Australian Culture and Society

Talks from CRA Book Launch posted online

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

Earlier this year, the CRA held a book launch at Tabor College for our latest project, “Life, Ethics and Faith in Australian Society: Facts and Figures” by Philip Hughes and Lachlan Fraser. Labor Leader in the Victorian Legislative Council John Lenders, was invited to speak at the launch, discussing his experiences with faith in relation to politics and its influence on how decisions are made. Philip Hughes also provided a response, focusing more on how faith shapes Australian society as a whole and the statistics that reflect this.

Both talks were filmed and have now been posted online. Please enjoy.

John Lenders – The Influence of Faith on Decision Making in Politics PART 1

John Lenders – The Influence of Faith on Decision Making in Politics PART 2

Philip Hughes – The Impact of Faith in Australian Society

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

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

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

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

Access and Values: Functions of Religion in Australian Society

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

Religious faith has many functions within people’s lives and within society. For example, it can give hope and comfort, promote social justice and equity, encourage compassion and trust. Most of these functions can be summarised under two headings. On the one hand, most religions encourage belief in a power beyond ourselves, and provide access to that power. Thus, religious faith is about worship and prayer. On the other hand, religions provide guidance on social and personal behaviour: they point to certain values. Thus, religious faith is about how we live. It may be noted that there are additional functions which cannot be subsumed easily under these headings. For example, religious organisations develop communities in which people find identity and belonging.

There is little change over the 20 year period. Approximately 35 per cent of the population indicated that religion was of high importance in both 1989 and in 2009. The group who said that religion was of moderate importance has shrunk slightly from 27 per cent to 24 per cent of the population. However, during this period, belief in God (including those who doubt and those who believe sometimes) has fallen from 65 per cent of the population to 47 per cent.

The continued importance of religion in providing values is one of the reasons why so many Australians support Christian schools and chaplaincy in schools. They continue to believe that it is important for their children to pick up the right values in the school or in church youth activities. On the other hand, these people do not see frequent church attendance as necessary. Many Australians feel that they can be ‘good people’ without going to church.

The data also reminds those who lead religious services, however, that most of those who attend do not simply want a reiteration of values. They are there to meet with God.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 21, No. 3, Page 16

Factors in Church Giving

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

The average Australian household spends a total of $1236.28 every week. The major items are housing ($223.14), food and drink ($204.20), and transport ($192.87). The household also spends $161.44 on recreation, including holidays, $32.35 on alcoholic drinks (not included in the total for food and drink), and $12.57 on tobacco. On average, Australian households give $2.97 to churches or other religious organisations and $4.26 to charities each week (Household Expenditure Survey 2009-10).

Many denominations are worried about their income. As numbers of attenders shrink in most denominations, so finances also shrink. It is also likely that, in some places, finances are shrinking faster than attendances. In other words, people who are attending are giving less to their churches.

Some researchers have argued that people will be ‘free-riders’ if they can be. In other words, if there are no controls on giving, they will not give, but will enjoy the benefits of the church without contributing. The challenge for the church is to minimise ‘free-riding’. This is much easier to do in small churches than in larger churches. In larger churches, it is more likely that the non-contributing person will not be noticed (Whitehead 2010, p.641).

Another way of minimising ‘free-riding’ is to have high costs of joining, or, in other words, to raise the standards for belonging to the group. Those churches which have stricter expectations of members, or which demand a long period of teaching before admitting members, or which demand a very public sign of commitment such as adult baptism, minimise ‘free-riding’.

Rather than small group membership monitoring giving, it seems more likely that involvement in small groups leads to a higher level of ownership of the life of the organisation. In a small group, people are not anonymous. In face-to-face contact, they feel a part, not only of the small group, but also of the larger group. As their involvement in the small group is noted by other members, they feel some responsibility in their involvement, and a greater sense of ownership for the life of the whole organisation.

Many people will hesitate to join a church in which there are high demands on them, financially, in terms of time, and in other ways. Even the development of a small group culture in a church where everyone is expected to be part of a small group may discourage some from attending at all. On the other hand, it will encourage others to contribute more to the life of the church.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 21, No. 4, Pages 16-18

Faith and Film in a Visual Age – a reflection

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

The Christian church has long used mediums other than the printed word to tell its story. Story-telling has taken many forms, and in certain historical periods there has been significant use of painting and graphic art. In medieval times, forms of theatre were developed with religious plays, mostly arising from the Catholic mass. By the 15th century, mystery plays had emerged. Their description has its origins not in ‘mystery’, but as in the idea that these plays were ‘acts’. The Genesis stories were often told this way, for example.

In the 20th century, film took over as the pre-eminent visual art. Terry Lindvall’s research presented in Sanctuary Cinema (2007) records the significant number of Christian evangelists and teachers who used visual mediums of photography, art, lantern films and then celluloid to present Christian stories from the Bible early in the century.

Many churches and denominations gave up the idea of making films, and some came to categorise film as the ‘devil’s work’. Perhaps ironically, the portrayal of religion in film occurred mostly in Hollywood as media moguls realised there was money to be made in religious pictures. Hollywood produced some great epic religious films, especially in the 1950s and 1960s.

Over the last 50 years Christian film has continued to develop, though a focus has often been on films which were biographical in nature, sometimes of famous Christian missionaries and events. The well-known founder of Times Squares Church, David Wilkerson, was played by Pat Boone in The Cross and the Switchblade, a film seen by many youth groups in the 1970s.

