Belief in God: Is the ‘New Atheism’ Influencing Australians?

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

The ‘New Atheists’ was a term coined in 2006 to describe three atheists who were writing popular books promoting atheism: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett (Blackford 2012). Certainly, Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, sold many copies in Australia as well as overseas. Atheists have started mass advertising campaigns to promote their views. But are they having much impact?

The idea of God has certainly become contentious in contemporary Australia. In 1949, there was little disagreement: a Gallup Poll reported that 95 per cent of Australians believed in God. Today, Australians hold a variety of views. The 2009 Survey of Australian Attitudes conducted by the Australian National University among 1718 adult Australians found that just under half the population (47%) believed in God. Among that 47 per cent, there was considerable variation in the levels of confidence. Just 25 per cent of the Australian population said they had no doubts that God exists. The remaining 22 per cent were somewhat tentative in their belief. Some said they had doubts, but generally believed. Others said they believed some of the time but not at others.

For every person who had moved from not believing to believing in God, four Australians had moved in the opposite direction.

There are some significant patterns in belief across the population. As shown in Figure 1, many more older people than younger people believed in God. Among those aged over 80, nearly half believes in God and have no doubts. Among those people in their 60s and 70s, it was close to one-third of the population. Among those aged 31 to 60, it was approximately one-quarter of the population. Among those aged under 30, only 14 per cent said they believed in God without doubts.

There was also considerable difference in the levels of belief in God in different occupational groups (Figure 5). The lowest levels of belief were found among professionals. Low levels of belief were also apparent among technicians and those in trades and machine operators and labourers. Higher levels of belief were found among managers, those involved in community and personal service, sales and clerical and administrative work.

Have the ‘New Atheists’ been a significant part of the story of change in belief in God? There are several reasons to believe they have not had much impact. The first is that there has been a relatively even decline in belief since 1993, well before they began their campaigns. The only piece of evidence which might suggest that the decline has become more rapid in recent years has been the sharp decline in belief in God among young people.

For many people, trust in science has also contributed to the decline in belief in God. Religion and science do not necessarily conflict. Many scientists believe in God. On the other hand, science does paint a rather different picture of the world than does religion. The fact that some people reject the general picture of evolution, for example, in the name of religion contributes to the sense that there is a conflict between religion and science.

A bigger issue for most Australians is whether one needs to believe in God: whether God can make a difference to one’s life.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 22, No. 1, Pages 1-7

God’s Activity in Miracles

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

Over the years, the understanding of miracles has changed. A miracle was an unusual event or a ‘wonder’, something out of the ordinary which was also a ‘sign’. Indeed, in several passages in the New Testament, the terms ‘miracles’, ‘wonders’ and ‘signs’ are used together (Acts 2:22, 2 Corinthians 12:12; Hebrews 2:4). In most cases, the miracle was an event which signified God’s accreditation of the person through whom these events occurred. This was the significance not only of the miracles performed by Jesus, but also by the early followers of Jesus. The rejection of the miracles in New Testament times was often a rejection of what the event signified rather than a rejection of the idea that the event  occurred.

In the 17th century, as science developed as a system for explaining the patterns of natural events, the idea emerged that miracles might be in conflict with science. Certainly, miracles had been seen as extraordinary events. But if science was an ‘uncovering’ of the natural laws, miracles indicated a suspension of those laws. A miracle therefore required that God suspend the laws of nature or intervene in the ways that the universe had been deemed to operate.

However, if an observation is made which does not fit previous generalisations, the usual response is to check the observation. Was the observation incorrect? This is what has happened in relation to many so-called miracles: the understanding of science has caused many supposed ‘observations’ to be challenged because they do not fit our general understanding.

The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes conducted by the Australian National University in 2009 included a questions about belief in miracles. It is interesting to note that less than half of the population had a definite opinion about miracles either positive or negative. Around half the population was not sure what to believe, although the majority felt that miracles were unlikely.

Comparing the responses in 1983 and 2009, one finds that the proportion who definitely believe in miracles has remained about the same, but there has been a decline in those who probably do. The most striking change is that a high percentage were not sure whether they believed or not in 1983, but in 2009 a high proportion were quite sure that they did not believe in them. The proportion who probably or definitely did not believe in miracles had risen from 23 per cent in 1983 to 53 per cent in 2009.

The Australians most likely to believe in miracles are those who have strong religious commitments. However, among those who attend church monthly or more often just a little more than half said they definitely believed in miracles. Another 23 per cent said they probably did.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 22, No. 2, Pages 1-6

‘Spiritual but not Religious’

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

In many parts of the Western world, belief in God as creator and as active in history is in decline. Yet people are increasingly looking for the meaning of life in ‘the Spirit’. This is occurring both within the churches, through Pentecostal and charismatic movements and through mystical movements, and outside the churches through the New Age movement and through interest in holistic wellbeing. Why is this happening and what is its significance in understanding our changing Western culture?

In the 2009 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, the number of Australians describing themselves as spiritual (47%) exceeded the number describing themselves as religious (39%). According to the International Social Survey Program which conducts surveys in 40 countries and of which one part is the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, identification as ‘spiritual’ is growing in many countries, while identification with religion is declining in almost every country. In Australia and in many other countries around the globe, more younger people than older people describe themselves as spiritual (Hughes, 2011). Twenty-nine per cent of young people under the age of 30 described themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’ compared with just 10 per cent of people aged 60 and over in the 2009 Australian survey.

