Research Materials

A range of articles on many topics related to religious faith and church life in Australia are to be found below. You may search these articles for a particular topic using the search facility in the left-hand column

* Australian Culture and Society
* Congregational Life
* Religion Internationally
* Clergy and Theological Education
* Ethical Issues
* School and Education
* Social Capital
* Spirituality
* Rural Church Life
* The Church Serving the Community

Sectarianism in Australia

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

A new book by the Anglican priest Dr. Benjamin Edwards, WASPS, Tykes and Ecumaniacs, sketches the long history of sectarianism in the Australian cultural scene. A brief survey of 1788 to 1947 notes the deep cleavage in colonial society between the Irish Catholic community and the mainstream British Protestant and Anglican society. This cleavage, as Edwards amply illustrates, lies deep in the memories of many older Australians (ch.1). Edwards also points out that it has been the theme of many novels, films, comedy sketches and television sitcoms, ensuring its enduring place in popular culture (ch.2).

Edwards’ careful analysis of Protestant / Catholic sectarianism largely focusses on New South Wales. While stating that sectarianism is a ‘complex socio-cultural phenomenon’, it is portrayed largely through a theological lens and in terms of conflict between organisations arising from the Reformation (p.52). The issues of power and identity, of national and ethnic identities, play no part in his analysis.

There were a few hints of sectarian attitudes around the Parliament of the World’s Religions. For a few days, a handful of conservative Christians held up a banner outside the conference proclaiming ‘Christ is the only way’. At one point during the conference, there was an angry exchange as one religious group drew attention to its persecution by another in Iran.

As religious divisions continue to threaten world peace in many places around the globe, it was a significant achievement to bring representatives from more than 200 religious groups together for the World Parliament. It demonstrated that, despite the differences in culture and practice, in belief and liturgy, it was possible for people of different religions to talk together and even to observe something of each other’s forms of worship.

As Lester Kurtz, in his book, Gods in the Global Village, concludes, “we must learn to live together as brothers and sisters, or we shall die together as fools” (p.240).

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 20, No.1, Page 6

Climate Change and the Human Spirit

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

Environmental problems, such as pollution and global warming, are seen as the greatest threat to the future of the world, according to young people surveyed in Australia, United Kingdom and Thailand. At the popular level, awareness of environmental issues has grown and there is widespread awareness that this threat is the most critical ever faced by human beings. It was also a major topic at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, held in Melbourne in December 2090. It was noted that climate change and environmental pollution have their roots in the human spirit, and will not be solved simply by new technology or by spending a lot of money. The problem must also be addressed by the world’s religions as a spiritual concern.

The Search Institute Survey, run in several countries in 2008, asked young people what were the two greatest threats to the future of the world. While some of these differences reflected local situations, others did not. Near the top of the list of threats to the future for Australians was extreme hunger and poverty. It was also high on the United Kingdom list, but was close to the bottom of the list for Thailand. The gap between rich and poor was high on the United Kingdom list, but close to the bottom for Australia and Thailand. The lack of jobs and economic opportunities was high for young Thais, but the very bottom of the list for young people in Australia and the United Kingdom.

There was close agreement, however, on the major threats. Most commonly seen as the major threat in each of the three countries were environmental problems such as pollution and global warming. The second or third item was religious and ethnic hatred, violence and war.

The problem of global warming, which humanity is currently facing, is a new problem, a problem which has developed in the last 200 years as a result of the Industrial Revolution. It can be conceived as a sudden reversal of millions of years of natural sequestration of carbon. When the major religious traditions were formed, the possibility that human beings could have an impact so great that it threatened the whole planet could scarcely have been imagined.

How do we begin to address the problem? A range of possibilities was suggested at the Parliament. Several people argued that we must recognise pollution as a sin. We must become aware of the ecological burdens involved in what we do: in the foods we eat, the travel we are involved in, and the waste we create. Several people mentioned the contribution that vegetarianism can make to climate change and a sustainable world.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 20, No. 1, Pages 1-5

Are Australians ‘Losing their Religion’?

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

New data, gathered late 2009, provides a new comprehensive picture of the religious faith and spirituality of Australians. The data is part of the International Social Science Survey (ISSP) program and involved surveys of 1718 adult Australians. It is the best picture we have had of the religious faith and spirituality of the Australian population since the Wellbeing and Security Survey of 2002 conducted by Edith Cowan University, Deakin University, Anglicare and NCLS Research. Indeed, this new survey repeats a range of questions asked in 1993 and 1999, giving us an excellent picture of changes over time.

