Image: The cathedral of Saint Stephens in Brisbane city. Credit: Alban Vinevel.

What does it mean to have religious faith in Australia today?

A century ago 96 per cent of Australians identified as Christian and religion was a prominent factor of civic life, but things changed significantly.

‘One of the unintended consequences of Australia’s massive program of migration has been the emergence of a very religiously plural society’ writes Gary Bouma.

During the later part of the 20th century religious diversity grew substantially, as did the number of people without religion.

Both of these trends have since accelerated rapidly to the point that almost three in ten Australians are either not religious or don’t identify their religious status, meanwhile, the number of Hindus more than doubled in the ten years from 1996-2006 and almost doubled again in the next five years. Islam, Buddhism and other non-Christian religions are also experiencing strong growth.

Changes in religious demographics in Australia from 1901-2011. Statistics courtesy of the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Credit: Ursula Skjonnemand.

Changes in religious demographics in Australia from 1901-2011. Statistics courtesy of the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Credit: Ursula Skjonnemand.

Although Christianity remains the dominant belief system in Australia, its civic voice has faded significantly, arguably disproportionately.

Even Christianity’s biggest annual celebration, that of the birth of Jesus, has largely disappeared from public life. The transformation from Christ-mas Holy Day to Christmas holiday is now almost complete; appropriated by retailers and families and accepted as a secular ritual available to all (interestingly it was first Christians who appropriated the date of Christmas, December 25, from Pagans).

However increased diversity hasn’t necessarily improved acceptance of non-Christian faiths and practices as the Freedom of religion and belief in 21st century Australia report reveals.

The 2011 report to the Australian Human Rights Commission found that there was continuing discrimination against religious minorities, that some people expressed ‘significant distrust’ of Muslims, there was some ‘prejudice and hostility’ toward gay people, and that people of Pagan faiths suffered ‘high levels of prejudice and discrimination’.

The report found that ‘there is a need to develop appropriate responses to the unique and varied Australian religious contexts and settings, including ancient Indigenous traditions, Christian heritages, and minority faith communities’.

It is in this spirit that CitizenJ is partnering with the Griffith University Multi-Faith Centre to bring together leaders from a range of faiths, as well as those without religion, to write about what ‘religion and faith in the modern era’ means to them.

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The Emergence of Religious Plurality in Australia: A Multicultural Society by Gary D Bouma, 1995 (library e-services card required for access) 

2006 Year Book Australia by the Australian Bureau of Statistics 

Census data 2001, 2006

Census data 2011 

The Freedom of religion and belief in 21st century Australia report to the Australian Human Rights Commission prepared by Professors Gary Bouma and Desmond Cahill, Dr Hass Dellal and Athalia Zwartz

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.

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