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Friday, June 10th, 2016

Charting the Faith of Australians: Thirty Years in the Christian Research Association

by
Philip Hughes,
contributing editor.

The last 50 years have seen more rapid change than at any time in human history. Changes in technology have changed every aspect of life: from contraception to computation, from communication to community formation. These changes have affected the ways in which Australians have sought meaning in their lives, from the fulfilment of duty to the maximisation of subjective wellbeing. They have affected deeply the role that religion has played in life with the focus moving from the preservation of tradition to personal spirituality.

Over the past 30 years, the Christian Research Association has charted these changes. It has done so through the examination of census and survey data and through interviews with thousands of individuals. It has examined these changes in youth culture and rural culture and has explored the impact of migration and the rise of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements. It has suggested ways in which churches and schools might respond to these changes.

Part 1 of this book tells the story of these changes and how the Christian Research Association has charted them. Part 2 contains contributions from various researchers discussing how the Christian Research Association has served the churches. Part 3 explores some extensions of and parallels to the work of the Christian Research Association in relation to religious institutions, migration and other research.

The story told in this book is a personal story for Dr Philip Hughes, the senior research officer of the Christian Research Association from 1985 to 2016. But it is also a story of global significance as Christian and other religious institutions grapple with changes to their place in society and their roles in changing perceptions of life.

Trust and Faith

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

One of the most important components of social life is trust. Trust is the basis of human relationships. It is the expectation that people will do what they say they will do, the belief that people are basically honest. Trust is the expectation that people will take into account your interests as they make their decisions, that they are not self-centred.

In her seminal book, Trust in Modern Societies, Barbara Misztal sees trust as a dimension of the view that people have of the society in which they live. It is a belief that the social world is stable. At the same time, the building of trust can be a strategy for securing the stability of the social order (Misztal 1996, p.11). It is interesting to note that the level of trust in society is seen by the United Nations Human Development Programme as one of the measures by which societies should be evaluated.

Because people tend to trust others who are like themselves, there is a tendency for people to distrust foreigners or people from different backgrounds (Misztal 1996, p.192). Australia is a highly diverse and multicultural community and it might be expected that the diversity would contribute to lower levels of trust than would be found in more homogeneous societies.

As the psychologist, Erik Erikson (1950), pointed out, the development of trust begins with the early experiences of human beings. As a baby finds that it can trust its parents to fulfil its needs within its first year of life, so an attitude of trusting the world develops. Erikson argues that the failure to develop that trust results in fear and a belief that the world is inconsistent and unpredictable. However, trust does vary according to one’s situation after those early childhood years. To some extent, it has to do with one’s control over one’s situation. Those people who have most control generally feel the most secure and have the highest levels of trust.

It has been noted that, internationally, the level of religiosity is negatively related to trust. However, in Australia religious faith in general, and involvement in religious communities in particular, correlates positively with trust. Indeed, regression analysis shows that the frequency of attendance at religious services is the second most important variable in determining a person’s level of general social trust and accounts for about 10 per cent of the variation in people’s levels of trust, over and above the 24 per cent that is accounted for by education.

However, the level of church involvement has a much greater impact than one’s confidence in belief in God or than one’s particular beliefs. It would appear that, in general, the experience of church attendance contributes to people experiencing a community that is trustworthy and supportive, and this experience helps people to trust others in the wider community.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 24, No. 2, Pages 5-8

Satanism

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

In the 1996 Census, 2091 people in Australia identified themselves as Satanists. In 2001, the number was down to about 1800, but rose again in the 2006 Census to 2248 people. Satanists are found in every part of Australia. Melbourne has the highest number with about 450, Sydney has 350 and Brisbane about 200. The number in each of the cities, Adelaide and Perth, is just under 200. Seventy-five per cent of all those identifying themselves as Satanists are male. Many of them are young people under the age of 25.

The Satanism website in Sydney represents Satanism as the teachings of Anton LaVey, and as a turning upside down of religious morality. It revolves around the ‘self’ rather than others. It is about indulgence rather than abstinence. It suggests people should be kind only to those who deserve it rather than wasting love on people who are not grateful for it. It suggests that vengeance is more appropriate than turning the other cheek.

