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Census 2016 … A Seismic Secular Shift

By Brian Morris

When a leading betting agency makes a ground-breaking move to lay odds on the upcoming census you know something is about to happen – particularly when those odds centre on the seemingly innocuous question of Religious Affiliation.

A seismic shift will certainly occur on August 9th – now that the “No Religion” box has been promoted to first option to the question “What is the person’s religion?“, up from last place in every previous census.

Odds are being given by the betting agency that “No Religion” will now have the highest score and dethrone the Catholics as traditional winners. They topped the pool in the 2011 census with 25.3 per cent. Anglicans then followed with 17.1 per cent, the Uniting Church 5.0 per cent, Eastern Orthodox 2.6 per cent and Islam at just 2.2 per cent.

Consistently buried at the end of the list was “No Religion”, which still ran second with 22.3 per cent. But in August this figure is predicted to rise to more that 40 per cent. There are several reason why.

The trend towards secularism in progressive nations has advanced rapidly over recent decades. Australia is fully expected to now record similar figures to these countries. England is 48 per cent religion-neutral; Scotland stands at 52 per cent; and New Zealanders are 42 per cent non-religious.

But the true numbers are even higher than these – over and above those who are proudly religion-neutral. A majority of the population is brought up in households where there is a traditional family religion but later in life, and for a variety of different reasons, they drift away from those traditions and practice no religion at all.

Research shows these ‘uncommitted’ people still register their childhood religion at each census, through sheer force of habit. The term is to be ‘culturally religious’. Many are ambivalent but others adopt a secular or rationalist worldview, based on reason and philosophical ethics. They don’t consider themselves religious.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has made this census change to reflect similar amendments in other Western countries. It also brings the Religious Affiliation section into line with other questions in the census – where the first response is often “No, go to next question.” And having ‘No Religion’ as first option also encourages a more considered response, rather than a reflex action to mark one’s past ‘family religion’.

Marking ‘No Religion’ does not mean being an atheist, it simply means one no longer practices a particular religion. There are many Muslims who also reject Islam and they also have the freedom to ‘privately’ nominate as secular. The new ABS format may also encourage those who mark Spaghetti Monster, Jedi and Santa Claus to think more seriously about their religious affiliation; or none.

So why is the census important?

Each five-yearly census provides vital information for all three tiers of governments to plan for housing, schools, for health and social services, transport, and for economic, business and community infrastructure.

The ‘Religious Affiliation’ question is essential too, as many of these services are run as private businesses by religious organisations – not as charitable works – but as commercial operations that pay no tax. Research estimates that figure above $20 billion annually although precise data is unavailable. Historically, Church institutions claim exemptions from tax (and lodging returns) under the provision of “advancing religion“.

This provision has never been challenged, and it’s essentially due to the highly skewed census results that have given all Churches as position of privilege. The question is still “what is the person’s religion“, which automatically assumed everyone had one. But that is now negated with ‘No Religion’ as first option.

In 2011 the total Christian tally was an inflated 61% – and we discussed earlier how easy it was for ‘cultural Christians’ to mark off their ‘family religion’. Churches have fed off this inequitable advantage for a century.

At federation the population was allegedly 98 per cent Christian it was only in 1991 that ‘No Religion’ was added, as the last option. This still gave the Churches considerable political influence to retain their dominant social position. We have moved from a public education system that was “free, compulsory and secular” to a position today where 40 per cent of children attend private religious schools – now funded by taxpayers at $11 billion annually. Public education is in crisis.

Australia is constitutionally secular. A true ‘No Religion’ figure in this census will reaffirm that secular status. Those who framed the constitution were adamant that the nation needed a transparent separation of church and state. But in recent decades federal parliaments have become increasingly Christianised.

Social issues such as same-sex marriage and voluntary euthanasia (both supported by more than 70 per cent of a secular public) are consistently opposed by governments and Churches. And no progress has been possible on limiting religious school expansion, the Chaplaincy Program, religious instruction (rather that ethics) in public schools; and even the persistence of daily prayers in parliament.

All these, and more, contravene the very essence of a ‘secular’ society – they are religious practices that have long been abandoned in the more progressive nations of Europe and Scandinavia. Plain Reason – and many other secular and rationalist organisations – continue to campaign for a return to Australia’s secular roots.

