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 Asian 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 perspectives.

Early Attitudes to Other Religions

When the British convicts and soldiers first arrived in Australia, they assumed they were bringing with them ‘civilisation’. The convicts may have been people who had failed the social system in their homeland. But they were still part of what they considered to be a civilised society, superior to any other society around the globe.

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 regarded as uncivilised. Mostly, the European settlers looked down on them and had little to do with them. This was true of the Chinese miners, the Afghan camel drivers, and the Hindu peddlers.

At the heart of this attitude was a confidence that the white Australian Christians had superior knowledge of the world. In those days, Christianity was considered to be synonymous with civilisation. The missionaries who took the Christian faith to the Aboriginal people often saw themselves as introducing not only a new religious faith but civilisation. It has been remarked that:

The ‘Christianising’ and ‘civilising’ aims were often mentioned together, as if they were inseparable – to them, the rejection of pagan ways was as important as the rejection of pagan religion (Harris 1990, p.78).

Within this understanding of ‘civilisation’ was the belief that human beings were progressing over time. ‘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. The European nations saw themselves as much further advanced in this development than any other peoples, close to the peak of what was possible. Thus, they were benevolently helping other peoples to ‘catch up’.

The Europeans saw a range of symbols of this development in their medical success, their ability to treat successfully many diseases and conditions which had been previously untreatable. They saw their industrial technology, the harnessing of the power of steam, the development of machines for weaving cloth, and, later in the nineteenth century, the development of the telephone, as signs of their superiority. Their ability to predict celestial events such as eclipses demonstrated the truth of European science. Most Europeans had little time for what they considered to be the primitive superstitions of the religions of the East.

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. However, Buddhism attracted Westerners more readily than Hinduism or Sikhism. The philosophical nature of Buddhism and its lack of requirement of belief in God or gods was attractive to intellectuals who were increasingly influenced by positivist and empiricist philosophies which were dominating thinking in British philosophical circles. The earliest known Australian Buddhist group of Westerners, The Little Circle of the Dharma, was formed in Melbourne in 1925 by Max Tayler, Max Dunn and David Maurice.

A second Buddhist group in Melbourne in 1938 was led by Leonard Bullen who used exclusively English terminology, rather than Pali or Sanskrit for the presentation of Buddhist teaching. The early appeal of Buddhism was evident in that the Group promoted Buddhism as a workable school of psychology for modern problems. The Study Group was short-lived, however, perhaps due to the outbreak of the Second World War (Adam and Hughes 1996, pp.7-8).

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.

World War II did not have quite the impact on Christian morale that had been experienced after World War I. Indeed, there was a significant up-swing in the vitality of Christian groups throughout Australia. Many of the migrants who arrived in Australia in the immediate post-War years turned to the churches to find people with similar values, background, and languages to their own. In this period, there was an explosion of suburban life around the capital cities and an explosion of family life. The churches provided a moral foundation and practical facilities for the development of family life.

Questioning Tradition

However, the children who were born in those years following the war began to question some of the traditions of life as they grew into teenagers and young adults. They had been brought up in families and educational systems which encouraged questioning. One of the catalysts for the questioning of tradition was the Viet Nam war. Conscription into the army strengthened the issue. Many young Australians did not believe that Australia should be in Viet Nam. Many felt that the war could not be justified. Christianity came under considerable criticism, not least for prohibiting sex outside marriage, a tradition which seemed quite unnecessary when contraception was now readily available.

Within this context, there came a much wider movement to explore other ways to a ‘good life’. Many turned to a range of drugs to explore inner experiences. But some turned to other religions. The fact that celebrities such as the Beatles explored what Hindu gurus might have to offer was one of the factors which put Eastern religions on the radar for many young Australians.

Young Australians in their thousands travelled across the world. They wanted to see what other cultures had to offer. The absorbed the sights, colours, sounds and smells of the Eastern countries. They explored Eastern religions and rituals.

