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Religious freedom laws: Morrison’s Christian majority does not exist

By Dr Meredith Doig

Since marriage equality was legalised, ‘religious freedom’ laws have been part of the conversation. But these laws do not represent us.

The introduction of same-sex marriage was a momentous occasion in Australia’s history, heralding equal respect for all Australians. But in the eyes of some, it was a dark turn of events. Since the 2017 plebiscite, conservative religious activists have stepped up their campaign for special protections through so-called “religious freedom” laws, playing on the fear of religious persecution.

As states have progressively enacted widely supported reforms on the legalisation of abortion, safe access zones around abortion clinics, gay conversion bans, and voluntary assisted dying, we have witnessed multiple attempts by conservative religious elements to stack political party branches.

Members of the Morrison government – and some in Labor, too – have enthusiastically bought into the narrative that religious freedoms are under threat. With such religious activists currently pushing hard for a federal Religious Discrimination Bill to provide positive rights for religious individuals and religious institutions to discriminate against the non-religious and the religiously apathetic, MPs would be wise to think again.

The first instalment of the Religiosity in Australia report, written by social researcher Neil Francis and published by my organisation, the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) revealed that the level of support for religion has been greatly overstated. Seven in 10 Australians (71%) say religion is not personally important to them and 62% do not belong to any religious organisation. Only 23% say they do belong and only 15% are actively involved.

The trend lines show that Australians considered weakly or modestly religious have been abandoning religion in droves for many years – and the results of this year’s census are expected to confirm Christianity’s fall to below 50% for the first time.

Most importantly, the report also revealed that the views of senior religious clerics on key policy issues like abortion rights and voluntary assisted dying are out of touch with the very people they claim to lead – those in their own pews.

The second in Francis’ Religiosity in Australia series – published earlier this month by the RSA – explores, among other things, Australians’ journey with religion from childhood to adulthood. Francis confirms that significant numbers of Australians have abandoned their childhood religion – including 66% of those who were ‘Notional’ and 47% who were ‘Occasional’ religionists.

71% of Australians say religion is not personally important to them and 62% do not belong to any religious organisation. Only 23% say they do belong, and only 15% are actively involved.

Analysing the push by religious activists for “religious freedom” laws, Francis argues that it’s the very decline of religion in Australia that is driving their political activism.

“No longer would Christian conservatives be able to refer to a presumed Christian ‘moral majority’: not that it has existed in reality for some time given the numbers of religious who never attend religious services and say they don’t belong to their religious organisation,” writes Francis.

“Therefore, it’s important to religious conservatives to achieve greater religious ‘protections’ now, in case the Coalition government loses office at the next federal election…”

However, Francis warns that efforts to increase the rights of the religious can trigger a counter effect, pointing to an international study of 166 countries that shows privileging Christianity leads to a reduction in the faith’s vitality.

When religious conservatives embarked on their campaign for special privileges, they may not have counted on the pushback from pro-secular Australians.

Where previously secular and non-religious groups were fragmented, now they are joining forces and coordinating on a whole new level.

In response to initial drafts of the Religious Discrimination Bill, atheists, humanists, rationalists and secularists spearheaded the #DontDivideUs campaign, with former High Court justice Michael Kirby the campaign’s public face.

More recently, the same groups raised more than $50,000 for a campaign that encouraged Australians to reflect honestly on their religious beliefs and practices and urged them to mark ‘no religion’ on the census if they were no longer religious.

This effort was necessary to address the effect of the biased census question that, in assuming everyone has a religion, artificially overstates the importance of religion in Australians’ lives, skewing policymaking and public funding.

I believe there is an even greater scope for people who care about secularism to work together to achieve common goals on other issues.

As Francis’ new report notes, the not-so-secret agenda of conservative religious activists are deeply unpopular among ordinary Australians, including the mainstream religions.

Politicians in Canberra and in state capitals would be wise to wake up to the tactics of conservative religious activists.

The rest of the country already has.