One of the common themes among those who describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’ is the rejection of religious systems of beliefs, rituals and instituions. Eighty-five per cent of them agree that religions bring conflict and 82 per cent say that religious people are too intolerant. Just 4 per cent of them say they have a great deal of confidence in churches and religious organisations and 62 per cent have very little or no such confidence. While these people have rejected religion as traditions which are ‘owned’ by religious institutions, there is a strong sense that there is something more to the world than its material composition. Just 13 per cent disagreed with the statement ‘There is something beyond this life that makes sense of it all’ although many were not sure how to respond to it.

Westerners began the turn towards inner experience in the 19th century in the forms of pietism and the devotionalism of such expressions as the Oxford movement. However, at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, some radical expressions of the emphasis on human experience began to appear, perhaps partly as a reaction to the excessive moralism of the Victorian age and the power of the major religious institutions. Spirituality fits more readily into our anti-institutional and individualistic age than does religion. For many, an emphasis on rituals and doctrinal beliefs owned by communities or institutions does not have the immediacy or sense of authenticity that is found in personal experiences. Spirituality’s focus on the ‘here and now’ rather than, as some religions have, on life after death, fits with a world focussed on personal wellbeing.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 22, No. 4, Pages 13-17

Encouragements and Discouragements for Young People in Reading the Bible

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

About 4 per cent of young people read the Bible daily, another 6 per cent read it at least once a week, and 15 to 20 per cent read it occasionally (Hughes, 2010). In 2009 and 2010, the CRA conducted 333 interviews with young people and youth leaders in youth groups across Australia to discover what encouraged and discouraged young people in reading the Bible. The project was commissioned by a group of organisations including The Bible Society, Scripture Union, YouthWorks, the Lutheran Church and The Salvation Army (Southern Territory).

There are many discouragements for young people, such as: Church Practice. Many young people, including many who attend church, never consider reading the Bible personally and are not encouraged to do so by their churches. The Bible is certainly read in Church services and seen as the starting point for sermons and homilies. But that does not translate into reading it at home. The Chore of Reading is also a discouragement for some. Many young people read very little, especially in the form of books. Some younger people said to us that they much preferred activities, such as sport, to reading. When they do read, it is often brief messages from friends or from news sources on their computers. Bible reading requires a sustained effort of a kind that is ‘uncomfortable’ for many young people.

There are also some encouragements, such as: Group Practice. Most young people who read the Bible were members of churches, youth groups and Bible study groups which encouraged them in their reading and which assisted them in the interpretation. In some churches, young people read the passages of the Bible that were to be discussed in the Sunday-night youth service. Some young people need encouragement in Finding Relevance. Participation in groups or in courses can certainly help young people find the relevance of the Bible. Most Bible study groups focus as much on the application of the Bible as they do on the content. Experiencing the Bible as relevant depends on the attitudes one brings to it. If young people read it simply as stories of long ago, it had little relevance. If they read it as God’s communication today, they were far more likely to experience it as relevant to life.

It is very easy to use the Bible for predetermined purposes. The challenge for the contemporary Church, and particularly in its work with young people, is to develop the skills of identifying the wisdom of the Bible, including that which makes us uncomfortable, that helps them to evaluate how they live and the norms of our society. Only if that occurs will engaging the Bible be truly transformative.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 22, No. 4, Pages 11-12

The Persistence of Religion: What the Census Tells Us

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

When the 2011 Australian Census figures were first released on 21st June 2012, the percentage of Australians ticking the ‘no religion’ box made headlines. Newsreporters noted how Australia had become more secular. On talk-back radio, people either celebrated or lamented the increased numbers of atheists in Australia. However, the real story of the Census is somewhat different: it is a story of the persistence of religion. Between 1971 and 2011, the population of Australia has grown from around 13 million to more than 21 million people. At the same time, the number of Christians identifying with a Christian denomination has grown from 11 to 13 million.

The newspapers reported that the proportion of people describing themselves as having ‘no religion’ had increased to its highest level in recent Australian history. As a proportion of the population, between 2006 and 2011, they grew from 18.7 per cent to 22.3 per cent of the population. However, most of that increase was not due to people ‘dropping out’ of the Christian faith. Much of the increase was due to people who had previously not responded to the question ticking the ‘no religion’ box.

Buddhism remains the largest of the other religions in Australia with a total of 529,000 people. Islam is the next largest with 476,000. Hinduism is the third largest other religion in Australia and has been the fastest growing religion over the last decade. In ten years, the numbers of Hindus has increased by almost 200 per cent. With around 276,000 Hindus in Australia, they are now considerably larger than the Pentecostals! Sikhs were quite a small group in the population in 2001, with just 17,000. In 2011, more than 70,000 identified themselves as Sikhs, making them more numerous than those identifying with The Salvation Army.

There are many reasons why people tick the ‘no religion’ box. We can investigate these by looking at other surveys. At the heart of it, people saying they have ‘no religion’ are people who do not wish to identify with a particular religious group or denomination. It does not mean that these people are ‘atheists’ or that they are ‘secular’.

