Did you tick 'no religion' in the census?
A whole bunch more people ticked “no religion” for the first time on the 2021 census compared to the 2016 census. Perhaps you were one of them. Or perhaps you were one of the whole bunch who ticked “no religion” for the first time in the 2016 census.
The stats have started to trickle out from the census results of last year, and as usual the results are interesting in terms of demographics, lifestyle choices, living locations, and of course things like religious affiliation.
And religious de-affiliation. The decline in Australia of those who call themselves Christian has been remarkable over the past decade. In fact the past five decades has seen a dramatic drop.
Writing earlier in the week for The Australian newspaper (prior to the census results), Peta Credlin noted that fifty years ago, 87 per cent of Australians identified as Christian compared with 51 per cent in 2016. Fast forward to this week, and Christian affiliation is down to 43% of the population according to the data. That’s a big drop off. And the decline is only set to continue.
'No Religion' has grown to around 39%, representing an 8-9% swing for both (in opposite directions) since the last census. This of course raises all sorts of questions, and some hostile ones at that, with groups like humanist societies calling for the abolition of funding for faith-based schools and the like, given the declining state of religion, particularly the Christian one.
But a closer look at the stats is more revealing. And more complex. It clearly isn’t the case that hundreds of thousands of people who were in church five years ago, and who gave money, and served in a local parish, and sang worship songs to God on a Sunday, somehow just stopped doing that. Not at all. It’s more likely that people who never did any of those things, decided that it was time to just get on and admit it in the census last year. A small stroke of the digital pen, and voila!: We’re not religious anymore. Perhaps you were one of them.
And that’s something really different altogether. I still remember as a child in the early 1970s (back when 87 per cent of us were still saying we were Christian), how few people went to church from my school. And that was a big thing for a young bloke from Northern Ireland, where not only did close to 100 per cent of people claim to be Christian, but 87 per cent went to church!
We turned up in Australia as a family, and next to no one went to church. Yet the percentage different of those who claimed to be Christian wasn’t far off the 100 of Northern Ireland. So clearly something different was going on. I mean, the number of church buildings in Australia would have needed to more than double in order to accommodate all those people who ticked “Christian”, but never showed.
So what was it? It was this: People were culturally Christian. They would walk past a church and if they even saw it, would say “that’s the church I never go to”. Oh perhaps they went there for the “hatch, match, dispatch” times in life. Maybe even Christmas and Easter. Perhaps you did that too. Perhaps you even still do, out of politeness to those who ask you.
But church back then was itchy pants and too-tight a shirt. And you couldn’t wait to get away from it. You’d tick “Christian” on the census, but apart from the occasional guest appearances, there wasn’t much more to it.
As someone who strongly identifies as Christian, I’m actually quite glad at the level of honesty that you, and others, show when you tick “no religion”. It shows were things are truly at. There’s nothing worse than being an organisation that’s in denial about the true state of affairs. It means that the Christian faith knows what it has to work with.
And perhaps it’s a bit like a footy fan who says they’re a footy fan, but never goes to the footy, never watches the footy, never plays local footy or volunteers at local footy, or even stands around the coffee machine at work on Mondays talking about the footy. I mean, can you really call yourself a footy fan at that point?
And to that you might say, exactly, and each to their own.
However Peta Credlin does offer some words of caution, words that I think we should pay careful attention to. For whether you ticked “no religion” in a casual disinterested way, or whether it’s from the hostility borne from bad church experiences, the Christian foundations of our Western culture, including here in Australia, bear up more load than many other things are capable of bearing.
"It may not be fashionable to say so, but the way we live is unimaginable without a Christian cultural foundation. Our democracy, for instance, rests on the notion that everyone is equal in rights and dignity, something that’s come down to us through the Christian gospels."
Had you thought of that? Did you know that? Or what about this?:
"Elsewhere in our culture, our justice system rests on the notion that we should treat others as we’d be treated ourselves; again, something that’s come down to us through Christian teaching. Our sense of community too rests on the notion that we should “love our neighbours as we love ourselves”. It’s a commandment that lies at the heart of our volunteerism and philanthropy."
Here’s my question. How long do you think those things that we take for granted: equality of rights and equal dignity, justice based on treating others the same, and love as the centre of community life, will survive if Christianity fades away?
Perhaps you’re confident that they will. But they’re going to have to be rebuilt (and I think this will mean that they will be redefined), on the basis of another belief system capable of holding their weight.
Another way to put it is this: the roots of the Christian faith grew a particular kind of fruit, a fruit that is not universal at all, and is indeed particularly located where the Christian tree has sprouted. British historian and writer, Tom Holland, in his book Dominion, observed that what we think are universal rights are not universal at all. The only trouble is, we’ll only find that out when those rights are gone, or at brought under question.
And here’s a final thought for you. The rise in deep anxieties, worry, loneliness and mental health issues in the West has corresponded with the collapse in religious faith. Is it causation? Or is it correlation. The optimist in you would say “correlation”, but can you be so sure? Seems to me that the real crisis in our culture is a crisis of meaning.
In a world in which “you do you” and “be true to yourself”, the end result is that when you fail to do you the way you wish to, or when being true to yourself results in a trainwreck, there is only one person to blame – you!
Because here’s what else you lose when you lose the Christian faith: grace. Grace and forgiveness. We increasingly inhabit a public life on social media in which gracelessness and unforgiveness are central. Do the wrong thing, say the wrong thing, write the wrong thing, and you’re cancelled. There’s no safety net of grace in our culture.
True, we can live off the fumes of Christianity for a few more decades, but the car will stall on the side of the freeway eventually. And when it does, and if it does so for you, perhaps there’ll be a census some time in the future (maybe 2026, maybe 2031), when you hover the digital pen over the religious question, and ask yourself, what might it be like to tick “Christian” again?