The Persistence of Religion: What the Census Tells Us

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


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