There is a growing proportion of Australians who describe themselves as having ‘no religion’, who within the next five years are likely to make up about one-quarter of the population.However, the numbers of people describing themselves as having ‘no religion’ does not draw a picture of atheism or secularity, but rather the rejection of religious identification and, in many cases, arises out of rejection of religious institutions.Other religions continue to grow, largely because of immigration and because many recent immigrants are now having their families here.The imminent demise of religion has been very much exaggerated.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 22, No. 3, Pages 1-5


Radio National Program On Youth Spirituality Conference

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

Radio National has broadcast a program on the Growing Youth Spirituality Conference. In ‘The Spirit of Things’, Rachel Kohn explores some of the themes of  the conference. She discusses them with Philip Hughes, some teachers and some young people. To listen to the program go to: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/spiritofthings/youth-spirituality/4886232

Growing Youth Spirituality Conference – An Overview

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

On Friday 19th and Saturday 20th July, more than 80 people gathered at Tabor College in Melbourne for the ‘Growing Youth Spirituality’ conference. Those who attend came from around Australia. Many were working as teachers or chaplains in schools. Others were youth workers and some were working in local churches. Some ministers, a couple of priests and a bishop joined the conference. Others participants were working in educational or denominational offices developing programs and activities for youth ministry. People from a broad range of denominations attended the conference.

The conference began by noting that, materially, young people in Australia are doing very well. Most are beneficiaries of a wealthy, prosperous culture where there is high quality education and healthcare and where the leisure options for distracting them are endless. However, many young Australians are not feeling good about life. They are finding it hard to make sense of it and to find a place and a purpose. Associated with this is the fact that most young Australians find that religious traditions and commitments do not connect well with them.

Philip Hughes (Christian Research Association) and Rowan Lewis (Tabor College) explored sociological and psychological accounts why Australian young people are not connecting easily with religious traditions or finding a sense of place and purpose in life. Philip Hughes noted that most young people have been raised to work through the meaning of life experiences from individualistic perspectives which seek meaning in their own subjectivity and experience rather than through reason and duty. Rowan Lewis spoke of young people’s need to belong, but they also the processes of individuation through which they find their personal identity.

Friday evening, Naomi Swindon from Scripture Union earthed the conference through stories of young people who had not found it easy to find a place in society. She told of how projects such as the developing a BMX track, or encouraging people to care for trees affected by drought, or mentoring had led to a concern for others beyond themselves and a sense of place and identity. She spoke of how there is gold in every person, sometimes covered by dirt, but how ‘growing spirituality’ involves finding that gold.

On Saturday morning, Rachael Kohn, the presenter of ‘The Spirit of Things’ on ABC National Radio, reminded us that part of growing spirituality means accepting contradictions and vulnerability. She noted that many young people want to be in control and to have answers. However, as Archbishop Rowan Williams has said, people who work among the suffering live with the big questions unanswered. She suggested, as a response to this, in growing youth spirituality, our focus should be more on how we live and what we do, rather than what we believe.

Three presenters spoke of different ways and different contexts in which Australians are trying to ‘grow youth spirituality’. Kath Engebretson (Australian Catholic University) spoke of the lack of understanding of the Christian tradition among students in Catholic schools and the need for a special effort to pick up again the ‘chain of memory’ which constitutes the Christian tradition.

Stephen Chatelier spoke of the Christian school context. He said that some of the students see the emphasis on faith at school as ‘overload’ in the way it complements home and church and see its demands as embarrassing among their peers. Some react to being ‘Bible bashed’ while others say they have faith and don’t want to think more about it. Stephen suggested some Christian schools are too focussed on thinking and conception rather than the affective domain and practice. He suggested that the emphasis on spirituality needed to ‘normalised’ in the students’ experience as a whole ethos, rather than something extra that was forced on them. He argued that Christian schools needed to invite, not demand, the journey into the spiritual and there needed to be an openness to diverse responses to the divine rather than the formation of cloistered communities.

Peter Mangold, a chaplain at a government school in Victoria, began by noting his very different context in which young people found it very strange to think about religion or spirituality. He suggested that, in that context, it was often most helpful to think of helping young people to develop a framework of meaning and to support young people in making sense of the experiences of life. In so doing, he said, one must help them re-shape unhelpful beliefs and assist in the integration of experiences into their lives and making explicit values and perspectives. He argued that the role of the chaplain is journeying with people in a relational way, mentoring relationships and helping young people to engage with the ‘largeness of life’. He spoke of ways in which he was doing this through ‘Changing Perspectives’ camps and through teaching psychology and personal health.

Four other speakers briefly outlined specific programs through which they were addressing the growth of spirituality among young people. Karen Dymke (a teacher and consultant) spoke about the Rite Journey, developing positive rites of passage through processes of challenge and celebration as young people move into adulthood. Rohan Waters (a former teacher and chaplain) spoke of his program, Veta, which offers Christian learning pathways for young people. Angela Sawyer (Victorian Council for Christian Education) spoke of the need to develop contextual Bible study which would be transformative of the lives of young people. Stephen Reid (Christian Research Association) noted the dominance of sport in the lives of most Australians and asked if sport could be incorporated into the vision of youth ministry. He noted briefly the research he was doing on sports chaplaincy as a way of engaging with young people.

In the afternoon, the morning’s speakers had the opportunity to take participants deeper through workshops, providing more information about the various resources and contexts for growing youth spirituality.