ABS has now rectified the structural imbalance of the census and that will enable a more even playing field in the public debate over contemporary secular social policy. While responding to this question on religion is not compulsory, people are encouraged to consider it seriously and to answer it honestly and sincerely.


Brian-Morris-0-Head-Shot-150x150 About Brian Morris: World travel shaped Brian’s interest in social justice — wealth, poverty and religion in many countries. His book Sacred to Secular is critically acclaimed, including from the Richard Dawkins Foundation. It’s an analysis of Christianity, its origins and the harm it does. It’s a call for Australia to become fully secular. More information about Brian can be found on his website, Plain Reason.


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  1. David1

    Appears to be a sensible change, although no doubt there will be cries of horror from some quarters. I will quite happily tick the Catholic box and move on.

  2. Matters Not

    There are many Muslims who also reject Islam

    A curious sentence. Surely, when an individual rejects Islam (no longer a ‘believer’) they are no longer a Muslim, given we are talking about a ‘religion’ and not a ‘race’.

    It can be different with Jews which can be both a ‘religion’ and an ‘ethnic group’.

  3. Miriam English

    Hopefully this census might show politicians how astonishingly out of step they are, though I expect few of them will see it through eyes so firmly closed.

  4. Miriam English

    Matters Not, it is a hang-over from earlier times when that’s how we were all described. I could describe myself as Church of England even though I’m atheist. It refers to culture more than religion. (Church of England is more about cups of tea and weekend bake sales than a god anyway. 🙂 ) Atheist people who grew up in Catholicism often still refer to themselves as Catholic. As I say… culture.

  5. jimhaz

    [Marking ‘No Religion’ does not mean being an atheist, it simply means one no longer practices a particular religion]

    I wonder if the word “affiliation” is still a problem. It could be interpreted as “any association with”

  6. Matters Not

    I’ve been following developments in Turkey where the current president is attempting to ‘overthrow’ the secular state as envisaged by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. While everyone born in Turkey is assumed to be a Muslim which has an 80:20 (approximate) Sunni:Shia divide, Atatürk was determined to turn modern Turkey into a ‘secular’ state. There were two main ‘institutions’ charged with that responsibility.

    First, was the armed forces. While ‘everyone’ is a Muslim in Turkey, advancement to the higher ranks of the ‘forces’ is/was denied if one was too ‘devout’. Turkish history is littered with examples of the armed forces putting ‘straying’ governments back on the secular track.

    The second ‘institution’ charged with realising the secular state was the education system. It’s over-riding responsibility was providing future citizens with all the skills, attitudes and values that were necessary for participation in a secular democracy. Religion wasn’t part of the curriculum. If parents wanted their children to get ‘religion then that was their choice BUT it wasn’t to be part of the schooling experience. An activity undertaken after school, on weekends, or whenever but not part of the school curriculum.

    Enter Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who was Mayor of Istanbul for four years (1994-1998) then Prime Minister of Turkey from 2003 to 2014 and now President of Turkey since 2014. He has an ‘Islamist’ background and has been chipping away at Atatürk’s secular state for many years. He survived a ‘coup’ and now wastes no time in dismantling and purging the foundations of the secular state. Something like 15 000 teachers in public schools are suspended while 21 000 teachers in the other schools have their ‘licenses’ cancelled and more than 1 500 Deans in Universities have resigned because they were requested to so do.

    The armed forces undergo similar ‘cleansing’ as does the legal system.

    Atatürk would be rolling in his grave.

  7. Jack Russell

    If it ends in removing religion from all public institutions and politics, then would be a great result.

    Of more concern is that, this time, the census will be directly linking all your data with your identifying information.

    I wasn’t asked for permission to do that with mine – were you?

  8. Matters Not

    When you see what is happening in (secular) Turkey, you realise how quickly things can change.

    Ataturk is rolling in his grave. The pillars of his ‘secular’ state (the armed forces and the education system, including the universities – along with the legal system) are being ruthlessly purged following a failed coup.

    The end of secular Turkey and the rise of another ‘islamic’ state. Big trouble ahead.

  9. jimhaz

    Yes, new dictators are arising. Putin is getting worse, China is slowly becoming imperialistic and the USA might elect the sort of person who has the mindset of a dictator.

  10. John Kelly

    While 25% acknowledge Catholicism as their religion, in reality, only 15% (approx) of them actually practice their religion. Thus reducing the practicing Catholic number to around 5% of the total population.