Satanism attracts small numbers but is widespread through the Western world and also has a presence in some parts of the Islamic world. It has been publicized as a subculture of heavy metal music. A few rock singers have identified themselves as Satanists and have used anti-Christian themes and ideas to sell their music (LeVine, p.569).

Many people who have identified themselves as Satanists have found expression for their antiestablishment feelings in heavy metal music and ‘gothic’ forms of appearance. However, the vast majority of ‘goths’ and heavy metal fans are not Satanists. Rock music, in general, is sometimes identified by conservative Muslims as ‘Satanic’ (LeVine, p.567). However, LeVine has argued that rock music has been embraced by some young Muslims as an expression for the ‘desperate [desire] for liberation from authoritarian politics and social norms’ (p.570). He suggests that, just as rock and pop music did in the West a few decades ago.

Satanism is currently making headlines in Iran and some other Islamic countries. It was reported in May 2009 that more than 100 ‘Satan-worshippers’ were arrested at a concert featuring heavy metal music. There have been other reports on crack-downs on Satanism in other Islamic countries including Morocco, Lebanon, Egypt, Indonesia and Malaysia (LeVine, p.565, 571).

Satanism remains a very small, minor expression of a few individuals, mostly youth estranged from society, and mostly without any institutional involvements, against the ‘establishment’. At the same time, it is an extreme expression of many tendencies within Western culture: individualism, hedonism, utilitarianism and the affirmation of this world.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 20, No. 1, Pages 13-14

Is the End Nigh? – Print Based Religious Periodicals in Australia

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

THEN:

In 1992, the CRA published a special section in the annual Yearbook for Australian Churches, which focused on religious periodicals. There were about 220 religious periodicals, including a handful from coordinating agencies of the major non-Christian religions. There is now a much wider diversity of periodical and web publications from Jewish, Islamic and Buddhist communities in particular, and also notably there has been development of inter-faith publications. A follow-up article in Pointers considered some of the issues facing the Christian press at the time, with five major points outlined: (1) What format to publish? (2) Declining interest in denomination foci. (3) Increasing post and distribution costs (4) Increased competition and proliferation of material (5) Changes in society and the place of the Church

NOW:

According to the Australasian Religious Press Association (ARPA) Directory of Christian Press for 2010, there were just over 150 separate publications in Australia. There would be well over 200 major publications if all the Pentecostal denominations were included, as well as the denominationally-linked or independent mega-churches, which have their own publishing and media base. The majority of Christian periodicals in Australia provide either a downloadable electronic copy of their printed publication or an associated website, providing additional news and other materials.

During the last two decades most Christian denominations and organisations have maintained their printed publications, but the future brings substantial challenge to print. The two major challenges are as follows: (1) Faster internet access (2) Tablet development.

FUTURE:

Some denominations are better placed for a longer term print publication, simply because the denomination has greater financial resources and can subsidise the on-going printing and distribution costs. There is a wide variety of patterns of subscription even in the same denomination. Some are free publications, some have a cover charge, often at a fairly nominal rate.

One of the major difficulties all denominations are facing is the perennial issue of rising costs together with decreasing income. Advertising revenue is a key consideration for many publications as there is a limit to the level of subsidy by churches.

In summary, there a number of important factors to look at when considering the future for a print periodical:
• Substantial under-writing of costs by the denomination or organisation.
• The value of the publication in terms of public relations and fund-raising.
• If non-denominational – a membership base rather than subscription.
• Being available for free and distributed through established networks.
• Access to a wide range of advertisers.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 20, No. 2, Pages 13-16

Power and the Churches

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

In the 2009 International Social Science Program (ISSP) survey just released, 42 per cent of Australian respondents indicated that churches and religious organisations had ‘about the right amount of power’ and 37 per cent indicated they had ‘too much power’ or ‘far too much power’. In addition, 78 per cent ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ that religious leaders should not influence how people voted, and 71 per cent that religious leaders should not influence government. What implications does this have for Christianity’s underlying principles of social justice? Do these figures suggest that churches and religious organisations the Australian public wants the churches to remain silent on issues?

