By Brian Morris
Decades of Census bias – on the question of ‘Religious Affiliation’ – is not fully resolved. Australia is more than 50 percent ‘religion-neutral’, but full ‘secular democracy’ remains a minefield of covert religious politics. A FREE eBook here, explains this dilemma. But results from this 2016 census may just be the catalyst needed for change!
To many Australians, every call for “the separation of Church and State” is seen merely as a slogan. Why all the concern, they say — “the battle has been won; we are already secular; our constitution says so; and religion is in terminal decline.” Apart from the constitutional point, the rest is bitterly naive. The nation is far from being ‘secular’ – the Churches maintain their undue political influence and the secular agenda remains stalled.
It is has always been more about politics than religion. For the establishment — governments, academia, the judiciary and sections of the media — religion has historically played a crucial role in conditioning a naive public to the pomp, ceremony and extravagant self-interest of the upper tiers of the professional classes; including Church hierarchies. And while ‘traditional’ Christianity has lost its congregational base, the vacuum has been steadily filed with US-imported evangelism. The census lists 19 fundamental Pentecostal churches, alone. So the mutual benefits of a well-established symbiotic relationship — between politics and religion — remains precisely the same.
With the release of Census data it may appear that religion plays a diminishing role in the nation’s political process. Such an assumption would be wrong, even thought the figures are improving. ‘No Religion’ is now first choice for 30.1 per cent of the publi; with Catholics at 22.6 per cent, Anglicans 13.3 per cent, and Islam at just 2.6 per cent – and the total Christian figures is down to 52.1 per cent (though still inflated).
The Census does (in part) reverse a century-old trend. Up from 22.3 per cent in 2011, the secular count is now 30.1 per cent. And while this option was moved up from rank last place to top spot on this questionnaire — in line with most western countries — it does explain why the ‘secular’ score has produced such artificially low figures since federation! This historical and wholly contrived imbalance, since 1901, has heavily obstructed secular reform — while providing massive subsidies for religion, from the public purse.
But the true 2016 statistic should also include data which is not yet recorded. Added to the ‘raw’ secular figure of 30 per cent is that long established hidden tally of some 20 per cent of ‘lapsed Christians’. Surveys have shown this large cohort continue to record at each census — through sheer force of habit — the religion they were given as a child; although it’s a faith they have never practiced in adult life. It is reflected in the fact that only 8 per cent of the population attend church on a regular basis.
The other statistical glitch occurs where Christian parents continue to allocate their own religious denomination to their children, at each census. But even this doesn’t account for the persistent secular imbalance perpetuated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, on the question of Religious Affiliation.
Advertising executives learn ‘Surveys 101’ in school — that answers to any kind of questionnaire (including the census) are only as good as the questions asked. Despite 440 submissions to the ABS to re-word question 18, after the 2011 Census, Canberra statisticians continued to lead with the phrase, “what is the person’s religion?”. It induces the public to automatically believe they should actually have a religion — so they dutifully record one!
Other countries use far more accurate terminology, stating: “does the person practice a religion?” — yes or no?. And if the answer is “no” they are asked to move on to the next question. It sorts the sheep (literally) from the goats — and it’s far more professional from an analytical viewpoint. All these factors (still) contribute to a gross distortion of the true secular landscape. Net beneficiaries of this needless confusion are, of course, the Churches.
So, rather than the 30 per cent – recorded in this 2016 census – Australia is, in reality, more than 50 per cent non-religious. Even in 2012, a Win-Gallup poll (table 6) concluded that 48 per cent of people in Australia were ‘Not Religious’. So this year’s Census result clearly understates the basic figure – not to mention ‘lapsed’ Christians, possessive parents, and the grossly misleading census question.
Distorted statistics meant decades of windfall gains for the Churches
Accumulated financial and legislative benefits to Catholic and Protestant Churches have been a bonanza! They share regal privileges that rank only with British monarchs. They pay no tax on their accumulated wealth, their property, their investments, or their profitable businesses. And like the royals, Churches also receive vast government grants that come from the pockets of besieged tax-paying workers.
The solution seems simple — religions have been massively over-compensated through a series of Census glitches which they have rorted over many decades. So why not just reduce government largess to each denomination? The problem is that such a solution is not in the best interests of the ‘establishment’.