Thus, the conference stimulated the participants by opening up the challenges of growing youth ministry and by suggesting a variety of methods and resources through which one might respond to the challenges. Several of the break-out groups which had met three times through the conference noted that there were no easy answers, no solutions were appropriate in all circumstances. Indeed, the very nature of spirituality cannot be simply defined or contained with a program or set of procedures. Nevertheless, the conference stimulated those who attended to reflect on their own situation, and perhaps to refine what they were doing or to try new ways of ‘searching for the gold’ that exists in every person whom God has created.

Philip Hughes

A .pdf of the opening presentation by Philip Hughes can be downloaded from here:  Growing Youth Spirituality: What the Research is Telling Us (Philip Hughes) (PDF)

A .pdf of the opening presentation by Rowan Lewis can be downloaded from here: Rowan Lewis – Developing Faith-Notes.pptx-3(PDF)

Why Some Churches Decline While Others Grow

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

Some Australian denominations are in rapid decline while others are growing. According to our calculations based on various surveys, between 1996 and 2006, the numbers attending on a typical Sunday in Australia declined in the following denominations:

  • -36% Presbyterians,
  • -31% Uniting Church,
  • -25% Lutheran,
  • -19% Catholic,
  • -12% Anglican, and
  • -1% Seventh-day Adventist.

The numbers attending the following denominations grew:

  • +88% Oriental Christian denominations,
  • +27% Pentecostal denominations,
  • +25% Brethren,
  • +11% Baptist, and
  • +3% Salvation Army.

Within each denomination, some local churches grow while others decline.

Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead, Lancaster University, have suggested a theory which explains the the various levels of growth and decline in their book, The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality. They distinguish four types of churches:

  • churches of humanity – emphasising service to others (mostly mainstream churches);
  • churches of difference – emphasising the differences between God and humanity and maintaining God can be found in the Scriptures (mostly evangelical churches);
  • churches of experiential difference – emphasising the differences between God and humanity and maintaining God can be found through human experience (mostly charismatic churches); and
  • churches of experiential humanity – emphasising care for others and that each person finds God in their own way (mostly groups such as the Quakers).

They argue that the important difference between churches is the extent to which these churches best attend to the inner life of those who attend. They suggest that the churches of humanity encourage the repression of the inner life in the name of the service of others. On the other hand, churches of difference pay a lot of attention to the inner life, encouraging their members to find inner peace and wellbeing through God. While Evangelical churches teach that this comes through subjecting oneself to God as found in the Bible, charismatic churches teach that God can be found through inner personal experience.

Heelas and Woodhead argue that contemporary Western culture puts great stress on the inner life and finding personal fulfilment (which they call ‘subjective-life’). In this environment, the charismatic churches have grown most, Evangelical churches to some extent, but the mainstream churches have decline. Similar patterns are found throughout the Western world.

For a detailed analysis of the research of Heelas and Woodhead and an assessment of it in terms of the Australian situation, see Pointers, Vol. 21, no.4. (December 2011).

Philip Hughes

Small Religious Groups In Australia

Monday, April 19th, 2010

The Standard Edition of the CD-Rom, Australia’s Religious Communities: A Multimedia Exploration, has 28 religious groups on its menu. Among these, 16 are major Christian denominations, 6 other religious groups, 5 families of religions and no religion. Together, these covered the religious identity of approximate 17.4 million Australians and every group with more than 5,000 people identifying with it according to the 1996 Census. The Professional Edition of the CD-Rom details another 90 small religious groups with less than 5,000 people identifying. What are these groups and where have they come from?

The list we have prepared for the Professional Edition has its origins in a database of new religious movements which was developed by Dr Rowan Ireland at LaTrobe University in 1996. We are most grateful to Dr Ireland and his team which compiled the list, contacted religious groups and gathered information about them.
Dr Ireland’s list concentrated on groups which had come to Australia within the last fifty years, although it did include some much older groups. To that list, we added some ancient world religions which are represented in Australia by just a few people and some small Christian denominations, such as the Religious Society of Friends. We checked the detailed list of religious groups prepared by the Australian Bureau of Statistics from the 1996 Census. The other major source was the work of Rowland Ward and Robert Humphreys, published in Religious Bodies in Australia: A Comprehensive Guide. We have not included all the bodies mentioned in Ward and Humphreys, but only those whose continued existence we have been able to verify independently either through direct contact, the availability of census statistics or through the telephone book. We have sought to contact all the organised groups in the list, checking with them the information that we had obtained from these various sources. Most of them have responded to our requests and have provided such information.

Ancient World Religions

Among the ancient world religion which are included in Professional Edition are Zoroastrianism, Shintoism and Taoism. Zoroastrianism is probably 3000 or more years old and was the major religion in Persia. Having been largely superceded by Islam in that region, Zoroastrianism was kept alive in a part of India. Recent immigration has brought some Zoroastrians to Australia.

Taoism is an ancient religion of China, while Shintoism is a development of ancient tribal and animistic religious beliefs in Japan. A religion with a thousand years of history is Druse. Drawing on some themes from Christian and Islamic sources, along with its own teachings, the Druse faith is found in some parts of Syria, Lebanon and Israel, and has come to Australia with recent immigration.

In many places around the world, people may practise several ‘layers’ of religious beliefs drawn from different sources. For example, in many parts of the world, ancient animistic beliefs in a world populated by spiritual beings associated with a range of living and other natural objects such as trees, rocks and rivers continue to be held. Belief that the spirits of one’s ancestors are still around and should be respected are also common in many places. Such beliefs are overlaid with the philosophies of Buddhism, and sometimes with Christian or Islamic beliefs.

