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Religion and non-religion both alive and well

  • 26 June 2012

Census figures on religion in Australia released last Thursday once again paint a picture of change in the religious composition of Australia. 

The headline change of course is the rise in those declaring that they have ‘no religion’ from 18.7% to 22.3% of Australians. ‘No religion’ is the leading category of response in 5 of 8 capital cities – Perth, Adelaide, Canberra, Hobart and Darwin. It also leads in 5 out of 8 states and territories – WA, SA, TAS, ACT, and the NT. 

However, remember that to declare ‘no religion’ is not to claim to be an atheist. There were 31,000 Atheists in 2006 and the number for 2011 has not been released yet.

This looks like a tale of the demise of religion, but wait there is more, much more.

Anglicans are now the third largest group in all states except Tasmania. Uniting identifiers have declined to 5.0% and Presbyterians/Reformed to 2.8%. Eastern Orthodox came in at 2.6% with strong showings in Sydney where they were 5th and Melbourne where they were 4th.

Buddhists have risen to 2.5% and Muslims to 2.2%. Muslims are the 4th largest group in Sydney. There are now more Buddhists and more Muslims than Baptists (1.6%) and more Hindus (1.3%) than Lutherans (1.2%). Hindu growth was outstanding at 86.5%, due to migration.

So while the continued rise of those declaring ‘no religion’ provides evidence for the demise of religion what evidence is there for religious vitality?

First, most religious groups other than Anglicans, Uniting and Presbyterian have increased in numbers even though they may have decreased in their percentage of the population due to the fact that they grew less than the population growth rate of 8.3%. For example, Catholics increased by about 300,000. This suggests that Catholic identity has survived the negative press and public reactions to clergy sexual abuses.

Second, the proportion of the population ‘not responding’ declined 17.3% from 11.2% in 2006 to 8.6%. To me this indicates that religious identity including declaring that one has ‘no religion’ has become more interesting to Australians in recent years. Religion has certainly been in the news in ways it was not before.

Third, Anglican and Uniting/Presbyterian/Reformed declines have slowed substantially. Anglicans had declined 4.2% between 2001 and 2006, but only 1% between 2006 and 2011. Perhaps they stopped dying. Further analysis of the age distribution of religious groups is needed to see what is happening. By the way, Anglicans in Sydney