This Census fiasco goes back to Federation. In 1901, bureaucrats merely accepted Church propaganda that the nation was 96 perc ent Christian, even 150 years after the Age of Enlightenment. And each consecutive Census gave no clear option to record any expression of ‘non-belief’. It was not until 1971 — just 45 years ago — that the ABS gave citizens a brand new option! Simply, “If no religion, write none.” This was to be written in an obscure box buried deep on the form, as nothing more than an afterthought. But the result was most illuminating! The non-religious vote burgeoned from 0.8 per cent to a staggering 6.7 percent — for those brave enough to list this new and blasphemous opinion!
By 2011, the combined Christian figure remained at a grossly inflated 61 per cent — with ‘No Religion’ an artificially low 22 per cent. But this secular option still languishing in last place, hidden below the box in which artful citizens still write alternative religions such as “Jedi”, “Mickey Mouse”, and “Spaghetti Monster”.
Christian Churches continued to use that exaggerated 61-to-22 figure to claim that “Christianity is 3 times more relevant than Godless secularists.” They have capitalised on this alleged 3-to-1 ratio to claim moral superiority and to win enormous grants and tax concession from successive state and federal governments.
Conservative estimates put the level of tax exemptions – to all religions – at a staggering $20 billion per year. This is far less than the $31 billion calculated by the Secular Party of Australia — and it allows for generous concessions for verifiable charity work to help those genuinely in need. But it doesn’t excuse the raft of Church businesses that operate at a profit, or for taxation on their property, investments and wealth. And it does not take into consideration the $12 billion in government grants to private religious schools in 2016.
Funding for Christian education was almost zero in 1960, until Liberal prime minister Robert Menzies began giving grants to Catholic schools. Australian governments are consistently conservative but — particularly from the era of John Howard — our parliaments have been some of the most heavily Christianised in the western world. And that includes the tenures under Labor rule. All this was put into crystal clear perspective with the book by Prof. Marion Maddox; “God Under Howard; the rise of the religious right in Australian politics.”
Religious schools now enroll 40 percent of Australian school students, while the public system is becoming akin to “welfare education” for the less well-off. It remains Liberal Party policy to expand private schooling, with Malcolm Turnbull stating clearly that federal governments should fund only private schools — and let the states take care of public education!
But the 2016 Census may well be the catalyst to gradually bring an end to the extravagance of governments in gifting such rich and long-standing privileges to the Churches – all based on corrupted statistical data.
A further benefit that relates to being majority secular — rather than a Christian nation — comes with the real and present danger of Islamic extremism. While many parts of the West, including Australia, have experienced attacks, there is an ameliorating effect that comes with religious neutrality.
This is particularly evident in Scandinavian countries where strongly secular communities have far less religious violence. Secular neutrality is a more effective principle than Christianity, which claims a religious superiority over Islam. Secularism is neutral to all religions — it does not favour any faith over another — it does not inflame tensions between Sunni and Shiite, or Protestant against Catholic; it simply opposes all hostility based on religious belief.
Australia is a signatory to the United Nations charter for ‘Freedom of Religion and Belief’ — with a full definition that also includes ‘non-belief’. The constitution is a secular document — based on Section 116 — and we should respect that. Historical records show those who framed it, prior to federation in 1901, intended parliament to be free of religion — as distinct from Britain where the monarch swears to uphold the Church of England.
In 2017, governments continue to defer to religious practices, rather than the secular constitution. They open each parliament with church services and with a daily ritual of saying prayers. And there is a persistent concern among MPs to defer to a perceived Christian majority.
Recognising Australia as a fully secular nation will not create an immediate seismic political shift, but eventually it will have an impact. As with Scandinavia, a more secular worldview will progressively serve to calm religious rhetoric, that only inflames social division — and to advance legislative change that is more equitable.
But, in the shorter-term, the wishes of a religiously-neutral public will gradually draw politicians to conclude that supporting secular policies does not incur political risk. Australia continues to uphold Freedom of Religion and Belief — where people have the right to believe what they wish. But that is quite different to the current circumstance where religion unduly influences the politics of education, health and a broad social agenda.
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.