The major finding is that, among Australians, most measures of religion show significant decline. Attendance at religious services (at least once a month) declined from 23 per cent to 16 per cent of the population between 1993 and 2009. Belief in God (including those who believe but have doubts, and those who believe sometimes) has fallen from 61 per cent of the population to 47 per cent over that same period. Less than one quarter of the Australian population now say they believe in God and have no doubts about it. Identification with a Christian denomination has fallen from 70 per cent in 1993 to 50 per cent of the population.

Correspondingly, there has been a large increase in those claiming to have ‘no religion’: up from 27 per cent of the population in 1993 to 43 per cent in 2009. Having ‘no religion’ does not mean that people have rejected all sense of the transcendent. The ISSP 2009 survey shows that of those who claimed ‘no religion’, just one-third (33%) said they did not believe in God, another 25 per cent said they did not know whether there was a God or not. Around 40 per cent of the ‘no religion’ group felt there was something beyond: a higher power (29%) or perhaps God (12%), although only 2 per cent of the group said they believed in God and had no doubts.

The generation that grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, often referred to as the ‘Boomer generation’, rejected the importance of tradition. It felt no sense of duty in relation to religion. Religion changed from being part of the heritage and identity of many people to being a lifestyle option.

While Australians appear to be ‘losing their religion’, they are not losing their spirituality. There is little evidence here of a major increase in secularism, understood as a rejection of all sense of transcendence. Rather, the evidence points to a rejection of religious organisations. While, on present trends it is unlikely there will be a revival of religious interest in the near future, it is dangerous to be dogmatic about the future.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 20, No. 2, Pages 1-6

Attitudes to Issues of Sexuality

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

In revising the materials for the 3rd edition of Australia’s Religious Communities CD-Rom, we discovered some interesting patterns in the changing attitudes to issues of sexuality amongst Australians. As might be expected, Australian adults have become more accepting of pre-material sex and homosexuality. However, in relation to extra-marital sex, Australians have become less accepting. This suggests that while Australians usually move into a de facto relationship before marriage, they take faithfulness in marriage very seriously.

In the last twenty years, community attitudes have changed substantially. Church attenders tend to have different views from non-church attenders, but their attitudes have also changed. Attitudes vary from one denomination to another, not necessarily in line with the positions and debates of their denominations.

It has become common for couples to live together before marriage, and most Australians accept this. In the Australian version of the International Social Survey in 1993, 59 per cent of Australian adults said that pre-marital sex was not wrong at all. In the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (2009), 68 per cent of the sample of the Australian population said that sexual relations before marriage were not wrong at all.

This is an issue in which the attitudes of Christians and especially of those who attend church frequently are quite different from those of others in the population. Of those who attended church monthly or more often, 51 per cent said that pre-marital sex was almost or always wrong. In 2009, that figure had risen slightly to 54 per cent. Attitudes have become more conservative particularly among younger church attenders.

The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (2009) asked about attitudes to sexual relations with someone other than one’s spouse. Less than 1 per cent of Australians thought it was not wrong at all and 91 per cent said it was always or almost always wrong. Six per cent said it was wrong sometimes and just under 3 per cent said they could not choose.

Australians were quite divided about sexual relations between two adults of the same sex. According to the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (2009), 42 per cent of adult Australians considered that it is not wrong at all, while 39 per cent of Australians felt that it was always or almost always wrong. Another 9 per cent of Australians felt that it is sometimes wrong. Eleven per cent did not know what to think.

In 1993, 82 per cent of those who attended church monthly or more often felt that homosexual practices were always or almost always wrong. In 2009, that figure had reduced to 73 per cent of those attending church monthly or more often. While, overall, church attenders have become a little less opposed to homosexuality, there remains a substantial difference between their attitudes and the attitudes of those who rarely or never attend church.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 20, No. 4, Pages 13-16

Australian Attitudes Towards the Variety of Religions

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

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

Global Religious Trends

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

The religious trends occurring in Australia are not typical of the rest of the world. The Atlas of Global Christianity, a new book from the Centre for the Study of Global Christianity, plots the global trends.

Close to one-third of the world’s population identify themselves as Christian. This proportion has changed little in the last century. However, where they are to be found has changed considerably. In 1910, most of the world’s Christians lived in Europe and North America. Today, most Christians live in South America and Africa. The balance changed sometime in the 1980s. There are also large numbers of Christians living in Asia, particularly China and India. They are not a high proportion of the population there, but because of the very large number of people living in those two countries, the small proportion of Christians amounts to far higher numbers of Christians than found in many Western countries, including Australia.