  11. Lindsay Stafford

    First a caveat – I am a practising Christian albeit one of those rare breed – a progressive one.

    I think that there will be a relatively large number of “cultural” christians – those whose infrequent attendances could be summed up in the phrase “hatch, match and despatch” who will still mark a denomination in the census.

    My own problem is that there will probably not be a box for someone like myself who is unaffiliated.

  12. David1

    John because a Catholic is not a regular attendee at Mass of a Sunday, or recites the Rosary daily etc, does not deprive he or she of their Catholicism. The Census doesn’t ask Catholics if they attend Mass on a Sunday basis or any regularity, as it does not Anglicans or any other religion.
    Your rather strange proposition. a Catholic not attending Mass or practicing their Catholicism, excludes them from being counted as a Catholic is very odd.
    The question asked, do you acknowledge yourself as a Catholic? or words to that effect. Seems perfectly straight forward to me.

  13. Phil

    Private religious schools funded by taxpayers at $11 billion annually. Public education is in crisis. How very Coalition.

    Religion rules the Coalition – they intend to keep it that way despite the horrendous loss of revenue. What an ugly political party is this LNP Coalition.

    My grandson is staying with us a few days. On return from his state high school (NSW) he tells me that the teachers are struggling to keep facilities operating because they are critically short of funds. This opened the door for a discussion about inequality and the role of government and the influence of religion in Australia.

    Grandson now has first hand experience and a better understanding of how institutionalised inequality and selective privilege degrades society and destroys social coherence.

  14. kerri

    Jack Russell I think there have been articles on this very website explaining where you stand if you choose not to list your name and address on the census. Your name and address are definitely not in the true spirit of the census and are uneccessary for ABS purposes. True the census collector can easily note your address but your name is not needed and I am led to believe there is no law forcing you to provide such information. Crikey also has a couple of articles including this one. Paywalled!

    The census cannot force you to give your name

    Dan I think you need to go now?
    Go back to wherever you disappeared to some months ago! You are needed there!

  15. jim

    When Mrabbit ordered the lovely catholic priests into our schools was he breaking our constitution?.(16. the Commonwealth not to legislate in respect of religion
    The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or
    for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or
    public trust under the Commonwealth,
    Re census too little too late I’d say.

  16. cornlegend

    I really don’t care either way about giving Census details, but apparentlly part of it is quite as “compulsory” as it seems

    Bill McLennan, a former head of the bureau who helped rewrite the Census and Statistics Act in the early 1980s, says flatly that it doesn’t have the authority to demand names.

  17. wam

    the census mob have heard of the different christians but not sunni and shia. Surely the most significant religious stat??? as a kid the jesuits were powerful but the nuns seemed to be lovely or absolutely cruel witches.
    progressive christianity oxymoron, mutually exclusive or is it possible to question faith and believe in christianity?
    It is not right that the churches can take my taxes to indoctrinate children nor is it fair that they undertake private enterprise and pay no tax or rates(although they are not alone in that)

  18. Miriam English

    Dan Rowden July 21, 2016 at 9:27 pm

    The trend towards secularism in progressive nations has advanced rapidly over recent decades.

    And the social indicators that that is a good thing are what, exactly? Just curious, you know, because, mum said stats and stuff. ….

    Murder, infant death, sexually transmitted disease, teen pregnancy, abortion, divorce, and so on are all worse when religion is more prevalent. Atheism tends to be accompanied by falls in all those statistics and people tend to live longer, happier, healthier, more peaceful lives.

    Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health With Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies

    If you can’t be bothered reading them here is the audio of an interview on ABC Radio National’s Late Night Live of scientist Gregory S Paul, who wrote the two papers above: Religious Belief & Social Damage.

  19. gee

    i will only be giving them what information i choose to, on paper, after much delay and obfuscation.

  20. etnorb

    I think it is about time that the “no Religion” box was listed first on the Census paper, however, of real concern to me is the fact that in this latest Census, we will be “required” to have our name on the form! This has never happened before (I think!), & is, to me, a gross invasion of our privacy! After all, the Census is supposed to be about compiling statistics etc to enable Governments etc to better formulate new projects, schools, new developments etc. No “need” for ANY reason to have to provide our names, surely?