The ISSP (2009) survey asked about people’s confidence in a range of institutions. The institutions in which Australians had the highest levels of confidence in 2009 were the defence forces (59%) and state/territory police (45%). Not far behind was the Australian Broadcasting Commission (42%). Much further down were churches and religious institutions (21%), although not as far down as the public service (16%) or the banks and financial institutions (14%). Towards the bottom were the unions (11%). Business and industry scored a little lower than churches (18%), as also did the Federal government (14%).

At the heart of the levels of confidence is whether people feel that the organisations are really there to serve the public or are serving their own interests as organisations, or simply making profits for their shareholders or stakeholders.

Generally, trust in religious institutions is extremely low in most European Union countries. However, data collected by Gallup for the European Commission in 2004 shows that, even in countries where populations express high levels of trust in religious institutions, trust does not always translate into regular church attendance.

When we look at differences between Christian denominations, we find that, generally, the more hierarchical the church, the less confidence it inspires in those who identify with that denomination (but who do not necessarily participate in church life). However, church attendance is positively related to confidence. Most people do not associate with an institution that does not have their trust.

Different groups of people feel differently about churches. Many single and divorced people and people with homosexual preferences experience some churches as not providing a place for them. Their confidence in the churches, then, is likely to be low. Lack of confidence is often transferred from one church to churches in general, despite the fact that churches have very different policies and principles.

The task of institutions, including the churches, regaining the public’s confidence is a complex one. Gaining the confidence of people requires reconnecting with them and their everyday concerns. It requires building trust through different sorts of networks and in ways different from those traditionally associated with institutions.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 20, No. 2, Pages 10-13

Factors in Declining Church Attendance

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

The number of Australians attending church services is declining. Data from the ISSP (International Social Survey Programme) shows that, between 1993 and 2009, the proportion of Australians attending a service of worship monthly or more often dropped from 23 per cent to 16 per cent. Occasional attendance (less than monthly) also dropped from 42 per cent to 36 per cent. In turn, the proportion claiming they never attend services of worship rose from 33 per cent to 43 per cent. What might be some of the underlying factors and transitions influencing these trends?

Tiffen and Gittens (2004) say the current religious landscape in Australia is one of gradual degeneration. Religious traditions and practices are less frequently observed, and more often neglected or declined outright asimbuing and offering meaningful expressions of existence, in terms of beliefs, experiences , interests and values. Between 1993 and 2009, the percentage of the population saying they had ‘no religion’ rose from 27 per cent to 43 per cent, and the rate of identification with a Christian denomination declined from 70 per cent to 50 per cent.

Of those who identified with a Christian denomination, just over a quarter attend church services monthly or more often (29%), while the remainder only attend occasionally (44%) or not at all (27%). This indicates that identification, whether meaning membership or association, does not necessarily lead to regular attendance, and occasional or rare attendance is more common.

Among those who claimed ‘no religion’, more than three-quarters never attend services of worship (78%), just under a quarter attend occasionally (22%) including a few who attend frequently. This indicates that the claim of no religion does not necessarily lead to no attendance.

The beliefs, interests, experiences and values, and thus the traditions and practices, of one generation are not necessarily those of the next. Almost three in ten currently attend church monthly or more often (28%). Among those born after World War II, around half of that proportion attend, with less than one in ten of those born in 1980 or after attending monthly or more often.

The gradual shift from local communities to regional communities and a more individualistic way of life, particularly during the 19th and 20th centuries, has impacted on the interrelation between church and society. Many younger people approach religion and spirituality as commodities that can be used and let go whenever needs, interests, emotions or values require.

In summary, there is no one factor that accounts for declining attendance. Rather this trend seems to be occurring because of an interplay of factors (religiosity, spirituality, ageing, upbringing, life stage), underpinned and shaped by particular societal transitions (individualism, experientialism).

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 20, No. 2, Pages 6-9

Who Reads the Bible?