For many people, Confucianism a moral code and instructions about the ordering of society. Confucianism is also combined with Buddhism and other beliefs. Thus, the small numbers of people in the 1996 Census who described their religion as ‘animism’, ‘ancestor worship’ or ‘Confucianism’ represents only a very small proportion of the people for whom these traditions form part of their religious heritage.

Modern Immigrant

Several more modern religions from Asia have arrived in Australia largely through immigration. Caodism arose in Viet Nam around 1920. A Vietnamese man claimed to have contact to a great spirit, Cao Dai. Sukyo Mahikari is a Japanese religion based on claims of revelation of the light of the Creator God received by a Mr Yoshikazu Okada. Tenrikyo is another Japanese religion, established in the late 19th century, by Nakayama Miki who claimed revelation of the divine.
More recent is Subud, which arose out the extra-ordinary spiritual experiences of Muhammed Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo, a Javanese man. The movement has spread internationally since World War II.

Small Denominations with a Christian Heritage

Religious Society of Friends

Since the Reformation there have been a number of movements which have resulted in the formation of new denominations. Those central to the movement have generally been large, while, in general it might be said that the groups which have taken more extreme positions have remained smaller and more peripheral.

On the periphery of the Reformation itself, in the 17th century, was the Quakers or the Religious Society of Friends. They took more seriously than most the reformation idea that the spirit of God could inspire all people. Consequently, the saw no need for ordained clergy or prepared services of worship. Rather, in worship, the group gathered to wait for God’s spirit to guide them. The Religious Society of Friends continues to be a small but active group in Australia.


In the 18th century, many Christians sought to combine new understandings of the natural laws on which the world operated with their Christian beliefs. Some found it hard to reconcile ideas such as the Trinity within that context, and for many, the idea of the miraculous seemed incongruous with the evolving understanding of science. Some of these people developed Unitarian ideas, identified by the rejection of the idea of the Trinity. For many years, there have been a few churches in Australia which have been explicitly unitarian.

The Holiness Movement

The end of the 18th century saw revival, led by the teaching of John Wesley and leading to the formation of the Methodist Church. A renewal of Wesleyanism in the late 19th century, particularly in the United States, stressing the need for the holiness of Christians, led to the formation of several new denominations which are now represented in Australia. These include the Wesleyan Methodists, the Church of the Nazarene and the Christian and Missionary Alliance. (Another denomination which emerged out of the holiness movement and renewal of Wesleyan ideas was the Salvation Army.)

Apostolic Churches

Another Christian movement of the early19th century arose from the teaching of Edward Irving, originally a Presbyterian minister. Irving believed that it was important to recover the faith of the early church. For him, this meant recovering the miraculous gifts of which the New Testament speaks, such as the gift of speaking in tongues and of prophesy. Irving also believed that the Christ would come again to the earth in the near future, and that people needed to prepare for that. Most churches were not at all open to the idea of the ‘miraculous gifts’ being practised, and consequently a new denomination was formed, known as the Catholic Apostolic Church. Irving’s followers looked for the patterns of worship in the traditions of the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches. The ideas spread to Europe and to other parts of the world. However, disagreements over leadership of the group led to several different denominations being formed, two of which are found in Australia including the New Apostolic Church and the Apostolic Church of Queensland.

In many ways, the teaching of Irving pre-empted a variety of themes from which later emerged a great variety of other denominations. The emphasis on miraculous gifts emerged again with the Pentecostal churches. The emphasis on returning to the New Testament patterns of church life emerged in the churches of the restoration movement including the Brethren, the Churches of Christ and the Christadelphians. The emphasis on the second coming of Christ emerged again in the Seventh-day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses amongst others.

Millennial groups

The Seventh-day Adventist church emerged in the United States in the latter half of the 19th century. It also stressed the holiness of its followers, the ‘restoration’ of the importance of Old Testament teaching and rules, and the coming again of Jesus Christ to the earth. A more extreme expression of some of these ideas was found in the World Wide Church of God which developed from the teaching of Herbert W. Armstrong in the 1930s. The World Wide Church of God has since moved considerably in its teaching to a more traditional evangelical stance, but has splintered in the process.

A quite different approach to the second coming of Christ was taken by a German group which sought to prepare for the second coming by establishing communities in Israel. This group, known as the Temple Society, was expelled from Israel, and some of its members found their way to Australia.

Christian Science

While some new denominations which emerged in the late 19th century and early 20th century in the United States emphasised holiness, others stressed the idea of healing and wholeness which Christianity offered, often with a emphasis on spiritual healing. Among these were Christian Science, inspired by the teaching of Mary Baker Eddy and the Unity School of Christianity.

Other 20th Century Groups with a Christian Heritage

The Ratana movement which developed from the experiences of healing of a Maori man by the name of Tahupotiki Witemu Ratana in the 1920s, also combined Christian teaching with a special emphasis on healing.
The Jesus movement of the 1970s has come and largely gone. People caught in the enthusiasm of that movement have entered various denominations, and have encouraged the growth of the charismatic movement in Australia. However, one small specific remnant of that movement remain. The Family, formerly known as The Children of God, has put into practise the communitarian ideals of that movement.
Another modern movement which has arisen from Christian commitment which has not found a place within pre-existing churches and denominations is the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Churches. This Fellowship has sought bring together groups of gay Christians.

