This is the year Australia stops being a Christian nation. That statement will alternately inspire or trigger, depending on your spiritual preference. But as we approach the 2021 census, all trend lines suggest Christianity will dip below 50 per cent adherence in Australia.
On the flip side, the “Nones”, those ticking “no religion”, have skyrocketed above 30 per cent, a proportion that grows higher with younger respondents.
For more than a century, some believers have fondly labelled Australia a “Christian country”. In part, their claim rested on the majority of Australians still identifying as Christian. That majority status has been used to justify everything from prayers in Parliament to nativity scenes at shopping centres.
Now, in this year’s census, the Rationalist Society of Australia is seeking to maximise the number of people ticking “no religion”. Their own research posits that about 70 per cent of Australians do not find religion important in their lives, and only 15 per cent are actively religious.
So what now? Does the move below 50 per cent signal Australians have lost faith in transcendence and signed up for atheism? Should we completely secularise the set list for the 2021 Christmas carols?
We like to think that data gives absolute certainty. But numbers still need a storyteller. We do well to recognise that statistics are often instruments for persuasion. We use numbers – to label experience, diagnose crises, stir outrage, advocate policies, and silence opposition. It is no different with statistics about religion.
The real story is that Australia has always had a contested relationship with religion. During the turbulent 1960s the sociologist Hans Mol opined: “Australia seems to be a Christian nation in search of a religion; or a heathen nation in flight from one.” It’s fair to say we’re neither as religious as some believers have thought, nor as disbelieving as some sceptics contend.
A similar rise in the Nones is happening in the United States. Yes, American religion is wildly different from that in Australia. But in this respect we overlap. In 1972, just 5 per cent of Americans were Nones. By 2018, that number was approaching 25 per cent. And just like Australia, the trend line is more pronounced among the younger generations. Both countries are experiencing an epochal shift.
But here the story gets complicated. As the statistician Ryan Burge argues in his book The Nones, “not all Nones are created equal”. In the popular imagination, it is easy to equate “no religion” with atheism. But when sociologists Tim Clydesdale and Kathleen Garces-Foley interviewed twentysomething Americans, they found only 14 per cent of Nones did not believe in God at all. Perhaps surprisingly, 35 per cent reported praying on a daily or weekly basis.
The short story? The dominant trend was disaffiliation more than disbelief. For many, “religion” is coupled with belonging to an institution more than an indicator of belief. Little wonder, then, that Nones can be atheists, or agnostics, but they can also be unaffiliated believers, spiritual eclectics, or indifferent secularists. As Burge says, not all Nones are created equal.
Modernity brings pluralism just as much as scepticism.
It is a widely accepted truism that as cultures modernise, they inevitably lose faith. But in actual fact, modernity brings pluralism just as much as scepticism. As Tara Burton puts it in her 2019 book Strange Rites, Westerners haven’t abandoned their spiritual impulse – they’ve migrated it. Wellness culture, techno-utopianism, even the creative world of fan fiction – all of these can function as sources of meaning, purpose, community and ritual. To quote Burton: “We do not live in a godless world … we live in a profoundly anti-institutional one.”
The religious statistics of Australia likely point to a diverse future as much as an irreligious one. Our immigration programs welcome a plurality of different believers to our land. But even among long-settled Australians, the drop in Christian identification mostly indicates that fewer and fewer of us will affiliate with Christianity as a default. Instead, our search for fullness is a matter of choice, not tradition.
It will do us good to no longer assume too much. Instead of expecting that someone is a believer or a sceptic, perhaps we might try starting conversations with a question: What do you believe, and why?
Dr Mark Stephens is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and the author of The End of Thinking.
This article first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.