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

The Bible Society of South Australia, Scripture Union, YouthWorks, the Lutheran Church and The Salvation Army are currently sponsoring a study of Bible reading among young people. The CRA is currently visiting youth groups around Australia talking with young people about their attitudes to the Bible, their reading habits (if any), the catalysts and the hindrances for reading, and how they interpret the Bible. As a prelude to this study, the CRA re-visited the research it has done on young people in the Spirit of Generation Y Project (2002 to 2008) and the associated Schools Spirituality Project. It summarised the results of that earlier research in relation to Bible reading. The full report can be found on the CRA website. Here is a summary of the findings.

Conservatively interpreted, the surveys show that around 4 per cent of young people read the Bible daily, another 6 per cent read it weekly, and 15 to 20 per cent read it very occasionally. About 70 per cent never read it. The frequency of Bible reading is a little greater among older young people, although this is probably a result of changing historical patterns over generations and not related to age. Of those who read the Bible daily or weekly, most attend church services and youth activities, such as a Bible study group. Most also have parents and friends who attend church frequently.

Most of those who read the Bible frequently have made a personal commitment to God, feel close to God, and expect God to give definite answers to their prayers and specific guidance. They read the Bible as a means of communication, expecting God to speak to them through the Bible. Those who see faith primarily as providing them with values for life, who do not put the same emphasis on access to God, or expect God to intervene in the daily events of life, read the Bible less frequently.

Among most young people, religious faith is seen as having little significance to their thinking about life. Overall, about 9 per cent of students in church-run schools said it was a very important influence. Technology is one of the drivers of social change. It has changed the nature of community, which is now largely based on electronic communications, with occasional face-to-face meetings rather than being dependent on such meetings. The change in the nature of community has meant that it has been harder to involve young people in regular face-to-face gatherings such as a church, Bible study or youth group.

Bible reading is largely a product of communities which value the Bible as a means by which God speaks to the individual. If these communities are to be developed, then efforts need to be placed on the building of youth groups in which Bible study is a significant component.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 20, No. 4, Pages 11-13

Cathedral Prayer Boards

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

In England, a number of cathedrals have public prayer boards. Paper and pens are provided for visitors to the cathedral to write their prayers which are then pinned to a board or placed in a box. In many cases, people write prayer requests rather than prayers in themselves, and it is expected that cathedral staff will pray on their behalf. A recent study has analysed the prayers and prayer requests at Bangor Anglican Cathedral in North Wales and the results were presented in a paper presented at the International Society for the Sociology of Religion in Turku, Finland (ap Siôn 2013b) and the chapter of a book (ap Siôn 2013a).

In the Lady Chapel in Bangor Anglican Cathedral, the opportunity is offered for prayer and reflection. There is a prayer desk there and also a prayer board on which people can attach their prayers or requests for prayer. Tania ap Siôn, a researcher with the University of Warwick, analysed a random selection of 1,000 prayers or prayer requests that were left on the prayer board between 2005 and 2009. They tell us quite a lot about how people see God and how they see God as working in the lives of people.

The large majority (92%) of the 1,000 prayer requests were intercessory. Just 51 were thanksgiving, 5 were for confession or repentance and 3 were prayers of adoration. Prayer is seen by many people primarily as a way of seeking some form of assistance from God. As has been noted in other research with young people (Smith and Denton 2005, Hughes 2007), those people who believe in God often see God primarily as a resource on which they can call for help. Another 16 per cent of prayers sought God’s protection, mostly for family and friends. The prayers often used terms such as ‘look after’, ‘keep safe’, or ‘take care of’. Many prayers cited a specific context in which the protection was requested: such
as ill health, soldiers in war zones, the safe birth of a baby and safe travel.

There are many implications of this research. It is evident that prayer boards are providing a meaningful way for some people to relate to the church and to God. In some cases, these would be people who would not come to services of worship, or be active participants in churches. Nevertheless, the prayer board is opening up communication with these people and giving an opportunity for the expression of faith.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 24, No. 1, Pages 13-15

How Many Christians Are There Really in Australia? And Who Does Not Answer the Religion Question on the Census?

