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Sydney Catholic Schools’ survey of religious attitudes and practices – what has it revealed?

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Sydney Catholic Schools
Director of the Mission and Identity Directorate at Sydney Catholic Schools Anthony Cleary

Proposed changes to the 2026 national census are a cause of concern. Specifically, the modification of the question relating to religious affiliation could result in indecipherable and ambiguous responses and a lowering of the response rate.

The proposed format also makes a longitudinal analysis more difficult.

The same cannot be said for the Survey of Religious Attitudes and Practices conducted by Sydney Catholic Schools. This is a biennial survey involving students in Years 5, 7, 9 and 11.

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Introduced in 2014, the survey has maintained the same format and the same questions. It provides a deep understanding of the ‘religiosity’ of young people.

Some 20,000 students have just completed this year’s survey. Past results are consistent, and they point to four main sub-groups of young people: committed, involved, searching and disengaged.

Committed students had a highly developed religiosity, characterised by a strong commitment to their faith.

They were actively involved in church life, especially through regular worship. They valued the place of personal prayer in their daily lives. Committed students felt comfortable in discussing their religious beliefs with others.

Sydney Catholic School - The Catholic Weekly
Anthony Cleary talks to students and parents at the Ramsay Scholarship presentation. PHOTO: Alponsus Fok

While already religiously active, their religious commitment was strengthened by the support of their peers, and this was emotionally rewarding for them.

Involved students valued the importance of religion and recognised that involvement in Church life should characterise the living out of one’s faith.

Notwithstanding this, they were not always regular in their religious practices, especially in their Mass attendance.

Involved students valued personal prayer and they saw that the living out of their faith primarily involved ‘following the teaching and example of Jesus’. Involved students felt comfortable talking about their faith with family and friends and many expressed an interest in knowing more about their faith.

Searching students were occasionally involved in the practice of their faith, both through communal worship and personal prayer.

As a group they viewed religion as being of some importance and considered it to be a source of personal meaning. Searching students affirmed the importance of respecting the religious beliefs of others, and they indicated an adherence to some religious teachings but not others.

Generally, searching students placed less value on belonging to a particular religious tradition and more on a personalised spirituality. Religion was viewed as important if it brought individuals a sense of meaning and purpose in life.

Disengaged students attributed little value to the importance of religion. They were rarely or never involved in Church life and gave little importance to the place of personal prayer in their daily lives.

Many disengaged students self-identified as being atheist. At the same time, many of those who expressed a belief in God showed little interest in or commitment to religious beliefs and practices.

One positive aspect identified by some was social justice/outreach. Disengaged students rarely or never spoke about religion with family and friends.

The profiles of the sub-groups provide general characteristics. Individual student responses varied, meaning that the personal religiosity of some students didn’t always correspond with a single sub-group profile.

Now, we await this year’s results.

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