Hindu gurus began making their way to the West and many Westerners flocked to hear what they had to say. The visit of Swami Ranganathananda of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Mission, who came in 1964, has been noted. His visit led to the foundation of the Vedanta Society of NSW. In the 1970s, Hare Krishnas were a common sight, processing and chanting around the streets of Melbourne and Sydney.

While there was some fascination with Hinduism as represented by the gurus and by the Hare Krishna movement, very few Westerners described themselves as Hindus. Buddhism remained more attractive to Westerners and it has been estimated that by 1991, perhaps, 10,000 Anglo-Australians had decided to describe themselves as Buddhists on the Australian Census (Adam and Hughes1996, p.42).

This new openness to Eastern religions occurred at the same time as changes in the immigration policies in Australia. As Australians increasingly explored the East, they became accepting of people from the Eastern world migrating to Australia. In the early 1970s, the White Australia policy was discarded. Many of the first Asian emigrants to Australia were Buddhists from Viet Nam. But in the 1980s, Hindus, first from Fiji, and then from India, began to arrive in significant numbers. Sikhs also began to arrive from India, Malaysia and other places. Thus, Australians began to see the traditional practices of Hinduism and Sikhism in their home context.

Openness to a Variety of Religious Practices and Philosophies

Few Australians of European background identified with the Eastern religions, and, in particular, very few identified themselves as Hindus or Sikhs. The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (2009) asked people about their religion when growing up and their religion at the time of the survey. Only 0.5 per cent of the Australian population indicated that they had converted to a religion other than Christianity. This compares with 0.9 per cent of the sample who had grown up in a religion other than Christianity and had converted either to Christianity or to ‘no religion’, mostly to ‘no religion’, The survey demonstrated that the dominant movement in the Australian population was from religion, whether it be Eastern or Western, to ‘no religion’, a move that had been made by 35 per cent of the sample who had grown up as Christian and 20 per cent of those who had grown up in another religion, such as Hinduism.

Nevertheless, some Australians of European background were willing to try some Eastern religious practices. The Wellbeing and Security Survey (2002) asked a sample of about 1514 Australians in some detail about their religious and spiritual practices. While there were just 0.4 per cent of the sample who described themselves as Hindu and 1.3 per cent who were Buddhist,

  • 19% said they had practised yoga or tai chi within the last 12 months, 4 per cent doing so often;
  • 16% said they had practised Eastern meditation in the last 12 months, 3 per cent doing so often;
  • 9% said they had read material on Eastern religious philosophies in the last 12 months; and
  • 4% said they had attended a seminar or group on Eastern religious philosophies in the last 12 months.

Of those who practised yoga or tai chi, about half described themselves as Christian, another third as having ‘no religion’, and the remaining 17 per cent as being of another religion. Of those practising Eastern meditation, just over one-third described themselves as Christian, one quarter said they had ‘no religion’ and around 40 per cent identified with a religion other than Christianity or described themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. While many approach yoga and Eastern meditation simply as techniques for reducing stress or improving health, these figures indicate an openness to Eastern religious practices among people who describe themselves as Christian or as having no religion.

In a similar way, there have been changes to the understanding of religious knowledge. In the past, religions were regarded as alternative systems. People identified with one religion and saw them as mutually exclusive. In recent decades, many Australians have come to regard religions as traditions from which they can adopt a variety of beliefs and practices from time to time as seen to be personally helpful or relevant.

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.

In 2002, a strong statement was put before a sample of Australians in the Wellbeing and Security Survey: ‘The best way to develop spirituality these days is to take on board whatever is helpful from different spiritualities or religions’. Thirty-one per cent of Australians agreed with the statement, 35 per cent were not sure, and 34 per cent disagreed. While many Australians were not ready to embrace what different religions might offer them, approximately one-third indicated that they were open.

Many Australians are positive about people of other religions. The 2009 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes asked about the willingness to accept a person of a different religion.