The Spiritualism Movement


While the Unitarians of the 18th century grappled with Christian faith and science in one way, another approach was pioneered by Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg was a greater thinker who influenced a range of developments in science as well as theology. He believed that science and theology could be reconciled, but did so within the context of emphasising the distinctiveness of the spiritual and material realms. Swedenborg was influenced strongly by some special religious experiences and visions which confirmed, for him, the new directions in his thinking.
Followers of the teaching of Swedenborg developed societies and churches through which his teaching could be studied and his expressions of religious faith practised. A family of closely connected churches in Australia associate themselves directly with the teaching of Swedenborg including the New Church in Australia and the Church of the New Jerusalem.

Blavatsky and Olcott and Theosophy

Ideas of the division between spiritual and material realms were taken a step further by Helena Blavatsky and Henry Olcott who both lived in New York in latter part of the 19th century. They believed that there was some spiritual truth in most religions, and were attracted to the Eastern religions of Hinduism and Buddhism as providing insights into the mystical and spiritual dimensions of life. At the same time, they believed that the spiritual dimension of life could be examined scientifically. There were natural spiritual laws which were known by some of the ancient and Eastern religions, which could be discovered and which people could put into practise in order to find harmony with the divine principles.

Blavatsky and Olcott began the Theosophical movement which first found its way into Australia late in the 19th century. Due to differences of emphasis and authority of leadership, the Theosophical movement has developed a range of expressions. In particular, Rudolf Steiner, developed expressions of Theosophical ideas which gave greater importance to Christianity, and expressed in Anthroposophy. W. C. Leadbeater, a former Anglican minister, combined Christianity and Theosophical ideas in the formation of the Liberal Catholic Church. Alice Bailey, on the other hand, stressed the more esoteric side of Theosophy, giving rise to several groups including the Arcane School, the Sydney Goodwill Unit of Service and the Australian Transmission Meditation Network.


The ideas about there being a spiritual world and that it was possible to make contact with that spiritual world were developed by the Spiritualists. The ideas of mediums being able to communicate with the spirit world had been around in various ways for a long time. However, interest in such ideas took off in the mid 19th century in the United States. Seances and mediums became popular. For some people, these ideas were of peripheral interest, while for others they became a fully-blown religion which regular services at which contact with spirits might be made and moral teaching about how one’s actions which influence the spiritual sphere which one’s spirit would enter at death.

While spiritualist ideas have been in Australia since the mid 19th century, there has been renewed interest in them as expression of some New Age ideas. There are several groups in Australia which continue the traditions of spiritualism. These include the Aquarian Spiritualist Centre, the Church of Spiritual Unity, the Church Universal and Triumphant, and the Victorian Spiritual Union.

Secret Knowledge

Some groups have focussed on the idea of there being ‘secret spiritual or esoteric’ laws or rules which would provide the key to a life in harmony with the divine or with divine forces of the universe. Such ideas have emerged at various times in history. The Gnostic Sects of the 2nd century AD could be described in such a way.

Another group emerged in Germany in the 17th century, claiming to follow the teach of Christian Rosenkreuz who had lived 200 years earlier. This group, which became known as the Rosicrucians, claimed they had secret knowledge which was available to initiates and which could lead to people living a more satisfying life. Several groups exist in Australia which have developed from Rosicrucianism including the Rosicrucian Order (or AMORC) and Lectorium Rosicrucianum.

Similar emphases on secret knowledge made available to initiates and allowing them to live a more fulfilling life can be found in a range of other groups in Australia, such as the Holy Grail Movement which originated in Austria in the 1920s, the Builders of the Adytum, Gnostic Institute of Anthropology and the International Metaphysical Ministry. A recent American expression is The Foundation of Rosa Mystica. Two Australian groups which were founded in the 1990s in Australia with an emphasis on recovering ancient secret knowledge include the Gnostic Apostolic Church and the Path of the Heart Movement.

Scientology was founded by L. Ron Hubbard in the United States, the first Scientology Church started in 1954 in Los Angeles. Scientology. It believes that salvation is found through the full development of human’s innate spiritual capacities. Hubbard developed processes of auditing, a form of spiritual counselling, through which this development of the spiritual nature could occur. This counselling might be described as a process in which spiritual awareness is developed.

Eckankar was established in the United States in 1965 by Paul Twitchell, claiming that Eck was the essence of God as revealed by ancient religions. Eck is seen more as a life force than as a personal being. It draws on various religions, but particular on spiritualist traditions.


Aleister Crowley, born in England in 1875, has had a significant impact on a range of new religious groups. He was interested in secret knowledge not as a means of self-fulfilment but as a means of controlling situations. He explored spiritualism, magic, and witchcraft. He wrote several books which have become ‘Bibles of the Occult’ describing the apparent origins of beliefs in ancient Egyptian divinities and other ancient religions, rites and rituals, festivals and orders. Crowley encouraged people to ‘their True Will’ and to do it. An extreme expression of the sort of things Crowley taught can be found in Satanist groups.
Several small groups in Australia reflect directly the influences of Crowley, including Ordo Sinistra Vivendi, Ordo Templi Orientis, the Temple of Set and the Temple of the Vampire.

Nature Religions

Crowley has had some impact on emergence of witchcraft, neo-paganism and the nature religions. Many of these groups claim that they continue ancient beliefs and rituals which have their origins in pre-Christian times. Many involve an acknowledgement of gods in nature and rituals through which the passing of the seasons of the year are celebrated.

