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Irreligion in Australia

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Irreligion in Australia

Major religious affiliations in Australia by census year[1]

Atheism, agnosticism, deism, scepticism, freethought, secular humanism or general secularism are increasing in Australia.[2] Post-war Australia has become a highly secularised country.[3] Religion does not play a major role in the lives of much of the population.[4]

In the 2011 Australian census, 22.3% of Australians (or 4,796,787 people) described themselves as having "no religion". This was more than three percent higher (and 1,090,232 people more) than in the 2006 census and was the second largest category.[5] Another 2.014 million (9.4%) were in the "not-stated or inadequately-defined" category: so more than 31% of Australians did not state a religious affiliation in the 2011 census.[6]

In the 2006 Australian census, 18.7% of Australians (or 3,706,555 people) had described themselves as having "no religion". This was three percent higher than in the 2001 census and was the largest growth in total number of any religious option in that census (800,557 people).[2] A further 2.4 million (11.9%) did not state a religion (or inadequately described it).[7] So just over 30% of Australians did not state a religious affiliation in the 2006 census.

According to a 2004 study by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, 25% of Australians do not believe in any gods.[8]


The first systematic recording of the religious affiliation of non-aboriginal Australians took place in the 1901 census. Since the 1901 census, the percentage of the population unaligned with a religion has grown from 0.4% to just over 30% of the population. This census question about religion has been clearly labelled as "optional" since 1933. In 1971 the census has instructed, "If no religion, write none." This was followed by "a seven-fold increase" in the figures from previous years for those declaring lack of religious beliefs.[9]

Melbourne hosted the 2010 Global Atheist Convention (branded as the largest event of its kind in the world,[10]) sponsored by the Atheist Foundation of Australia and Atheist Alliance International. It took place at the Melbourne Convention Centre from 12 to 14 March 2010. Over 2,000 delegates attended, with all available tickets selling out more than five weeks prior to the event.[11]

In 2010 The Australian Book of Atheism[12] was published as "the first collection to explore atheism from an Australian viewpoint".[13] The book was prompted by the disparity between Australia's increasing secularism and the increasing political and educational influence and funding of religion in Australia and contains essays by 33 authors (including Leslie Cannold, Robyn Williams, Tim Minchin, Graham Oppy, Philip Nitschke, Ian Hunter, Lyn Allison, Russell Blackford and Ian Robinson) on atheism-related topics in areas including history, law, education, philosophy and neurobiology.

Irreligion in politics

Section 116 of the Constitution of Australia established Freedom of religion in 1901.

John Latham, who in the 1930s served as Deputy Prime Minister and later as Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, was an atheist and early member of the Rationalist Society of Australia.

Australians tend to be very suspicious of religion being intertwined with politics. Critic and commentator Robert Hughes stated "Any Australian political candidate who declared God was on his side would be laughed off the podium as an idiot or a wowser (prude, intrusive bluenose)."[14] Conversely, Australia has had many openly atheist or agnostic political figures elected to high positions, including prime ministers Gough Whitlam (whose philosophical position has been called "post-Christian",[15]) John Curtin, John Gorton, Bob Hawke and Julia Gillard. Governor-general Bill Hayden was voted as the Australian Humanist of the Year by the Council of Australian Humanist Societies. Politicians Gareth Evans, Olive Zakharov and Lionel Murphy have also received this award.

A 2010 survey by The Sunday Age asked all 30 members of the First Rudd Ministry about their religious beliefs. Fifteen declined to comment, ten said they were "Christian" and three stated that they were atheists: health minister Nicola Roxon, defence personnel minister Greg Combet and financial services minister Chris Bowen. The remaining two, finance minister Lindsay Tanner and treasurer Wayne Swan, both described themselves as agnostic Christians, with Swan believing that "values, rather than religion, are important in public life". Tanner added, "I doubt whether it would make much difference to a political career for someone to describe themselves as atheist."[16]

According to a 2009 Nielsen survey, 84% of 1000 respondents agree that religion and politics should be separate.[17]

Irreligion in popular culture

Many of Australia's most famous satirists and comedians have criticised religion, including Tim Minchin, who has written several songs about religion and creationism; Wil Anderson, whose 2006 stand-up comedy tour "Wil of God" dealt with intelligent design; The Chaser, who are highly popular in Australia for their irreverent larrikin humour; John Safran, whose television show John Safran vs. God won the 2005 Australian Film Institute award for best comedy series.

