The 2021 Australian census reveals that the percentage of people identifying as Christian has fallen below 50% for the first time, a drop of 17 percentage points over the past 10 years. At the same time, the number of people who describe themselves as “non-religious” has increased.
The diversity of religions identified by Australians is increasing, “reflecting continuing changes in our social attitudes and belief systems,” the Australian Bureau of Statistics said in a statement.
While Christianity remains the most widespread religion in the Oceania country, with 43.9% identifying as Christian, it is down from 52.1% in 2016 and 61.1% in 2011.
The Sydney Morning Herald noted that 96% of Australians listed some form of Christianity as their religion in the first census of 1911.
The largest Christian denomination remains Catholic, with 20%, followed by Anglican with 9.8%.
Almost four in 10 Australians (38.9%) said they had “no religion” in the 2021 census, up from around 30% in 2016 and 22.3% in 2011.
In the mid-1960s, less than 1% of Australians identified as having no religion, according to The Herald.
“The question of religion occupies a special place in the census – it is one of the few topics that has been in each of Australia’s 18 censuses and it is the only question that is voluntary,” said Australian statistician David Gruen. “Although we are voluntary, we have seen an increase in the proportion of people answering the question, from 91% in 2016 to 93% in 2021.”
Gruen said religious affiliation or identifying data is essential because “it supports local planning of facilities, goods and services for Australians who identify as religious and help them to live according to their beliefs”.
Census data also showed that other religions are growing but continue to make up a small proportion of the population. Hinduism grew by 55.3%, to 684,002 people or 2.7% of the population. Islam grew to 813,392 people, or 3.2% of Australia’s population.
The trend is similar to the shift in religious demographics in the United States, where fewer Americans identify as religious and more identify as non-religious, a trend called the rise of “non-religious.” The decline in religiosity comes as many churches and denominations have faced years of declining membership and traditional Christian beliefs about sexuality, marriage and gender are increasingly at odds with cultural trends. .
Interpreting the data, Renae Barker, a senior lecturer at the University of Western Australia, wrote in an op-ed that between 2016 and 2021, “Australia has seen a monumental shift in what could be widely seen as moral laws”.
“In December 2017, the definition of marriage was officially changed to be the union of two people voluntarily contracted for life, regardless of gender,” she wrote. “But marriage equality is just the tip of the iceberg. Euthanasia and abortion laws have also been reformed in the five years between censuses.”
She noted that there was also an ongoing debate about freedom of religion, particularly with regard to discrimination by religious schools.
“On the one hand, some religious schools argue that they must be able to maintain their unique religious identity, particularly when this is out of step with mainstream beliefs,” Barker wrote. “On the other hand, LGBTQ+ groups, in particular, say discrimination is harmful and no longer acceptable in modern Australia.”
There needs to be a balanced law on religious discrimination, she concluded, adding that the conversation about it must include “those of minority faiths, those of majority Christian faith and those of no faith.”