The 2016 Australian Census is almost upon us. The answers we provide on August 9th will be used by the nation’s decision makers to shape and direct Australia’s future.
Changes to the 2016 Census Religion question…
One of the changes to the previous census is in Question 19: “What is the person’s religion?”.
In the 2016 year census No Religion has been moved to the top of the list of choices.
In previous years No Religion was at the very end of the list. The reader had to wade through a list of nine religions/denominations, followed by a large text box for Other (unlisted) religions. No Religion followed in an obscure location beneath the text box.
The value of a census lays in obtaining accurate data. The layout of Q19 has been changed for the following reasons:
- In the previous layout No Religion could be easily missed, leading people with no personal religious beliefs to inaccurately select a nominal affiliation (e.g. their parents church, the church they were christened into, or where they attended Sunday School).
- Completion of census form questions is made easier by having the most commonly selected options listed first. No Religion may well be the highest result (above any specific religion or denomination) in 2016 so it makes sense to move it up the list.
- Having No Religion at the top simplifies completion of the question by effectively breaking it into two parts. Those who identify with No Religion can select this option and move straight to next question. Only those who identify with a religion need to go through the list to make a selection.
When this change was introduced in the New Zealand census in 2013 the No Religion result increased from 35% to 42% (compared with 2006) while the total Christian tally decreased from 56% to 49%. For the first time less than half of the NZ population identified themselves as Christian. (Ref 1)
The 2016 Australian census may see a similar result. In the 2011 census the total Christian tally was 61.1%. The impact of No Religion trending steadily upward (22.3% in 2011, 18.7% in 2006, 15% in 2001) (Refs 2, 3), combined with the change to Q19 may result in less than half the Australian population identifying as Christian for the first time. (Ref 4)
The top three options selected in the 2011 census were Catholic 25.3%, No Religion 22.3%, then Anglican 17.1%. (The total of all other Christian denominations combined was 18.7%.) Given Catholic outranked No Religion by only 3% it is highly likely that for the first time No Religion will outnumber each of the Christian denominations individually in 2016, displacing Catholic from the top of the list. (Ref 5)
Some challenging questions…
Will government funding to Christian organizations be affected?
Secular groups lobbying for the Q19 change argued that a more accurate answer to this question would help ensure that government funds are distributed more fairly…
“Many government services and resources depend on census accuracy, and the figures are used by religious organisations to maintain their status and influence in terms of grants, tax-free services, access to schools for religious instruction, and for their generally privileged position within the community,” president of the Rationalist Society of Australia, Meredith Doig, said. (Ref 4)
In the lead up to the 2016 census some secular groups have been actively campaigning for people to select the No Religion option if they don’t have an active religious faith. The Atheist Foundation of Australia website argues… “Accurate census data helps policy makers and political leaders make all sorts of planning and funding decisions. So if you’re not religious any more, mark the ‘No religion’ box on the 2016 Census.” (Refs 6, 7)
Will the claim that “Australia is a Christian nation” still be valid?
The claim that “Australia is a Christian nation” has been used by some far right wing political and religious groups promoting fear-based arguments that Australia should reverse becoming a multicultural, multi-faith nation. (e.g. Fred Nile, Catch The Fire Ministries/Rise Up Australia, One Nation) (Refs 8, 9, 10, 11)
If less than 50% of Australians identify themselves as Christian their claim will no longer be valid. If they dare acknowledge this will they revert to arguing “Australia has a Christian heritage”?
Personally this argument rankles me… Yes, we have a Constitution and legal system based on Judeo-Christian values. However Australia had an indigenous heritage in place for thousands of years before white men arrived. This heritage was replaced by a ‘heritage’ of British occupiers whose actions towards our indigenous people were anything but Christian.
A challenge to Christians and church leaders…
How should the Christian church react? How will the church react? Will the church react at all??
Regular church attendance has been falling significantly for decades. Fewer Australians have an active Christian faith or identify with a particular Christian denomination than ever before. (Ref 12)
The church has taken little effective action to date to stop decades of decline. If less than 50% of Australians identify themselves as Christian in the 2016 census will the church wake from its slumber and take action to stop it becoming progressively more irrelevant to Australian society?
Each increase in the No Religion result strengthens the case being made by secular groups to remove tax exemptions for religious organizations. If one day this case succeeds the financial impact on Christian denominations will be huge and further reinforce the demise of the Christian church in Australia.
Looking to the future…
While it is highly unlikely that the number of people identifying as No Religion in 2016 will exceed 50% (it would need to more than double from 22.3% in 2011) is Australia heading in this direction along with other Western world countries?
A recent National Geographic New article reported, “There have long been predictions that religion would fade from relevancy as the world modernizes, but all the recent surveys are finding that it’s happening startlingly fast. France will have a majority secular population soon. So will the Netherlands and New Zealand. The United Kingdom and Australia will soon lose Christian majorities.” (Ref 13)
What do you think?
- What is your reaction to the Q19 layout change?
- Are you concerned about the No Religion result rising significantly while the Christian tally falls?
- Do you think Australia is a Christian nation? A multi-faith nation? A secular nation?
I’m very interested to hear from both Christians and secular readers on this. Please feel free to comment either here on the blog or on the associated facebook post.
- http://riseupaustraliaparty.com/our-policies/policy-principles/ Policy principle (20).
- onenation.com.au/policies/islam Policy on Islam.
- Pauline Hanson on ABC TV Q&A 15/07/2016.
Comments on: "Is Australia (no longer) a Christian nation?" (1)
Good article Ian. Explains the figures and the possibilities clearly.
Australia is and has always been a secular nation in principle. That is, there is no official Australian religion or denomination, and the government is not supposed to preference any reigion over another or over non-religion. In practice various governments have played favourites at times, hence some laws reflect the religious views held by some despite them being minority views even among Christian voters.
As you suggest, if the self identified Christian total falls below 50% it will make the inaccurate “Christian Nation” story even harder to justify.