Census results: Are we really losing our religion?

Natasha Moore weighs the importance of "momentum" when interpreting the results of the 2016 Australian census.

DURING the first AFL game I ever watched, I was foolhardy enough to enter into a spirited argument with my brother-in-law — a fervent Sydney Swans fan — about the importance of “momentum”.

The team that had just scored two goals in succession, he insisted, had the “momentum” and was therefore much more likely to win. Naively, perhaps, I imagined the score (the other team was up by at least 30 points) to be a relevant factor in where the game was at.

I forget which team won in the end. But of course, my brother-in-law was right — about the Swans, at least, those inveterate underdogs.

I thought of our old quarrel again in the wake of the 2016 Census results.

“Losing our religion” has been a popular headline over the last couple of weeks. Both glee and soul-searching have accompanied the announcement that those who identify with a Christian denomination are down to 52.1 per cent of the population, and the “no religion” category is up to 30.1 per cent.

Of course, once you add in other religions, it’s clear that twice as many people in Australia — more than 60 per cent of the population — identify with a religion than those who don’t. That’s about 14.6 million of us. (Close to 10 per cent of people chose not to respond to the question.)

Unbelief, then, is far from the “norm”. But like the Swans in the third quarter, or like UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who last month apparently proved that he can win an election by not winning an election, this story is all about momentum.

The self-identified Christians — Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, etc — are down from 61.1 per cent in 2011. The so-called “nones” are up from 22.3 per cent. It’s not hard to see where the momentum lies, and has done for decades.

A word of caution, though, about momentum.

The surface trajectories sketched by the data often need to be examined more closely. Hindu affiliation has increased about 45 per cent since the last census, but nobody anticipates the mass conversion of Australians to Hinduism.

Other surveys show that regular church attendance is holding steady or even rising slightly — suggesting that it’s nominal or purely “cultural” faith commitments that are in decline in Australia, rather than religious practice.

It’s also worth remembering that, rather like football games, and recent global elections, history is reliably unpredictable. Extrapolations from current trends have a way of veering wildly off the mark.

In 1798, Thomas Malthus predicted the finiteness of the world’s food supply; unforeseen explosions in technology and trade reconfigured the landscape (literally and figuratively).

What happens between now and that predicted horizon is: everything.

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes envisaged the average workweek dropping to only 15 hours over the next century as productivity surged. He was right about the productivity part — but after four decades of decline, the trend stabilised and then, for a range of reasons, reversed. Today, alas, we work longer hours than we did in 1970.

Similarly, reports of the death of Christianity have been greatly exaggerated. Voltaire declared in 1776: “One hundred years from my day there will not be a Bible in the earth except one that is looked upon by an antiquarian curiosity-seeker.”

In 2015, The Spectator pinpointed the disappearance of Christian adherence in Britain to 2067, judging by recent data.

Yet it’s proven strangely elusive, this vanishing point for religion. The problem with the “if this rate of decline continues” mentality is what happens between now and that predicted horizon, which is: everything. History. Discoveries and rediscoveries. Disillusionment, disasters, scientific advances and social setbacks. People, being people, as they’ve always been and never been before.

More important than the reminder that historical humility is always in order, is the reminder that demographics are not a competition. Nones in the red jerseys, theists in the blue, cheering our team from the sidelines. Christians and Atheists and Hindus and Muslims competing for market share.

Instead, the Census is important because good data is good for everybody. Good for knowing not just who “we” are, but who each other is — who we live with. Surprise surprise, that turns out to be a lot of religious people, and quite a few who don’t consider themselves religious.

There’s a lot of light and shade within those broad categories. What do you mean when you tick “no religion”? What do you mean when you tick “Catholic”? Certain “nones” probably practice something akin to what used to be called spiritual disciplines far more regularly than many who tick a religion box without a second thought. Transcendence is hardly bounded by boxes 2-10 (plus “Other”) on that orange form.

Rather than a zero-sum game, the picture the Census data paints of religion in Australia should be a reminder that we’re all trying to figure out, separately and in communities, what this life thing is about — and how to support and celebrate one another, even as we vigorously disagree on some of the big questions.

This article first appeared in The Daily Telegraph.

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