The 2021 census data released this week shows that, for the first time, a majority of Australians do not identify as Christians. This continues a trend of steep drops in Christian identification at the census — from 74 per cent in 1991, to 61 per cent in 2011, to 52 per cent in 2016, to 44 per cent now. What is going on?
There has always been a large gap between Christian identification and Christian practice in Australia. While 88 per cent of Australians identified as Christians in the 1966 census, only 25 per cent reported attending church services regularly in 1970. The 2016 National Church Life Survey (NCLS) found that of people who identified with the country’s three largest Christian denominations, just 11 per cent of Catholics went to church on a weekly basis, along with 10 per cent of Uniting Church identifiers and 5 per cent of Anglicans.
Even accounting for those who go to services less often, a good deal of Christian identification in Australia is essentially cultural. Many Australians identify with the churches of their parents or grandparents. About one in five children attend Catholic schools, and Catholicism connects some of the country’s largest migrant groups with their cultural heritage. The Anglican Church’s connections to the British Empire gave it an important role in Australia’s historical identity.
Surveys do not indicate huge drops in religious activity in recent years. The World Values Survey shows a modest decline in Australian regular service attendance from 14 to 13 per cent since 2005. Some Christian groups such as Pentecostals are enjoying considerable growth, and according to the NCLS overall service attendance has slightly increased since 2016. Instead, it seems likely that increasing numbers of religiously uninvolved Australians no longer identify in the census with the Christianity of their family backgrounds, while many younger people are entering the census with no such backgrounds to begin with.
Australians indicating “no religion” in the census are now 39 per cent of the population, up from 22 per cent in 2011 and 30 per cent in 2016. The rapid growth in religious “nones” is not just an Australian phenomenon. Although the United States has much higher levels of religious devotion than Australia, American survey data also shows a rise in religious non-affiliation mirroring a fall in Christian identification. In 2007, the Pew Research Center found that 78 per cent of American adults identified as Christians while 16 per cent indicated no religion. In 2021, Christian identifiers had dropped to 63 per cent while people of no religion had risen to 29 per cent. During this period the number of self-declared atheists rose from 2 per cent to 4 per cent, but the number calling themselves “nothing in particular” rose from 12 per cent to 20 per cent.
In the United States, religious and political identity are closely linked. Some social scientists argue that the increasing association between Christianity and right-wing politics has driven younger and more liberal people away from Christian identification. Religiously unaffiliated Americans overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party, so much so that in 2019 the Democratic National Committee passed a resolution recognising the “value, ethical soundness and importance of the religiously unaffiliated demographic”.
In Australia, it is possible that the prominence of conservative Christian politicians like Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison has also turned some left-leaning people away from identifying as Christians. But there is no data I know of to test this hypothesis, and the relationship between religious and political affiliation is complicated in Australia. In the 2017 plebiscite on marriage equality, 11 out of the 17 federal electorates to record “no” majorities were Labor-held, most by large margins in very multicultural suburbs. Despite Morrison’s appeals to religious conservatives, only one of these Labor seats — Melbourne’s Calwell — saw a swing to the Coalition in the 2022 election.
If the political causes of declining Christian identification are unclear, the political consequences are more obvious. In nine years of Coalition government, bookended by two of the most devoutly Christian Prime Ministers in Australian history, Australia’s laws around marriage, abortion, and euthanasia all moved further away from traditional Christian positions. Most Coalition MPs voted to allow same-sex couples to marry, along with every Labor MP. Abortion laws were liberalised in Queensland, New South Wales, and South Australia, the latter two under Coalition governments. Scott Morrison refused to get involved in the abortion debate in his home state despite his personal opposition to abortion. In New South Wales, the devoutly Catholic Premier Dominic Perrottet allowed members of his party a conscience vote on voluntary assisted dying, which passed a few days before the federal election. Conservative Christians can get elected to the highest offices in Australian politics, but once they get there they are constrained by Australia’s political realities.
Unlike their American counterparts, conservative Christian politicians in Australia cannot appeal to a sense of Christian nationhood. Research I published in 2021 showed how even Christians no longer tend to see Australia as a Christian country. As recently as 2008, the Human Rights Commission’s Review of Freedom of Religion and Belief was inundated with submissions arguing that Australia is a Christian nation. But in the 2017-18 Parliamentary Review of Religious Freedom, I could find just four such assertions out of 15,500 public submissions. Neither Morrison nor Abbott ever publicly called Australia a Christian country. In 2008, Abbott described Australia as “relentlessly secular”.
After the marriage plebiscite, the shift among conservative Christians to a focus on “religious freedom” reflects increased awareness of their minority status. There have been many previous attempts in Australia to enshrine and expand religious freedom in law. Until recently, these attempts were opposed by most of the country’s largest churches and its conservative Christian lobbyists, who saw religious freedom as a vehicle for empowering secularists and religious minorities. Now that they recognise themselves as a minority, these groups see themselves as increasingly vulnerable to discrimination. But as the Morrison government discovered, it is very difficult to write legislation against “religious discrimination” that satisfies everyone, given that it means both discrimination against and discrimination by religious groups.
The 2021 census has confirmed what most Christians already knew about their minority standing in Australia, reflected in the words and actions of its Christian politicians. Rather than showing a steep decline in Christianity, it shows a long-term realignment between how people live and how they identify. Christianity no longer supplies the broad sense of identity it once did for many Australians, and this limits the political influence of Christian churches and actors — even if it continues to matter greatly to the lives of millions of politically diverse Australians.