A recent survey conducted on behalf of the Rationalist Association of New South Wales and the Humanist Society of Queensland has found that only 14 per cent of Australians were influenced by their religious beliefs the last time they voted.
In a press release issued on 9 September 2015, representatives of the two organisations express their doubts about the political strength of the religious vote and the idea that politicians must “live in fear” of it.
Max Wallace, the Vice-President of the Rationalist Association of NSW, said that the results cast doubt on the notion of an influential, across-the-board Christian, or Catholic, first preference vote in Australia. Wallace said, “It does not automatically follow that a majority of Catholics, say, in various electorates, will vote as one for political parties whose policies echo those of the church.”
He added: “I suggest the widespread indifference to religion when voting, squares with what we know about Australians’ support for voluntary euthanasia, gay marriage, and their very low, regular church attendance.”
The President of the Humanist Society of Queensland, Ron Williams, said that there might be electorates in Queensland with a statistically significant cohort of evangelicals and Pentecostal voters. These could make a second preference difference in a marginal seat, but that was not certain and would depend on how marginal the seat was.
A breakdown of the survey results shows that 5 per cent of respondents said they were “very much” influenced by their religion, while 9 per said they were “somewhat” influenced.
Another 60 per cent said they were not influenced at all, while 26 per cent said that the question was not applicable to them. Among Catholics, the “not influenced at all” group was 84 per cent. However, there was more indication of influence from Muslims and from Pentecostal, evangelical, and fundamentalist Protestant Christians.
It would be useful to have more data before drawing strong conclusions as to whether there has been any electoral impact from religious views on, for example, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, or abortion rights. I don’t discount the possibility of some impact, since even a small number of votes can make a difference to finely balanced results. At the same time, even people who are influenced by religious beliefs need not feel pushed to oppose (say) euthanasia and same-sex marriage. Some religious voters might, for example, be influenced to support government programs that ameliorate the effects of poverty.
Overall, the survey suggests that religious beliefs play only a minor role in voting at Australian elections. If so, the degree of solicitude shown to the religious lobby by Australian political leaders may be out of proportion to its ability to deliver votes.
At a more philosophical level, it appears that most Australian voters, whether or not they are personally religious, are secular in the sense of supporting secular government. From my viewpoint, that is pleasing news. It suggests that most Australian voters do not embrace a model of politics in which the government chooses the “correct” religion (and religious morality).
The survey data tends to confirm that most religious people in Australia - as well as most nonbelievers - accept the government’s role as one of providing worldly protections and benefits. For most Australians, otherworldly concepts to do with sinning against God, spiritual salvation, and the like, are private matters - they have little, if any, role in secular politics.