There appears to be little going on in terms of major Christian film production in Australia. There have been significant short film festivals. Events like Ignite (like a Christian Tropfest), which started in 2004, have given people an avenue to produce material:

How and why we use contemporary social media are areas the church needs to consider. In order to simply provide a point of connection with people today, there are three basic forms of media that local churches need to consider. Websites are a major way church-goers find out about a local church when they come into an area. Video sites provide simple and cost effective ways of illustrating the work of a local church and significant ministries. They can take the form of a short (very short) sermon, a comment on a contemporary issue in the community, or a profile of an outreach and community service.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 21, No. 4, Pages 12-15

Why Some Churches Decline While Others Grow

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

While some Australian denominations are in rapid decline, others are growing. Within each denomination, some local churches are growing rapidly while others are declining. A new model of different types of congregations offers an explanation of decline and growth, both at local level and for denominations.

Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead worked at the Religious Studies Department at Lancaster University and over a period of some years conducted a major study of religion and spirituality in the city of Kendal. The study was to test the theory that there had been a major change in culture which was bringing about what they described as a ‘Spiritual Revolution’. At the heart of the theory was the idea that there had been a major change in the ways English people saw themselves and their lives.

While Woodhead and Heelas argue that all churches see truth and goodness not in terms of the cultivation of the unique self but in terms of obedience to God, they actually relate to ‘subjective-life’ differently. It makes sense that, in a culture which is dominated by personal subjectivity, churches which take the subjective self seriously may have a greater attraction than those churches which ignore it.

The theory of Heelas and Woodhead would appear to explain some aspects of the Australian situation but the weakest part of their theory is their expectation of growth among churches of experiential humanity. There is little evidence of their growth in Australia.

The mainstream Presbyterian, Uniting, Lutheran and Catholic denominations are declining most rapidly. However, within these denominations are some evangelical and charismatic churches which are declining much less rapidly. The evangelical Anglican Diocese of Sydney, for example, is holding its own in terms of church attendance, while other parts of the Anglican Church in Australia are in rapid decline.

Young people also place much importance on having exciting experiences: such as performance in drama, special holidays, winning a sporting contest, or more extreme experiences like bungy jumping. Wellbeing is seen not just in terms of comfort, but also in terms of having different and stimulating experiences and times of fun (Hughes 2007, p.49).

Parents want their children to develop good values. Hence, church-based schools are increasingly popular in Australian society, even though church attendance is declining. Church-based schools are seen as encouraging such values, both through their structures of pastoral care and discipline and through their explicit teaching.

Contrary to all four authors, the churches are proving resilient. Churches do address the subjective life of individuals in many ways, such as through music, drama, and community, as well as through various forms of meditation and prayer. Nevertheless, there is some validity in the theories of Heelas and Woodhead, and those churches which adjust to the culture of ‘subjective-life’ are more likely to see growth than those churches that fail to acknowledge that dimension of Western culture.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 21, No. 4, Pages 1-8


Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

When we think of homeless people we often think of those on the streets, dishevelled in appearance, roaming the rubbish bins for food, a blight on the social landscape which we wish would just disappear, or at least hide themselves from our view. In effect, however, homelessness is much broader, and any understanding of it certainly requires more deeper vision than that first image conjures up.

In ‘Life after Homelessness’, an article in a recent publication from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (Australian Social Trends, Mar 2012), people were defined as having had an ‘experience of homelessness’ if they had previously been without a ‘permanent place to live’ for one or more of a variety of reasons. Family or relationship breakdowns, financial problems, tight rental or property markets, or violence and abuse are some of the more common reasons for homelessness.

Based on data from the 2010 General Social Survey, ‘Life after Homelessness’ examined a range of socio-economic indicators of those who had experienced at least one episode of homelessness in the previous 10 years, but who were no longer homeless. In general, those who had been homeless were much younger than the overall population – 55 per cent of all who had been homeless in the past 10 years were aged 18-34, compared to 11 per cent of those aged 55 and over. After removing the effect of age, the study found that the homeless were less educated, with one-third not having gone beyond Year 10 at school nor obtaining a non-school qualification above Certificate II level. Homeless people were also more likely to report being unemployed, or not in the labour force, and were twice as likely to report that their main source of personal income was a pension.

In December 2008, the Australian Government released a White Paper on Homelessness, in which it set itself a target to halve homelessness and to offer supported accommodation to all rough sleepers who need it by 2020 (FAHCSIA, The Road Home). Its measures aim to strengthen the provision of services to homeless people, and importantly, to help reduce some of the factors associated with becoming homeless in the first place. The issue of homelessness is financially and socially expensive, and the report correctly points out that “homelessness” is not just a housing problem, but has many drivers and causes. Investing in services to support and prevent homelessness not only benefits those who find themselves without a permanent place to live, but the entire community.

Historically, the Christian churches in Australia have been at the front line in tackling social issues, such as homelessness. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, many denominational institutions preceded government departments in setting up services for the homeless. Today, collectively, all denominations together form the largest non-government provider of community and welfare services in Australia (Shaping Australia’s Spirituality, p113). The Australian churches and its associated service organisations continue to play an important role in working alongside government and private industry in reducing the prevalence of homelessness and assisting those who find themselves without a place they can call home.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 22, No. 2, Pages 7-8