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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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