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The Stats Guy: As religion declines, Australia needs a different ‘social glue’

Christian denominations have noted the biggest declines in Australia in recent years.

Christian denominations have noted the biggest declines in Australia in recent years.

Three weeks ago, I mentioned the shrinking number of believers in Australia and discussed the increased diversity in the remaining faith pool.

I received a surprisingly large number of requests to dive deeper into the topic of religion, to discuss the societal role of religion in more detail. As your humble demographic servant, I couldn’t possibly turn down such requests. Let’s talk religion!

I showed you the chart below in my previous column that deserves to be featured again. We can kind of ignore religious affiliation data for people under the age of 18 since parents tend to assign their own belief to their children as they fill out the census form for the whole household. Once young people leave the parental home, a larger share identifies as non-believers.

We can rearrange the above chart to display information by generation to make a few trends more easily visible.

Younger people are more likely to be non-believers. Only 20 per cent of pre-boomers (born before 1945) and 32 per cent of baby boomers (born 1946-63) are non-believers while a whopping 51 per cent of millennials (born 1982-99) have no faith.

Gen Z (born 2000-17) are the kids of Gen X (born 1964-81) and are more likely (46 per cent) than their parents (40 per cent) to be non-believers.

As millennial parents filled out their census forms, many didn’t assign their Gen Alpha (born after 2018) toddlers a religion – probably a result of more believer-atheist couples. As a statistical oddity, babies are now the most ardent atheists in Australia.

Over the past four censuses, every age group in Australia became less religious.

The general age trend held steady, with older people still more likely to be believers than young people. This might reflect an increased tendency of people to look inwards, to only ask the big questions in life, as they get older.

According to Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr, we tend to focus on outward markers of success in the first half of life, before looking inward in the second half. These halves are roughly related to age but have mostly to do with stages of development (more about stages of development later).

It remains to be seen if ardent atheists, like the millennials, experience some sort of spiritual awakening in old age. Stay tuned for my column on the topic in 2053.

 

Each of the major religions still very much has a few geographical strongholds across the country.

The Christian faith is strongest in the coastal town of Yarrabah (near Cairns). It is an Aboriginal community of about 2500 residents. In Lakemba in Sydney, 61 per cent of locals are Muslims. Hindus cluster in Pendle Hill (west of Parramatta) from where a 20-minute drives gets you to the Buddhist hotspot of Cabramatta.

The Jewish community dominates Melbourne’s Caulfield. In the heart of the Darling Range in Western Australia, hides a charming little town, surrounded by beautiful countryside criss-crossed with trails through native flora and fauna. This is Chidlow, Australia’s least religious community.

In the past five years alone we’ve seen big changes in the number of believers and non-believers. In 2016 Australia had 14.1 million believers. In 2021 only 13.7 million believers were counted. That’s a loss of three per cent. During the same period the non-believers grew from 7 million to 9.9 million – an uptick of 41 per cent!

Not all faiths changed at the same rate. The faiths common among Asian migrants (Sikhism, Hinduism, Islam) saw strong growth while the Christian denominations had the strongest declines.

Catholicism saw the smallest relative decline in followers of all the Christians, despite having the most scandals in Australia. A resilient religion.

The strong position of Catholics might’ve been helped by the relatively strong increase in Latin American migrants. Catholic schools also didn’t decline – quite the opposite. That might well be because they are seen as a cheaper alternative to private schools by increasingly cost sensitive parents.

So, what does the future hold for religion in Australia?

Spirited belief and rejection

If 79 per cent of Australians were believers in 2006 and only 58 per cent were believers in 2021, does that mean that religious affiliation will be forever on the way down? Are we slowly approaching a stage of zero believers in Australia?

History has seen ups and downs in religious belief. In Europe, religious revivals have sparked temporary peaks of religiosity throughout the last few centuries while the general trend moved people slowly away from religion.

When we talk about religion, we can’t possibly put all believers on the same level. Surely there is a difference in depth and moral development between the great poet of Islam, Rumi (1207-73), and the terrorist extremists running ISIS. Surely comparing an American TV evangelist and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45) is a silly exercise.

If we take research from the field of psychological development into account, we see that there are somewhat predictable stages of religious belief that people tend to live through.

This line of thinking was probably kickstarted at scale by Jean Piaget (1896-1980). More recent authors who come to mind are Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-87), James Fowler (1940-2015) who wrote Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, and Jane Loevinger (1918-2008).

There are countless more developmental researchers, with Don Beck’s (1937-2022) Spiral Dynamics being the most well-known example, who all suggest that as humans we go through predictable stages of development. The argument is that religious development also follows predictable stages.

As a society we are currently very much in the modern, scientific stage of development, where research, facts, and figures dominate.

In a society where this scientific intellectual framework dominates it is easy to dismiss all religious belief as being naïve, as being childish. Believers are stuck in the magical realm of thinking – Santa Claus and God are put on the same level. Obviously, Moses never split the Red Sea. Clearly, Noah never had an ark full of animals to repopulate the earth.

Beyond the post-modern perspective

Developmental models suggest that as a society, we bit-by-bit inch upwards, reach higher collective stages of development. According to this logic, we would eventually surpass our current modernist worldview to reach post-modern and eventually integrative stages of development.

Let’s not worry about details for now but what that means is that eventually (many decades into the future), a majority of people move away from interpreting religious texts as literal truth to view them as wisdom traditions that contain millennia of collective human knowledge. These types of believers say things like “Just because it didn’t happen doesn’t mean it’s not true”. That’s paradoxical, and scientists (apart from physicists) aren’t great with paradoxes.

While a potential re-integration of religion into society sounds nice, please don’t get too excited. Such an integrated view of religion, even if we all follow different faiths, could act as social glue again and might potentially diminish the current mental health pandemic.

Unfortunately, the path to a new stage of collective religious awareness tends to be accompanied by ugly, often violent, intra-religious infighting (this can be as bad as the Wars of the Reformation, which consumed Europe with war, truces and more war from 1522-1648). The current purveyors of truth fight tooth and nail to keep their ranks and keep their literal interpretation of faith alive.

I’d therefore argue that praying for religion to act as social glue in Australia won’t be a good bet in my lifetime (statistics give me another 42 years to live).

In the meantime, strengthening the middle class (this includes making housing more affordable) and investing in sports are better bets than religion to provide social stability in Australia.

Demographer Simon Kuestenmacher is a co-founder of The Demographics Group. His columns, media commentary and public speaking focus on current socio-demographic trends and how these impact Australia. Follow Simon on Twitter, FacebookLinkedIn for daily data insights in short format.

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