The Church is “no longer the power in the land we once were”, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane has said in response to the 2021 Census results, which saw Christian identification drop below 50 per cent of the Australian population.
The Catholic Church remained the largest Christian denomination, with 20% of all Australians identifying as Catholic.
“It’s been clear for some time that the Church is no longer the power in the land we once were,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
“But we remain a large minority engaged far and wide in service of the community,” including in education, social services, health and aged care – as well as parish life.
“Almost half the population still identify as Christian, which means that Jesus is very much part of the mix in the Australian soul.
“That means his will remain [sic] a key voice as we work together to shape the life of the nation into the future.”
Archbishop Coleridge’s remarks, published on the media blog of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, also included praise for migrant Catholics who have “greatly enriched” the Church in Australia.
Humanists, atheists celebrate shrinking Christian population
Reactions to the census data in the Australian media have largely echoed Archbishop Coleridge’s reflections, with secular humanist organisations celebrating the shrinking Christian share of the population.
“Put simply, society has changed,” Neidi Nicholl, the CEO of Humanists Australia, wrote in an op-ed for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.
“It is time we acknowledge it is perfectly possible to be ethical, compassionate and to live a life of meaning without any supernatural beliefs.
“It is also clear that it is time to rethink and reconsider all of the many ways in which the Australian state privileges religious institutions, such as the former Morrison government’s proposed religious discrimination bill, which would have allowed the religious to exclude the secular in certain settings including schools.”
ABC journalist and atheist Phillip Adams tweeted: “Coming to our sensus in the census … religion continues to destroy religion”.
The organisers of the “Census No Religion” umbrella campaign of secular and atheist organisations issued a release calling for Christian traditions in Australia’s public institutions to be wound back.
“At the opening of each day in all state parliaments and in the federal parliament, everyone in attendance is asked to stand for a Christian prayer ritual. This also happens at hundreds of local governments across the country,” campaign organiser Michael Dove said.
“Clearly, as a significant and growing number of Australians say they do not have a religion, it is untenable and wrong for our parliaments and local governments to be imposing prayer rituals as part of their official proceedings.
“The same is the case for some of our most important national commemorations, such as Anzac Day. Instead of dawn services resembling Christian church services, they should be secular and welcoming of all people, religious and non-religious alike.
“The ABC is another example of a place where non-religious voices are marginalised. The ABC has a large stable of religious and spiritual programs but not one focusing on the secular or non-religious viewpoint.”
Census data obscures more complex story
NCLS research, the premier religious research firm that runs the National Church Life Survey and Australian Community Survey, said that while religious affiliation may be falling the story is more complex.
“We go wrong if we confuse this identity statement with how ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ people are,” Dr Ruth Powell, Director of NCLS Research, said.
The more nuanced 2021 Australian Community Survey results show that more than half of Australians (55%) say they believe in God, six in ten pray or meditate, and two in ten (21%) attend religious services at least monthly.
Dr Powell said, “We were able to conclude that people who identified as having no religious affiliation still had spiritual or religious lives.”
Conservative lobby group FamilyVoice Australia claimed the census results were flawed because the “religion” option was voluntary.
“The Census released by the ABS has failed to reflect true religiosity in Australia,” spokesman Greg Bondar said.
“If you have a census that does not mandate the ticking of “Religion” you will end up with ia [sic] skewed result that does not reflect faith in Australia.
“The ABS must mandate in the next Census the compulsory ‘ticking’ of ‘religion’ if a true and fair view of faith is to be reflected.
“The data for religion is needed for the planning of future infrastructure of churches, faith schools, faith hospitals, and faith aged care centres.
“The time has come to counter the anti-religion campaign which advocated against the ticking of the religion option in the Census.”
Dr David Gruen AO, the Australian Statistician, said 93 per cent of Australians answered the religion question, an increase from 2021.