This article was originally published on Independent Australia as “Religious discrimination bill: The devil is in the details” and on The Big Smoke.

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  1. New England Cocky

    Is it any wonder that thinking Australians are leaving mainstream religions in droves and that only about 15% of Australians are active members of any religious organisation.
    Consider the current Liarbral Nazional$ COALition misgovernment; the Cabinet is dominated by ”Yes persons” from the unChristian Hell$inger$ Cult of Greed & paedophile Protection that exploits the very wide definition of what constitutes ”a religion” for the purposes of taxation status.
    Then the Roman church dominates both NSW and feral Parliament, intimidating politicians with threats of a priestly revolt should government over-funding of the third rate child minding services mis-described as schools, were funded to the same level as state schools. This would reduce the annual remittance to the Vatican, and history tells us that this annoys successive Popes.
    So, an elite masquerading as a Christian government occupy the appropriate elitist church every Sunday morning seeking to be seen by persons of power so that they may further their own pecuniary interests. Is that what religion is all about?
    However, the Biblical principles of Christianity are better known in the breach than the practice when it comes to any commodity that can be utilised to benefit the personal pecuniary interests of those same politicians. Anybody for an empty glass of MDB water for $80 MILLION, or an adulterous affair to produce two bastards?
    Nope, I think I would rather join PP’s Church of the Sceptical Believers than mix with the present band of desperadoes that Australian voters have imposed upon us UNTIL we can vote again in 2022.

  2. Josephus

    The Christians have killed each other over whether rice paper wafers are somehow really the flesh and blood of a risen god, or are only symbolic or even half half. Whereas the Jewish Jesus was simply celebrating Passover. Then there are the rows over free will versus predestination, the rows over limbo and purgatory as opposed to only heaven and hell , or heaven alone. Blah blah blah. I for one am a pastafarian, so there.

  3. BB

    Dr Meredith Doig, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article, thanks.. You give me hope.
    I shall definitely check out the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA), and at any rate make a donation.

    “When religious conservatives embarked on their campaign for special privileges, they may not have counted on the pushback from pro-secular Australians.
    Where previously secular and non-religious groups were fragmented, now they are joining forces and coordinating on a whole new level.
    In response to initial drafts of the Religious Discrimination Bill, atheists, humanists, rationalists and secularists spearheaded the #DontDivideUs campaign, with former High Court justice Michael Kirby the campaign’s public face.”

    Hear hear! Thank goodness secular commonsense is now well and truly mainstream.

    IT’S TIME humanity puts away childish concepts like religion… And moves on…

  4. Max Gross

    The threat to secular democracy has been clear for some time. The Christianist Taliban are on the march and Pastor Disastor is leading the charge in Australia

  5. Phil Pryor

    After ages of self enslaving superstition, which once offered a hallucinatory suggestion, ridiculous, but satisfying enough to the savages in a neurotically paranoid natural world of our ancestors, we have arrived at a century of some promise in a new millennium. Can we cast off the chains and fetters of old fantasy, of sick dreaming, of unimaginable wallowing in fears and horrors and pointless submission to oppression? It seems clear to the rational person of some balanced educated consideration, that, all can be seen and known through modern variations and developments of the microscope and the telescope, in all amazing ways and forms. There is no Big Bugger with a Beard, infesting the clouds. The rocks, trees, streams and darkness are free of images of horribles and unimaginables. There is no god supreme out of super hero comic books, Mecca, Rome, Delhi, Beijing, Hollywood, Wall St. the Pentagon, Putin’s date or any supernatural crevice. They all “know” that every other superstition is wrong, every other god is false, because they Hate, which is the real stuff of superstitious religion. If all the “others” are wrong, you should work out that you are too. I’ve known blokes who absolutely worship pies, pussy, pilsener, punting and pornomaniacal possessiveness, because it all beats being browbeaten by beat up bestial bullshit. The would be cunning stunts of turbulent turds abusing religion for selfish careerist purposes is vomitously sickening…

  6. Andrew J. Smith

    Interesting especially when Australia is a very secular nation, not dissimilar to the UK and Europe, but informed and following the theocratic US Koch GOP political modus operandi, masquerading as culture and belief; although backgrounded by research in Oz several years ago claiming both MPs and media are more Christian than broader Oz society.