  • 78% said that they would accept a member of another religion marrying a relative. Four per cent said they could not choose.
  • 69% said they would accept a member of another religion as a political candidate. Ten per cent said they could not choose.

Further questions were asked in the survey about people’s attitudes to people of various religions. The survey showed that nearly half of all adult Australians were neutral to people of most religions. Many others are positive towards people of other religions, but the proportion who are positive varies considerably. Not surprisingly, given the proportion of people who identify themselves as Christian, more than 50 per cent of Australians are positive about Christians. Around one-third of Australians are positive towards Buddhists, and about one-quarter of the population were positive about Jews, atheists and Hindus. Seventeen per cent of Australians said they were positive about Muslims.

There is a range of levels of acceptance of other religions in the Australian community. Those people who are most accepting are people with high levels of household incomes and those who see themselves as being of middle and upper social classes. It is likely that those with lower incomes feel more vulnerable to competition for jobs and a place in society from people of other religions.

Apart from social class, education is a significant factor in the acceptance of people of other religions. People with higher levels of education tend to be more open to and tolerant of the variety of ways of thinking and of conceiving the world. Fifty-four per cent of those with a trade qualification or apprenticeship said they respected other religions compared with 73 per cent of those with a university degree.

A third factor affecting the levels of acceptance of people of other religions is age cohort. The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (2009) found that younger people were more tolerant than older people. Just 10 per cent of those aged over 80 years were positive towards Hindus compared with around 32 per cent of those aged under 40 years. Similar patterns were found in relation to other religions, although there was some variation in its strength from one religion to another. The difference between younger and older people in their tolerance of Judaism and Buddhism was much less than in their tolerance of Islam and Hinduism.

Behind the differences in attitude of people of different age groups are probably two factors. One is the change over time that has occurred in acceptance of other ways of conceiving the world that has already been discussed. Older Australians continue to display, to some extent, the attitudes that were prevalent prior to the 1970s in which the Christian faith was seen as being exclusively true.

The other factor evident in those of different age groups is that younger cohorts have had greater experience of people of other religions. Many more have worked or studied alongside people of other religions since many of these people have arrived in Australia since 1975.

There is one further factor which affects the level of acceptance is the religious orientation of the person themselves. It may be assumed that people who were deeply steeped in their own religion would be less tolerant of those of other religions. However, in Australia, that is not so. Of those who attend church monthly or more often 35 per cent say they feel positive to people other religions. In comparison, among Australians who do not attend religious services at all, just 18 per cent say they feel positive. In general, those people who are interested in religion are more accepting of people of other religions than those who are not interested in religion.

There are some exceptions to this. There are a few people involved in more exclusive religious groups, such as the Pentecostals, who are less tolerant of people of other religions. Nevertheless, even among the Pentecostals, only 29 per cent indicated that they were not positive towards Hindus.

In summary, then, the major factors in acceptance of people of other religions in Australia include low levels of competition for jobs and social standing, and tolerant attitudes towards people of different religions which have developed through changes in the understanding of religious truth, particularly since the late 1960s in Australia, through high levels of education and through an interest in religion.

While it was not possible to measure this through the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, anecdotal evidence suggests that personal familiarity with people of other faiths is an important factor in acceptance. As people get to know people of different backgrounds and discover that, in many respects, they both experience life in a similar way and face similar human challenges, they find it easier to respect the differences in their backgrounds and religious traditions.

While many Australians are positive about people of different religions and accepting of different religious traditions, this does not mean that Australians are changing their religious identifications. The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes asked people about their religion when growing up (aged 11 or 12 years) and their religion at the time of the survey. It showed that about 0.5 per cent of the Australian population had actually changed from Christianity or from ‘no religion’ to adopting another religion. At the same time, about 1.3 per cent of people who grew up in another religion at the time of the survey described themselves as having ‘no religion’, and 0.2 per cent had moved into the Christian religion. Change in religious identification in Australia has been minimal, involving just 130,000 Australians. The biggest change to ‘no religion’. Twenty-five per cent of the total population said they grew up as Christian, but now described themselves as having ‘no religion’ (Hughes 2010b, p.49).

