In 2015, British magazine The Spectator predicted that if Christianity kept declining at the rate of the previous decade, the faith would disappear from that nation in 2067. That decline will continue, but it is a “trick” statistic because, however diminished, Christianity too will continue.
News from the 2021 Australian Census that the number of people identifying as Christian has dropped by a huge 8 per cent, from 52 to 44, should be devastating for people of faith. But it’s not, despite the glee of some secularists and atheists.
There are two obvious points. First, the vast majority of those leaving were not committed believers but had a merely cultural attachment – they might have gone to Sunday school or remembered the faith of their grandparents. As this cultural accretion falls away, numbers will drop further. But core Christianity continues.
The second point is that relatively few of the non-religious are secularists or atheists. We don’t yet have full figures for the 2021 Census, but in 2011, when 6 million Australians claimed no religion, only 59,000 identified as atheists. There were more Jedi knights.
Research by the National Church Life Survey shows that by far the most hostility to Christianity comes from people aged 50 to 65 – as director Dr Ruth Powell observes, the people who hold the microphones right now. NCLS research suggests that only 21 per cent of Australians go to church at least once a month – but that figure rises to 32 per cent among 18 to 35-year-olds.
The NCLS Australian Community Survey last November – a more nuanced approach than the tribal identity uncovered by the Census, according to Powell – found 55 per cent of Australians say they believe in God and six in 10 pray or meditate.
Meanwhile, the 2022 Generation Z Study from Monash, ANU and Deakin found that 52 per cent of Australian teens don’t identify with a religion – but 67 per cent believe in God or a higher being.
If Australia parallels the US, only 12 per cent of those professing no religion say they are philosophical secularists; that is, atheists/secular humanists. Of the rest, 54 per cent are simply indifferent and 17 per cent each are spiritual eclectics and believers who do not affiliate with any denomination.
What this does mean – and has for a long time – is that Christians realise they have no particular authority and must argue their positions in the public square like anyone else, which should certainly improve their standard.
In his Short History of Christianity, Geoffrey Blainey suggests that rather than dying out, Christianity is set to keep evolving and moving, declining and re-emerging, just as it always has.
It’s a faith that has repeatedly reinvented itself, and while no revival is permanent, neither has been any decline.
Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article first appeared in The Age