    Nancy Maclean or Jane Mayer said that the GOP with Koch Network assistance was forming conservative voter coalitions round motley crews, focused upon Christianity, conspiracy theories and fear; if focus was on Buchanan’s ‘public choice theory’ i.e. radical right libertarian socioeconomics promoted by Koch think tanks nobody would vote for the GOP.

    This includes aggressive promotion of mainstream, conservative and evangelical forms of Christianity, presumably with an eye on ageing, less educated, less diverse and regional electorates (aka simplistic US midwest conservatives vs. coast elites).

    More recently Katherine Stewart in ‘The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism’ (2020) goes further in Good Reads review:

    ‘…reveals a disturbing truth: America’s Religious Right has evolved into a Christian nationalist movement. It seeks to gain political power and impose its vision on society. It isn’t fighting a culture war; it is waging a political war on the norms and institutions of American democracy.

    Stewart shows that the real power of the movement lies in a dense network of think tanks, advocacy groups, and pastoral organizations, embedded in a rapidly expanding community of international alliances with like-minded, anti-democratic religious nationalists around the world, including Russia.’

  7. RosemaryJ36

    There is only one valid and realistic rule for life – hurt no one by treating others as you would they should treat you.

  8. wam

    we are christian whether we like it or not and christian controllers have often won elections.
    The far right have the flag, the cross and the women as women trilogy emblazoned on their campaign slogans.
    As for stats our politicians are selected by less than 0.001% of the electorate
    rosemary 1936 is close but this gov and the majority of australians puts its beliefs foremost and treats people as they think people will treat them.
    Go to a christmas dinner and watch the greedy who fear they will miss out pile up their plates and try to hide their waste.

  9. BB


    The sheer waste just appalls me.
    Rank materialism, pushed to the extreme by rank advertising, all geared towards profit for profit’s sake, and then as you so pointedly say, folks try to hide the waste! Your christmas dinner is an excellent example…

    It greatly saddens me that so many people around the world needlessly starve, whilst humongous stinking rubbish tips fill up ‘overnight’ and become an environmental nightmare.
    The world is overrun with the pollution cause by all the sheer waste and the throw away mentality excess of western gluttony.

    But hey we have a ‘beaut’ FAT society now where on the weekends, the boys enjoy “big toys”, and women at their feet…

    My simple philosophy in life is.. “waste not, want not”.
    I agree with RosemaryJ36, but who actually follows such ethics in today’s fast paced lifestyles. (0.001% of the electorate?)

    Planned obsolescence should be a crime. But it’s lauded as the pinnacle of business success, to generate unlimited profit!

    Why do mobile phones only last 2 or 3 years before the need to buy the latest model… Just one example of the zillions!

    In the old days things were made to last many lifetimes, not necessarily items of great value, but everyday items..
    Now they have become greatly sought after by collectors, who sell them for extraordinary amounts of money… LOL…

    Nowadays crap quantity is in ‘fashion’ and real quality is only for those who are wealthy!

    Indeed the main culprits are capitalists, élites, religious RWNJ mobs of wannabe controllers and despots. Morrison &co…
    Their modus operandi is… Privatise the profits. Socialise the losses.

    (Woops… I’d better stop here as I may end up “ranting”… 😁)

  10. Consume Less

    Well said Meredith, I agree wholeheartedly.

  11. wam

    you have the knowledge and can rant to show your anger anytime you like. My weakness is raving to show my frustration at being unable to express what I see.
    The demos in darwin are led by religion and incited by clp stirrers with themes of ‘this is not our government’.
    In melb the opposition are prominent.
    Current lie $1b for action is $500m from chrissie and $500m from private investment.

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