It is interesting to note that atheism and agnosticism have grown very substantially over the last century from about 4 million to about 778 million. However, they reached their peak in the 1970s and began to decline. Part of the decline had to do with the collapse of Communism. The actual numbers of atheists and agnostics are continuing to decline at the present time with rates of growth below 0%. In this regard, the trend in Australia is very different from the world-wide trend.

Not only has the location of Christians changed, but so has the balance of theological orientation. The greatest movement has been the rise of Pentecostal and charismatic Christians. While many people would see the Pentecostal movement beginning in 1906, there were certainly precursors to it and the Centre for Global Christianity numbers Pentecostals/charismatics in 1900 at just under 1 million. The number of Pentecostals/charismatics has grown to around
600 million, now representing more than one quarter of all Christians.

Roman Catholics remain the largest group, making up just over half of all Christians. The second largest group are the Pentecostals, followed by the Independents, Protestants, Orthodox and Evangelicals.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 20, No. 4, Pages 1-2

Young People, Faith and Social Justice

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

Concern with issues of social justice may seem at odds with the individualism and consumerism of the world of young people. Yet, increasing numbers of young people are becoming involved in the community through volunteering and many are involved in social justice activities. To what extent does faith provide a basis for involvement in social justice among young people? What role does faith play in young people’s motivations? These issues were addressed by Dr. Joan Daw in a project with MCD University of Divinity in 2009, published in Young People, Faith and Social Justice, by the Yarra Institute Press in 2013.

As a small-scale, qualitative research project, Daw conducted interviews with ten coordinators of youth social justice programs from Catholic secondary schools and four people from Catholicbased social justice organisations. These people
were all related to five Catholic schools in Melbourne. Unfortunately, no young participants in these programs were interviewed or surveyed as part of this project.

Several of the interviewees reported that there were ‘moments of deep spirituality’ among young people in formal religious situations identified, for example, in terms of reflection during the veneration of the Cross, or singing after experiencing Mass in the cathedral.

Several interviewees noted that their students did not have a good grasp of the whole story of the Christian faith or with the whole story of Catholicism.

While many young people were critical of the structures of the Church, it did seem that, from time to time, social justice was affirmed by young people as a practical expression of the faith. However, it was noted that many young people did not connect social justice and faith. They are involved because of their innate sense of justice, because wrongs need to be put right, rather than because it is an expression of Gospel values (p.125). Another person put it in terms of people wanting to be part of the human family and wanting to support those who were disadvantaged, but they did not make the link between that and the institutional Church.

Daw concludes that ‘the optimum situation of connectedness [between faith and social justice] appeared to occur when there was a network of interconnections between parish, family, secondary school and social justice organisation’. But she goes on to say ‘this dense network appeared to be rare’ (p.139)

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 24, No. 1, Pages 15-16

The Bible According to Gen Z

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

More than at any other time in history, Australian young people are exposed to the Bible. Close to 40 per cent of all students undertake some of their schooling in a church-run school with religious education classes. Yet, one gets the impression from talking to many young people that the level of Biblical literacy is very poor. They know little of what is in the Bible and have little understanding of it.

In 2010 and 2011, a group of organisations led by the Bible Society commissioned the Christian Research Association to explore young people’s engagement with the Bible. CRA did that through more than 330 interviews with young people in youth groups, schools, cafes and other locations. The research has now been published in a small book along with comments and suggestions from a range of people working with young people across Australia.

We identified several disincentives to personally engaging with the Bible: 1) There are others ways of exploring faith, 2) Reading is a chore for many young people and 3) Finding what is relevant is hard

Most young people we interviewed who were engaging with the Bible were doing so because they were part of groups that gave them encouragement, that directed what they should read, and helped them in the interpretation and the application of what they read. When young people discovered that there were resources that were relevant and helpful to daily life, they became much more interested in reading the Bible for themselves.

Encouraging young people to engage with the Bible involves creating a ‘micro-climate’ in which there is encouragement to read, guidance in what to read, and assistance in understanding and applying what is read.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 24, No. 1, Pages 12-13

The Demographics of a Nation: Australia and the Church

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

This article from NCLS Research presents a summary of Australian population, age, marital status, education, country of birth and religion. The Australian population is compared with church attenders using data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the 2006 National Church Life Survey.