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

Most overseas publications say that 67 per cent of Australians are Christian (see, for example, the Pew Research Centre, p.49). Most Australian publications say that it is 61 per cent. Both figures are based on the 2011 Australian Population Census, but interpret the data differently. Overseas scholars usually take the ‘missing data’, the people who have not responded to the question out of the equation. In other words, those people who do not answer the question are assumed to be ‘religious’ to the same extent as the rest of the population. Australian scholars report the missing data as one of the ‘responses’. On the other hand, a number of religious groups argue that the census under counts them. What do we know about those who do not respond to the question?

In 2011, more than 1.8 million Australians did not answer the question about religion on the census form. These people represent 8.6 per cent of the Australian population: a sizeable group. Indeed, there are sufficient numbers here to alter our understanding of the religious profile of Australia. The question about religion is the one optional question on the census. Thus, people who do not wish to answer it may well choose not to do so. There are no penalties. Given that the optional nature of the question is stated on the form, it is surprising that so many people chose to answer the question.

While filling in the census is compulsory for all Australians, many people fail to answer all questions and each Census, some people do not complete a census form at all. The numbers of people not filling in a form are based on the local census collector’s count of people in the area and compared with the actual number of forms received and from a special survey conducted by the ABS called the ‘Census Post Enumeration Survey’ (PES).

Another 1 million people completed a census form, but did not answer the question about religion. Data tables from the Australian Bureau of Statistics do not distinguish these people from those who did not complete a census form. However, they are a different group of people and many of them would have had specific reasons for not answering the religion question.

A possible reason for not answering the religion question is that people feel that religion is something personal and should not be something ‘registered’ in any way with the government. Some immigrants may feel this way because of personal experience of governments misusing information about religion, such as by oppressing particular religious groups. Another reason why people may wish to leave this question blank is simply that they have never thought about religion or have no opinion about it.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 24, No. 1, Pages 7-11

What Do People Mean When They Call Themselves Christians?

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

What do people mean when they identify themselves as Christians? The meaning varies, of course. Some mean that they are involved in Christian churches. In Australia, there are 10 million people who identify themselves as Christians but who rarely, if ever, attend a church. What do they mean by that identification? Do they ‘believe’, but choose ‘not to belong’? In other words, do they like Jesus, but dislike the churches? Or does their identification mean that, in some sense, they ‘belong’, even if they do not attend?

Rick Warren, the famous author and minister of Saddleback Church in the USA, is typical of many evangelists in assuming that there are many people who believe in God and are impressed with Jesus, but have not connected with a church. He refers to these people as ‘nominal Christians’: Christian in name but not associated with a church

The issue became a significant one in the United Kingdom in 2001. For the first time, the Census contained a question about religion. Many people were surprised that 72 per cent of the population in the UK identified themselves as Christian (Day 2011, p.28). On the other hand, the International Social Survey program (2010) for Great Britain found that just 17 per cent of adults claimed to attend a church monthly or more often.

Day began her research by asking people what they believed in. Her sample was small: just 68 people (Day 2011, p.30), but the range extended from school students to the elderly, and included people from professional and working-class sectors of society.

In analysing the interviews, Day identified two belief orientations which she describes as anthropocentric and theocentric (Day 2011, p.156). The majority of people she interviewed were anthropocentric. Their beliefs revolved around their relationships with specific other people, most commonly partners, family and friends. They believed in treating these people morally: as they themselves would like to be treated. There were a few people who described themselves as Christian because they thought that Christians were respectable people, and, although they were not quite living up to that standard, that was how they wanted to live.

The claim to be ‘Christian’ was not just an unthinking response, Day argues. Yet, for most of these people, it had nothing to do with either beliefs or involvement in a church. Most of those who described themselves as Christian in this way rejected even belief in God and were not interested in Jesus, contrary to the patterns described by Warren (Day 2011, p.171).

Day’s research points to the need to take seriously the identifications that people make and to see in them the functions of the demarcation of belonging. Her assertion that statements of belief are primarily about belonging, rather than indicating a propositional or doctrinal commitment, is worthy of reflection.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 24, No. 1, Pages 1-6