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Religion, social attitudes and politics

By Mark Bahnisch - posted Thursday, 5 July 2007

Charles Richardson writes in Crikey on June 29:

From a lot of cultural indicators, you’d think that religious belief in Australia was on the increase. Certainly politicians and commentators talk about it more than they used to; Kevin Rudd is more open about his Christianity than any of his recent predecessors, and Paul Kelly assured us last year that secularists “are fighting a losing cause”.


But if we move from the world of rhetoric to the world of hard data, the picture is quite different. This week’s release of 2006 census figures shows that only 70% of Australians identified with a religion, and only 64% with some variety of Christianity (down from 71% in 1996). Just under 19% said they had no religion, while about 11% declined to answer the question.

Even those figures, however, overstate the extent of religious commitment. While, for example, the 1.1% who described themselves as Pentecostals are probably serious about their religion, we know that more traditional categories - principally Roman Catholic (25.8%), but also Islam (1.7%) and Judaism (0.4%) - function more as social or cultural identities, and do not necessarily involve religious belief.

They certainly don’t equate to church attendance: the 2001 National Church Life Survey found that weekly attendance was down to 8.8% of the population. A 2002 survey found that 18.8% “claimed to attend religious services at least monthly”, down from 20% in just four years. And surveys of what people actually believe consistently find that many professed adherents of traditional religions are in fact gripped by what George Pell calls “heresy or unbelief”.

There’s another particularly interesting aspect of the census data on religion, which was picked up by Bernard Salt in The Australian. Ignore the gibberish about generationalism - his explanations are his stock in trade pop sociology, but he’s quite right to identify the crucial aspect of the data beyond the headline figures.


Nowhere is the shift away from belief stronger than among Australia’s youth.

In the chart above, I show the proportion of believers by single year at various census dates. Believers have lost most ground among those aged 0-5 years: for example, in 2001 some 70 per cent of babies aged under one year were assigned a religion by their parents; last year, only 63 per cent of babies were designated believers. The market for baptisms must have plummeted in the past five years.

This shift away from God by infants is, of course, matched by a similar shift by their parents. The proportion of believers aged 20-35 contracted by no less than five percentage points between the 2001 and 2006 censuses.

I haven’t had time to do a full analysis, but you can download the census data here yourself . The key thing that jumped out at me was that the “no religion” and “did not answer” folks don’t begin to decline by much as a percentage until you get to the 55-64 age bracket, and that there are more people giving those answers in that age bracket than there were in the 1996 census.

Of course, you could posit some hypothetical religious revival in the future, but what we’re seeing here really is the accentuation of long term trends (which is another reason why Salt’s highly speculative explanations are flim flam). And, historically, you can make a good case that having been largely settled after the dam really broke in Europe for universal religious belief from the mid 19th century, Australia was always on track to becoming a very secular society indeed.

What’s also interesting is looking at the census data in concert with social attitudes data which shows more liberal social attitudes gaining much ground the younger the population sampled is, despite all the crazy claims we heard a while back about a “generation of South Park Conservatives”.

Fervent religious belief is highly correlated with conservative social mores (and conservative voting patterns). I wouldn’t extrapolate too much from these shifts to voting intention, because the most important cleavages in determining electoral behaviour aren’t cultural (except, perhaps, sometimes at the margins - which is where it can count).

But I’ve always been struck by Guy Rundle’s argument in his Quarterly Essay a few years ago that Howard was holding back a dam of social liberalism, though sceptical about his position that it would be Peter Costello who’d usher in a more socially liberal Liberal Party.


Jeff Kennett was an example in the Australian context of a Liberal Premier whose views were largely libertarian on social issues, and he may have been riding the crest of a wave rather than swimming against the Howardian tide. The British Tories under Cameron have also moved away from conservative moralistic rhetoric.

In this context, I think it makes more sense to see the culture wars of the last decade as a rearguard action rather than as some sort of evidence of a return to the religious, or a return to “traditional values”. Of course, here we should make an exception for those fronts in the culture wars which go to national identity, immigration and multiculturalism, because they reflect different underlying dynamics.

It’s instructive, I’d suggest, to observe the way in which anti-Muslim sentiment has been framed in such a way as to highlight the issue of gender equality. You can have a cultural identity which is relatively socially liberal and still in some degree xenophobic.

But I think all this helps to place some of the discussions about religion and politics in some perspective. Pentecostal churches may be increasing their market share of Christian believers, but there’s no evidence that religious belief and practice more generally are displaying anything other than accelerating decline.

Family First, and Tony Abbott style politics, are more a symptom of a cultural shift away from strong religiously inspired social values rather than evidence of their revival. With any luck, they’ll be increasingly seen that way as the “social issues” culture wars fade from the scene.

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First published in Larvatus Prodeo on June 29, 2007.

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About the Author

Dr Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. He founded the leading public affairs blog, Larvatus Prodeo.

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