Australia’s population is growing, and the rate of growth has been increasing in recent years. In the 2006 Census the Australian Bureau of Statistics counted 19.9 million people in Australia, marking a 4.7 per cent increase since 2001. It has been estimated that at the end of 2009, the population had grown to 22.2 million people, showing an increase in the growth rate of population since 2006. Australian population growth is occurring mostly in the cities. The main reason for this growth rate increase has been growth in immigration. Net overseas migration contributes to nearly two-thirds of national population growth in Australia.

The age structure of Australia has changed dramatically over recent decades. In 1971 the mean age was 27.0 years. By 2009 it had increased to 37.9 years. A key reason for this aging population is greater life expectancy. Australian churches overall have a significantly lower proportion of younger people than is found in the Australian population, with the mean age of all adult church attenders being 53.4 years.

Marriage rates have been decreasing in Australia since the early 1970’s. However in recent years it has reached a plateau. On the other hand de facto relationships and cohabitation before marriage has seen a steady increase. In 2008, 78 per cent of couples lived together before marriage, up from 16 per cent in 1975. The divorce rate in Australia has remained relatively steady in the last 30 years declining slightly in recent years. In 2008 the rate was 2.2 divorces per 1,000 population. Marriages that do end in divorce are currently lasting longer than previously recorded.

Australia is becoming increasingly educated and the gender gap in education is narrowing. Each successive generation is more likely than the last to have completed school, and to have a tertiary qualification, with Generation X and Y being the most highly educated generations on record.

The proportion of Australians in 2006 who were affiliated with a Christian religion was 64 per cent. Affiliation to many Christian denominations has declined recently. This decline was particularly seen amongst the Anglican, Uniting, Presbyterian/Reformed, and Churches of Christ denominations. The Catholic Church, while decreasing slightly, has not experienced the same decline in affiliation that some other mainstream denominations have experienced.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 21, No. 1, Pages 15-16

Spirituality, Care and Wellbeing in Education

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

Late 2009, Springer Publishing House released a huge two volume collection of essays on spirituality, care and wellbeing in education. The volume is timely as schools and other institutions increasingly find themselves grappling with issues of mental health and wellbeing. Despite the Australian government’s focus on Naplan and elementary measures of literacy and numeracy, psychological issues and issues of meaning and relationships continue to occupy teachers’ attention.
There is a need in every society to deal with the deeper issues of what life is about and how, as humans, we relate to others, the environment and the divine. The first volume of essays focusses mainly on the psychology of religion and spirituality. The second volume is primarily about educational programs and environments in promoting holistic learning and wellbeing. This review will focus on the second volume.

What is evident from the various essays is the multitude of ways authors are thinking about spirituality. Indeed, some of the authors note that this diversity in thinking is one of the major problems in tackling spirituality in the educational context. Several essays tackle spirituality in an esoteric way. Jennifer Gidley, for example, talks in quasi-Hegelian terms about the evolving of human consciousness in which new modes of thinking emerge. She suggests that four values emerge from the literature as foci for the developing forms of education: love, life, wisdom and voice.

Zehavit Goss sees spirituality primarily as the human search for meaning, which for some can take place in the religious approach of ‘a supreme power or entity situated beyond human control’, but which can also take secular forms (p.564).

In terms of content, Gidley sees great value in the study of inspirational teachings and wisdom literature, in artistic classes in painting, drama, movement and voice exploring imagination, inspiration and group spirit. She wants subject material to be studied in relation to its broad contexts, and children to be led to contemplate it and be inspired by it. She sees great importance in developing ecological awareness by practising the care for plants, small animals and other sentient beings (p.542). She argues that one of the most effective ways of cultivating wisdom in education is through ‘utilising complex thinking and creativity to represent knowledge from multiple perspectives while showing their integral interconnectedness through our creative artfulness’ (p.548).

‘Spiritual education’ can also occur in the context of counselling. One of the chapters in this book explores the issues of ‘self-injury’ among adolescents. It notes the increasing prevalence in many Western societies of self-injury through such methods as cutting or burning the skin and sticking needles or pins into oneself (p.963). It notes that such activities often occur when there is a state of emotional turmoil when the person is overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety and unpleasantness. At other times, young people engage in such activities when they feel an emotional deadness. Some people experience the self-injury as soothing their agitations, or jolting them out of numbness and helping them to feel alive (p.967).

There are many resources for spiritual development within our religious traditions, but they are not the only source. Spirituality can be explored through art and music, through engagement with nature, and through many kinds of literature, for example.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 21, No. 1, Pages 11-14