According to the 1996 Census, about 10,000 Australians identified with neo-pagan religions, and as a group, they are discussed in the Standard Edition of the Australia’s Religious Communities. However, several specific groups appear in the Professional Edition. These include the Church of All Worlds, the Pan Pacific Pagan Alliance and Rune-Gild.

Modern Eastern Religions

The religious heritage of India has always been open to new ideas being taught and new religious groups emerging. While some philosophical ideas such as those of karma and reincarnation are pervasive, Indian religion has generally affirmed that there can be many ways of expressing religious truth and many practices through which religious truth can be found. Consequently, various teachers or gurus will develop their own paths.

In the 1960s, a new level of interest in Eastern religious teaching spread through the Western world. A variety of new gurus emerged, and a host of yoga and meditation schools were established, each with their own meditation techniques, yoga positions and mantras.

A range of groups can be found in Australia. Some of these claim to be encompassing religions, such as the Hare Krishna movement, while others claim merely to provide meditation techniques and not religions at all.


These small religious groups can be classified and grouped in a range of ways. (See, for example, the discussion by Rowan Ireland in Bouma 1999 and the form of classification in Ward and Humphreys.)

Why have such a great number of groups emerged? Part of the story has to do with the extent to which a religion can ‘carry’ the experiences, the values and the beliefs of a culture. The middle class which emerged at the time of the Renaissance could not contain its interests within the established churches in Europe, and a range of new denominations arose, including the Baptists, the Congregationalists and the Religious Society of Friends. Again, at the time of the Industrial revolution, new religious expressions have emerged.

Particularly since the end of the 18th century, there has been wave after wave of religious movements seeking solution to the human condition in an emphasis on holiness, or on the restoration of church structures of the New Testament times, preparation for the Second Coming of Christ, or on the personal experience of God through ‘miraculous gifts’. From each of these movements has emerged a variety of new denominations or religious groups.

When new groups emerge, there is immediately the potential for fragmentation. Many groups have emerged around the teaching of a charismatic individual, such John Wesley, Emanuel Swedenborg or Edward Irving. Yet, as successors take on leadership, there are often struggles of authority leading to divisions which may last for centuries.

A variety of religions have emerged as people have sought, in a variety of ways, to combine the traditions of religion, the theories and findings of science and deep personal experiences which are indicative of spiritual realm of reality.

Since the 1960s, the religious turmoil has been particularly great. Many have rejected the well-established traditions and structures of religion. People’s experiences of life often accompanied by cynicism of traditions and institutions, people’s new-found sexual freedom, their desire for extra-ordinary experiences have led them in search of new possibilities. Among the places where people have searched are pre-Christian European nature religions, Eastern religions and spiritual or occult religions. A multitude of small religious groups have emerged as a response. Whether many of these continue into the future, or whether most fade away as rapidly as the generation which explored them, remains to be seen.

Philip Hughes

Implications Of The Study Of Youth Spirituality

Monday, April 19th, 2010

From Pointers, Volume 16. Number 3. September 2006.

As the study of youth spirituality comes to an end, we have begun exploring the implications of the findings for church and youth activities, for schools and religious education, and for parents and the young people themselves. A final formal meeting with the sponsors of the project was held on 18th August 2006 and several of the sponsors spoke of what they saw as significant implications for their various contexts. This article is based partly on my own reflections and partly on those who spoke at that meeting. This is just the start of the process. The Christian Research Association is looking forward to holding consultations in various places towards the end of this year and the start of 2007.

The Changing Culture

Having noted the low levels of involvement among young people in churches and their vagueness about beliefs, one has to ask whether the churches have failed young people. Have they failed to pass on the heritage of faith that has been handed down over many generations?

In some of the interviews we conducted in Christian schools, we asked students about their own beliefs, and then asked them about what they had been taught. They could explain the Christian faith the school was teaching. But the differences between the school’s teaching and their own beliefs were most informative. Young people take what works for them. They put together their beliefs in a way that is meaningful for them. Those aspects that are not meaningful are not explicitly rejected, but rather fade into obscurity.

We followed this up through many in-depth interviews. Young people saw it as their responsibility to put their own beliefs together. They were aware of the many sources of information. They could talk about the problems in the relationship between religion and science. Many were wrestling with the issue of how the suffering that arises from natural disasters can be reconciled with the idea of a loving and powerful God.

Some young people indicated that they found it impossible to accept Church teaching on issues such as abortion, homosexuality and premarital sexual activity. Some pointed to the human failures within the church, of paedophilia and other forms of abuse. In the light of all this, they were putting together, albeit vaguely and unsystematically, beliefs that made sense to them.

Western culture has changed. Throughout the Western world, young people have been brought up not to accept what is handed to them. Rather, they see it as their right to work things through for themselves. Many people of previous generations have come to those same difficult issues later in life.

Sometimes people wrestle with them within the churches. Sometimes they hope that someone else will come up with the solution. Contemporary Australian young people start from the standpoint of the individual, in most cases outside the context of a church, putting together beliefs and practices that make sense to them.

An Environment for Exploring Faith

The general pattern in church life has been to invite people into the church and then provide them with opportunities to explore life and faith. The entrance is clearly marked on Sundays, but entry points are not so evident on other days of the week. But attending a church on Sundays demands a certain amount of commitment. One is expected to join in the hymns and the responsive prayers. Some churches expect one to find the reading in the pew Bible and to be able to follow it. And then one has to listen passively to the sermon. There are no opportunities for questions or discussion, no chance to express one’s disagreement.

