In 1918, the first Rationalist Society was formed in Melbourne. Similar groups were formed in other capital cities in the following years and a loose coalition of such groups, the Rationalist Society of Australia, was formed in 1938.

These changes in practice and in understanding of religion have led to a wider acceptance of the variety of religions. In the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (2009), 1718 Australian adults were asked whether they respected all religions. Sixty-four per cent of Australians agreed that they did.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 20, No. 4, Pages 6-11

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