Polls, surveys and statistics

People who are affiliated with no religion as a percentage of the total population in Australia at the 2011 census, divided geographically by statistical local area

Although many Australians identify themselves as religious, the majority consider religion the least important aspect of their lives when compared with family, partners, work and career, leisure time and politics.[18] This is reflected in Australia's church attendance rates, which are among the lowest in the world and in continuing decline.[19][20] In explaining this phenomenon, writer and broadcaster Paul Collins said "Australians are quietly spiritual rather than explicitly religious" and the prominent historian Manning Clark defined Australian spirituality as "a shy hope in the heart .... understated, wary of enthusiasm, anti-authoritarian, optimistic, open to others, self-deprecating and ultimately characterized by a serious quiet reverence, a deliberate silence, an inarticulate awe and a serious distaste for glib wordiness."[21]

Donald Horne, one of Australia's well-known public intellectuals, believed rising prosperity in post-war Australia influenced the decline in church-going and general lack of interest in religion. "Churches no longer matter very much to most Australians. If there is a happy eternal life it's for everyone ... For many Australians the pleasures of this life are sufficiently satisfying that religion offers nothing of great appeal", said Horne in his landmark work The Lucky Country.[3]

Males and Females who claim no religion on the census from 1971 to 2011

The Australian Census in 2011 found that 24.5% of Australian-born Australians claim no religion.[22] In 2011 adults aged 18–34 were more than twice as likely as those in 1976 to have no religion (29% compared with 12%). The highest proportion of people who had no religion were young adults.[23] The ABS has revealed that in 2011, the number of males claiming no religion was higher than females, that women claiming no religion were more likely to have no children, and that marriages were mostly performed by civil celebrants.[24][25] Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory had the highest rates of citizens reporting no religion, at 29% while the rate was lowest in New South Wales (18%).[26][27]

Secular marriages in Australia accounted for 72.5 per cent of marriages in 2013, slightly more than in England and Wales.[28] This is up from 41.3% of marriages in 1988 and just over 50% in 1999. [29] Secular Funerals have also risen in popularity. In 2014 the Sydney Morning Herald surveyed 104 funeral directors and 514 people over 50, finding that 6 in 10 funerals were conducted by civil celebrants.[30]

State/Territory [31] % 2011 % 2006 % 2001
Australian Capital Territory 28.9 23.4 19.6
New South Wales 17.9 14.3 11.7
Northern Territory 23.9 23.1 18.7
Queensland 22.1 18.6 14.8
South Australia 28.1 24.2 20.6
Tasmania 28.6 21.5 17.3
Total 22.3 18.7 15.5
Victoria 24.0 20.4 17.3
Western Australia 25.5 22.9 19.7


The proportion of Australian respondents to the World Values Survey saying religion is "Not at all important" to them has increased from 19% in 1994-98 to 37% in 2010-2014[32]

A abortion, same-sex marriage, the use of condoms in the global fight against the HIV pandemic. He also noted the drop coincided with public media attention around alleged religious cover-ups of child sexual abuse in the Child Abuse Royal Commission.

A 2006 study by Monash University, the Australian Catholic University and the Christian Research Association found that 52 per cent of Australians born between 1976 and 1990 had no belief in a god.[34]

A 2008 global Gallup poll found nearly 70% of Australians stated religion as having no importance,[35] much higher than their American counterparts and on par with similarly secular countries such as Japan, the Netherlands, Finland and France. Only a few Scandinavian countries (Norway, Sweden, Denmark) and post-Soviet states (Estonia) are markedly less religious. A 2008 Christian Science Monitor survey of 17 countries reported that youth from Australia and the United Kingdom were the least likely to observe religious practice or see any "spiritual dimension" to life.[36]

A 2002 study by Gregory Paul, found that 24% of Australians are atheist or agnostic.[37] A 2009 Nielsen survey of 1,000 respondents, found 68% of Australians believe in god and/or a "universal spirit", while 24% believe in neither. The survey found that 49% of respondents claimed religion was not important in their lives.[17] A 2009 survey of 1,718 Australians conducted by NCLS research found that 61.5% say that "religious faith or spirituality" was of little or no importance to career and lifestyle decisions.[38]

In 2011, an Ipsos MORI survey found that 32% claimed no religion,[39] while a Galaxy poll found 43% claimed no religion.[40] A 2011 report by the American Physical Society claimed that religion may die out in Australia and eight other Western world countries.[41][42]

According to NORC of Chicago, 20.6% of Australians don't believe in God and never have, while 9.7% are "strong atheists". Of those aged under 28, 26.8% have never believed in God and just 14.7% are certain God exists.[43] A 2012 poll by Win-Gallup International found that 48% of Australians claimed no religion; 37% were religious; 10% declared themselves "convinced atheists". Australia placed in the bottom 14 for religiosity and in the top 11 for atheism.[44]

An October 2011 McCrindle survey polled 1,094 respondents on attitudes Christianity, finding 50% of the respondents did not identify with a religion, and 17% claimed Jesus did not exist.[45] A follow-up survey that 30% claimed no religion, 64% identified with Christianity and 6% belonged to other religions. 9% of the Christians were actively practising and regularly attending.[46]

A 2011 survey by McCrindle Research found that for Australians, Christmas is predominantly secular. 46% of respondents said the highlights of Christmas were celebrations with family and friends, 36% said gift giving, Christmas trees and the general Christmas spirit; and 15% said attending religious services, carol singing and nativity plays. 19% said they would "definitely" attend a religious service, while 38% have never attended. 87% of people who are not religious celebrated Christmas to some extent.[47]