  21. stmarkw

    I have no problem with ‘No Religion’ being put first, but what happens if ‘No Religion’ doesn’t soar to 1st place as you’re forcasting it will? Will your world view change? Will anybody’s world view change? Wouldn’t it be a false victory anyway, unless it go to 50%, or, atleast, beat the combined Christian total?

    I have absolute faith in Jesus Christ as God come to earth to show God’s love for all by dying to pay the price for our rebelion from God, thus providing the only way to return to good relationship with God. As I understand Christianity as essentially about relationship, not religion, i.e. personal effort to gain God’s mercy, I would have no problem ticking a box ‘No religion’.

    If you really want to ascertain personal belief about God then atleast 3 boxes are required, none of which is ‘No Religion’:
    God does not exist (Atheist)
    God may exist (Agnostic)
    God or gods exist – with sub groupings

  22. Miriam English

    stmarkw, I think you’re right. I doubt it will change anybody’s mind one way or the other. I wouldn’t see any percentage as victory or defeat… merely as information.

    It genuinely puzzles me how people can profess, as you do, to believe what you do. A god gives birth to himself through a woman and is then cruelly murdered in order to forgive people for the “sin” of wanting knowledge? That doesn’t even make sense. If god wanted to forgive humanity why would he not just forgive them? The stone-age blood sacrifice is creepy. As for wanting god’s mercy, I can understand that, but if such a god demands we bow to him at the threat of torture for the rest of time, I really don’t think that’s a god worthy of praise. Certainly it doesn’t fit my definition of a good character.

    Luckily, it’s pretty easy to show that the soul doesn’t exist.
    Without the soul all religion loses its reason for being.

    There are more than 1,000 major religions. Christianity is only one (and there are about 900 variations of Christianity). All these groups believe mutually contradictory things. Each think they’re right and all the others are wrong. None have a smidgen of evidence for any of it and make extraordinary claims about immortal, omniscient, omnipotent beings, miracles, and so on. It looks to me that the only thing they are all correct about is that all the others are wrong. That is, they all nullify each other.

    In some ways I agree the tick boxes you suggest would be more interesting than a “no religion” box followed by a list of major religions, but the atheist and agnostic boxes can really be absorbed into one. I call myself an atheist, but I’m really an agnostic who allows only a microscopic possibility for gods. We then get into definitions of gods. Do extremely advanced beings who create a sophisticated computer simulation that we live inside of count as gods, for instance? Example:

  23. wam

    I have no experience with atheists beyond my family.
    However, it is ironic that my friends believe that I have indoctrinated my children by not having jesus in my house.
    Like you, miriam I find it puzzling that modern men have faith in the christian god who after spending 7 days creating, sat back until eve’s tryst with a snake when he chucked his creation, adam, out into the world burdened with original sin.
    God came back to impregnate a virgin, organise a crucifiction(pi) with the introduction of perfidious corruption and steal a body.
    Then, over the next 2000 years, he has sat quietly watching but doing nothing. While the devil has had a ball mayhemming his heart out.
    Well honesty compels me to confess he has helped argentina beat the poms and portugal overcome the french at soccer. Plus he has helped aaron badderley wins a couple of tournaments because the other golfers were not praying hard enough. Recently he has overseen trump’s triumphs.
    ps it may just be fiction but the story of an Aborigine telling bjelke that the rainbow serpent has a ring of believability that christianity is lacking

  24. townsvilleblog

    Research estimates that figure above $20 billion annually although precise data is unavailable. Historically, Church institutions claim exemptions from tax (and lodging returns) under the provision of “advancing religion“. The time has arrived for these blood sucking bastards to pay up. All the smoking ceremonies, silly hats, and giant crosses are bogus to an educated society that now can’t be told “heaven is beyond the clouds” we have been beyond the clouds, and there is nothing there. Then heaven was “all around us” it is so silly it doesn’t bear thinking any more about. It’s nonsense, shock horror the “invisible man” does not exist, and is no reason that these blood suckers can’t pay tax on their earnings. Australia could well do with an extra $8 billion from corporate Australia, and $20 billion from the Churches and other religious cults operating under “the Church” name, so as to avoid paying tax. The best business on Earth, raising money to build buildings, and to support the local preacher, pastor or priest, it’s just ridiculous in the 21st century, and we need the dough.

  25. Pingback: Opinion: Independent Media Network - Census 2016: Upset over Religion | Plain Reason

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