What do the census findings on religious belief tell us?
There was a flurry of articles after the last census results came out about the demise of institutional religion, Christianity in particular. The data showed that just 44% of Australians now identify as Christian, down from 52% in the last census. And on the flip side, 39% of the population now identify as non-religious. The move away from reported Christian faith has been happening for a while but has accelerated over the last decade. Quite a few commentators raked over the entrails of these results in an effort to discern what it all meant.
Some writers focus on the disenchantment of young people with institutional religion to exemplify the drift away from Christianity. But researchers from the National Church Life Survey point out the findings are a bit more nuanced that that. They note other NCLS research which shows that young adults aged 18-34 years are the most frequent attenders at religious services. One in three of that age group (32%) attend services at least once a month. The least attending group is actually 50-64 years olds (only 11% attend once a month or more). The neglect or outright complicity of the church in institutional abuse of children is seen to have undermined faith and trust in religion. Sydney Anglican Minister Michael Jensen agrees this behaviour has eroded the church’s moral authority. But he also sees a loss of trust and confidence in institutions of all kinds– political parties, banks, trade unions as well as churches. He makes a distinction between belief in God and active spirituality, with religious affiliation. Anecdotally, he claims that people are still open to things spiritual, are intrigued by the person and teachings of Jesus and still look for meaning beyond the routines of work and consumption. There is some support for this perception from other NCLS research, which shows that 40% of Australians think it is part of the church’s role to give meaning and direction to life and 51% believing it should encourage good morals.
Journalist Stan Grant views the Census results through a broader and more historical lens. He sees the decline in Christian belief as part of a widespread drift in the west away from religion to other forms of faith and identity. He traces the evolution to secularism back to the time of the enlightenment and its division between the immanent (the world of politics and the social order) and the transcendent (the world of spirituality and religion). He agrees the church has been stripped of moral authority by the scandal of child sexual abuse and has alienated others by its position on issues like divorce, abortion and same sex relationships. But he also argues secularisation runs the risk of replacing the sacred with the cult of individualism, an ugly nationalism and a soulless consumerism. He quotes historian Tim Stanley who writes that across the west, “there is a dearth of purpose and spirit: we can’t agree on who we are or what we are about, or even if these big existential questions matter”.
Peter Senge, the systems scientist who became a guru of organisational learning was once asked at a large US Christian ministers conference, why books on Buddhism outsold books on Christianity in a certain bookshop. He responded that perhaps it was because Christianity presented itself largely as a system of beliefs, while Buddhism was seen more as a way of life. He advised the ministers at the conference to rediscover and help others rediscover Christianity as a way of life. It’s interesting that the earliest Christian creed was simply “Jesus is Lord” (no separation of the transcendent from the immanent there) and that the first Christians called themselves “Followers of the Way”. Perhaps the challenge and opportunity for the Christian churches from these latest census results, is to be less institutionally focussed and be more concerned with following the way of Jesus, or in the words of the prophet Micah, “to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God”.
Jon O’Brien, Uniting Advocacy team