Religious attendance

According to the National Church Life Survey, between 1950 and 2007 monthly church attendance declined from 44% to 17%.[48]

A 2009 Christian Research Association survey of 1,718 Australians found that 16% attended a religious service at least once a month, down from 23% in 1993. More than 40% of those brought up as Anglicans or Lutherans, 36% of those brought up in the Uniting Church and 28% of those brought up as Roman Catholics now described themselves as having no religion. 33% of 15-29 year olds identified with a Christian denomination in 2009, down from 60% in 1993.[4]

In 1996, 17.9% of Roman Catholics attended Mass on a typical Sunday,[49] falling to 12.2% in 2011.[50][51] In 2006, the median age of all Catholics aged 15 years and over was 44 years.[52][53] In 1996, 27% of Roman Catholics aged 50 to 54 years regularly attended Mass, falling to 15% in 2006.[52] while 30% aged 55–59 years regularly attended in 1996, but only 19% in 2006.[52] From 1996 to 2006 Mass attendance for Roman Catholics aged between 15 to 34 declined by just over 38%, going from 136,000 to 83,760 attendees.[52]

A study in 2011 by the Christian Research Association discovered that the attendance of Uniting Churches has declined by 30% over the past 10 years. President Philip Hughes predicts the decline in church attendance will continue "at least for the next 20 years". The study also found that the average age of people attending Catholic and Anglican churches is around 60 years.[54]

A 2013 survey by McCrindle Research, just 8% of Christians attend at least once per month. The survey also discovered that 47% of respondents do not go to church because it is "irrelevant to my life", 26% "don't accept how it's taught", while 19% "don't believe in the bible".[55]

Informal polls

A 2008 an Intelligence Squared debate on the topic "We Would Be Better Off Without Religion" ended with 54% of the audience for the motion,[56][57] and a follow up poll in The Sydney Morning Herald found 81% for a similar motion.[58] A 2012 TV poll on Q&A found 76% of viewers say that religious belief does not "make the world a better place."[59]

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^ a b Buttrose, Larry. Sport, grog and godliness, The Australian. Retrieved on 11 September 2009.
  4. ^ a b
  5. ^
  6. ^ Religion in Australia#Demographics
  7. ^
  8. ^ Norris, Pippa and Ronald Inglehart. 2004. Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press
  9. ^ ABS – 1301.0 – Year Book Australia, 2006 – Religious Affiliation
  10. ^ Atheist convention's first secular success
  11. ^
  12. ^ Bonett, Warren (Editor). 2010. The Australian Book of Atheism. Melbourne, Vic: Scribe
  13. ^ The Australian Book of Atheism (Publisher's website), . Retrieved on 10 December 2010.
  14. ^ Australian Christianity, Convict Creations. Retrieved on 14 April 2009.
  15. ^ Churches feel Whitlam's smiling wrath, The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved on 3 May 2009.
  16. ^ Q: What do these MPs have in common? A: They are out and proud atheists, The Age. Retrieved on 21 March 2010.
  17. ^ a b
  18. ^ Morris, Lindy. God's OK, it's just the religion bit we don't like (2008), Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved on 14 April 2009.
  19. ^ NCLS releases latest estimates of church attendance, National Church Life Survey, Media release, 28 February 2004
  20. ^ National Church Life Survey: church-going declines further, Retrieved on 14 April 2009.
  21. ^ Collins, Paul. Australians quietly spiritual, not Godless, Retrieved on 15 April 2009.
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^
  28. ^
  29. ^ [1], Retrieved on 21 May 2015.
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^ World Values Survey Data File. World Values Survey Association. Retrieved from
  33. ^
  34. ^ Fenton, Andrew. Faith no more – atheists in the city of churches, The Advertiser, 2009. Retrieved on 16 April 2009.
  35. ^ Gallup WorldView – data accessed on 17 january 2009
  36. ^ Lampman, Jane. "Global survey: youths see spiritual dimension to life", The Christian Science Monitor, 2008. Retrieved on 14 April 2009.
  37. ^ Paul, Gregory. 2002. The Secular Revolution of the West, Free Inquiry, Summer: 28–34
  38. ^
  39. ^
  40. ^
  41. ^
  42. ^
  43. ^
  44. ^
  45. ^
  46. ^
  47. ^
  48. ^
  49. ^
  50. ^
  51. ^
  52. ^ a b c d
  53. ^
  54. ^
  55. ^
  56. ^
  57. ^
  58. ^ Internet Archive - IQ2 Debate : Would the world be better off without religion?, The Sydney Morning Herald, 2008. IQ2 Debate : Would the world be better off without religion? Yes - 81% No - 19% Total Votes: 9311 Poll date: 19/08/08
  59. ^
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