The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes indicated that of all those who grew up as Christian, 34 per cent now described themselves as having ‘no religion’. It also found that that of those who grew up in another religion such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, 22 per cent now described themselves as having ‘no religion’.

These results are indicative of a very different approach to religion and spirituality among most Australians from that which existed immediately after World War II. Religion is not seen as a matter of ‘truth’ by most Australians. Rather, it is a matter of personal preference. If you want to believe in reincarnation, that is fine. If you prefer to believe that there is nothing after death, that is fine too.

Indeed, some recent research on young people’s attitudes to religion has suggested that most young people approach religion as a personal matter.

[Religion] is something they can turn to for help if they feel they need to. Whatever is good for you, whatever works is fine. Whatever you believe is up to you (Hughes 2007, p.148).

While that means Australian young people are open to a variety of religions, it also means that they are not inclined to take religion very seriously. It is not central to their thinking or high on their list of priorities. The majority of young Australians are not deeply concerned about religion. However, they become negative if religion is taken too seriously. Asked in surveys in schools if religion was harmful if taken to extremes,

  • 52% thought that it was,
  • 30% were not sure, and
  • 18% thought it was not (Hughes 2007, p.149).

The Roots of Change and Continuing Challenges

What has caused the shift in opinion and the openness to people of other religions? At the root has been a decline in confidence in Christianity, partly in the face of the involvement of Christian nations in war, the decline of European Empires, and partly in the face of the growing impact of science.

However, the critique of tradition per se, and the search for new ways of experiencing life, that developed in the Western world in the 1960s and 1970s, also played a major role. The delight that many young Australians have taken in travel and in exploring the variety of cultures, religions, cuisines and lifestyles, has contributed to that openness that is now evident in the Australian population. Behind that was the change in the ways of thinking about the truth of religion. Religion was seen as part of culture, or as a personal preference, rather than something that was true or false in an objective way.

With each new wave of migrants to Australia, there has been some wariness. But, in general, most Australians have come to accept and even to celebrate the variety of cultures that have become part of Australian multiculturalism. As Australians have come to understand these different cultures, many have come to feel positively about them. That process has been a little easier with Buddhism and Hinduism than with Islam, which has not demonstrated a mutuality in acceptance to the same extent. The inclusive attitudes which many Hindus and Buddhists have had in relation to religion has assisted dialogue and mutual acceptance.


Adam, E. and Hughes, P. (1996) The Buddhists in Australia, Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research, Melbourne.

Harris, J. (1990) One Blood: 200 Years of Aboriginal Encounter with Christianity: A Story of Hope, Albatross Books, Sutherland, NSW.

Howe, R. (2003) ‘A Movement of Influence: the Australian Student Christian Movement in the 1930s’, in Howe, B. and Hughes, P. (eds) The Spirit of Australia II, Adelaide: Australian Theological Forum.

Hughes, P., (2007) Putting Life Together: Findings from Australian Youth Spirituality Research, Christian Research Association, Melbourne.

Hughes, P., (2010a) ‘Integrated mission: Putting welfare and faith together in The Salvation Army (Southern Territory – Australia)’, Australian Journal of Mission Studies, Vol. 4, No.1. June.

Hughes, P., (2010b), Shaping Australia’s Spirituality: A Review of Christian Ministry in the Australian Context, Mosaic Press, Melbourne.

Source of the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes data:

Evans, A. (2009), AuSSA_A_religiosity.sav (computer file), The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, Australian Social Science Data Archives, The Australian National University, Canberra.

Source of the Wellbeing and Security Survey:

This survey was conducted by Edith Cowan University, Deakin University, Anglicare (Sydney) and NCLS Research in 2002.

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