We found that young people generally reacted strongly when beliefs and practices were thrust upon them. They objected to the school that taught them what they should believe. “Our principal pretty much told us we had to believe in God and the Church”, said one student attending a Christian school. “Kind of annoying because we all feel that we want to believe in what we want to,” she continued. “I was kind of confused. I just thought we don’t have to do that because you tell us to.”

Young people told us, however, that they enjoyed listening to the experiences of people they respected. Sometimes, in the church schools, they warmed more to services when teachers took them rather than the chaplain or priest. Often, they enjoyed input from other students. They were keen to know what would work for them in their own lives, here and now. Such input made it more meaningful to them. A few jokes to make it more fun, some visual elements to make it interesting, and it might hold their attention.

I was talking with a class of students in a Catholic school about what were most ‘fun’ experiences they had ever had. I expected the usual range of answers: a pop concert, a visit to a theme park, extreme sports, and so on. But this class was unanimous in its opinion. It was the last spiritual retreat they went on. “Why was that so much fun?”, I asked. “Because we said things to our friends that we would never normally say”, they said. The retreat had focussed on relationships. It had provided them with the opportunity to deepen their relationships and to appreciate each other at a new depth. That had been fun.

In his reflections on the findings of the project, Garry Everett , who works with the Queensland Catholic Education Commission, noted that in his experience religious education has been approached primarily from a cognitive perspective. However, Generation Y are evidently approaching spirituality and putting life together affectively.

He went on to comment that religious education has generally been approached as if it was delivering certitude. However, Generation Y see themselves as being on a journey and are not convinced by the certitude. It has offered what it saw as a system of meaning while most young people believe there can be no great all-encompassing system. They are looking for experiential markers and techniques.

I wonder if the churches can do better at providing opportunities for people to explore faith without first requiring that people make a commitment, or expecting people to participate in the strange and culturally foreign rituals that occur on Sunday mornings? I wonder if we can open opportunities for discussion and dialogue without making assumptions about the existence of a total system of belief that can be delivered with certitude? Can we start those discussions with the issues of everyday life: about friends and family, about fun and freedom?

Young people want to be taken seriously. They want their autonomy in matters of faith to be respected. But they are willing to enter into dialogue if they feel that the environment will let them explore faith in ways that are meaningful to them.

Their parents often have similar attitudes and are no more involved in the churches than their children. One of the surprises in the data was how close the attitudes and beliefs of Generation Y were to their parents and how much Generation Y takes from their parents. The Broken Bay Catholic Schools Office noted that this may mean that we need to take seriously the whole family in the dialogue.


For many young people, worship is a very strange activity. Many have little understanding of the symbols and the language. The language does not have to be 19th century for them to be confused. We asked a range of students in church schools what they understood by ‘grace’. A few knew that it was the prayer you say at the meal table, but almost no one could get much further than that. I am sure they had heard the term, but they had not absorbed it. It had not connected with what they already knew or had experienced.

Many young people have told us that they are simply bored by church services. Those that occur in the context of a Christian school are boring. Those that occur in a local church are usually worse. Much of the time, they fail to connect with the language, the thoughts and the interests of the young people.

One of the highest values amongst contemporary young people is ‘excitement’. We have been exploring what they mean by this. They want experiences that are new, that are different, that capture their attention and absorb them. Many freely admit that they find it hard to concentrate on words alone. They have been born into a world full of moving images and short bites of information.

It dawned on me that what is new for one person looks just the same to another. I turn on a commercial radio station and all I hear is unpleasant noise. I cannot tell one band from another. The differences between hip-hop, rap and other sorts of contemporary music escape me. Just a bar of classical music, and I certainly know whether it is classical or romantic, whether it is Mozart or Tchaikovsky. The new symphony of Vivaldi that has just been discovered I find exciting. The new rock band means nothing to me.

Those of us who have attended services of worship all our lives are attuned to the tiny differences, the different wording in the prayer or the hymn in a different place. Such differences escape many in our pews, let alone the outsider who becomes easily bored by what, to them, is the sameness of it all.
We have built our network of churches on the basis of geographical area. But today’s communities are centred around tastes and interests, styles and passions. The language, the assumptions, the worldview of one community are very different from that of another.

Worship that expresses what we feel must be in the language of the heart. Among younger people in our community that means that worship will be different from one group to another, both in language and style, in symbol and focus.

As God came into our culture to express God’s self, so we need to express our worship in the language and symbols of our culture. Indeed, part of the function of worship is to lift our culture to new heights as its forms of expression are used for worship. Youth forms of communication are multi-sensory. They are colourful with a strong physical and emotional beat. Most importantly, however, they relate to a world in which young people are trying, each in their individualistic way, to put their lives together – their relationships, study, work; the world of fun and excitement, of chill-out times, and sometimes of confusion and hurt.

Philip Hughes


The core part of this study of young people was conducted by a team of researchers: Michael Mason and Ruth Webber (ACU), Andrew Singleton (Monash), and Philip Hughes (CRA). The Christian Research Association alone was responsible for the additional surveys and interviews in schools. For more details, see the CRA website: www.cra.org.au. Philip Hughes takes sole responsibility for the opinions about implications for the study that are expressed here.