Australians have an increasingly complex, yet relatively peaceful, relationship with religion

Identifying as not being religious is increasingly common in Australia, as is belonging to a minority religion. Shutterstock

When it comes to religion, Australia is a nation of contrasts. We are a secular nation, yet acknowledge god in our Constitution. We are becoming less religious yet more religiously diverse. Our parliament contains those of many faiths and those who would ban people from coming to Australia based on their faith. We are a country of contrasts – and that is a good thing.

Officially, Australia is a secular country. Section 116 of the Australian Constitution prohibits the federal government from creating a state church.

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

At the same time, the preamble of the Australian Constitution begins with these words:

WHEREAS the people of … humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God…

Which god isn’t specified. But as Patrick Glynn commented during the constitutional convention debates:

[The words] will, I think, recommend the Constitution to thousands to whom the rest of its provisions may forever be a sealed book.

The same might be said of section 116.

A similar contrast can be seen in the census data on the religiosity of Australians. The census asks participants to state their religion. The answers reveal that while on the one hand Australians are becoming less religious, on the other they are becoming more religiously diverse.

In the 2011 census, 68.3% of people identified themselves as having a religion. This was down from 69.5% in 2006.

Christianity makes up the largest percentage but has been in decline for some time. At the first census in 1901, Christians made up 96.1% of the population. This had dropped to 89.4% by 1964, and to 70.9% by 1996. The proportion of Christians in the population has continued to shrink in the 21st century, slipping from 68.6% in 2001 to 61.1% in 2011.

By contrast, the percentage of the population identifying with minority faiths has grown. Looking just at the 21st century, the proportion of Buddhists has grown from 1.8% of the population in 2001 to 2.5% in 2011. Hindus increased from 0.5% in 2001 to 1.3% in 2011, while the proportion of Muslims rose from 1.5% in 2001 to 2.2% in 2011.

Those identifying as having no religion have similarly increased from 15.2% in 2001 to 22.3% in 2011. The 2016 Census results aren’t in yet, but, if past trends continue, we would expect to see further increases in those claiming no religion and being of minority faiths.

However, the census does not tell the whole story. It cannot tell us how often a person attends a church, mosque, synagogue or temple. It cannot tell us how often a person prays or performs some other religious ritual.

The National Church Life Survey indicates that around 15% of Australians attend church at least once a month. While this is a lot less than the 61.1% who identified as Christians in the census, it is still a significant number – it is more than the average monthly attendance of AFL, NRL, A-League and Super Rugby during the football season. This figure also does not take into account those who may attend church once or twice a year for special celebrations such as Christmas or Easter, those who practise a non-Christian religion, and those who choose to practise their faith in the privacy of their own home.

In politics, too, a contrast can be seen. Our federal parliamentarians include Australia’s first Egyptian-born female Muslim member of parliament in Dr Anne Aly, alongside those who call for a halt to immigration by Muslims in Pauline Hanson.

In her maiden speech to Parliament Aly talked positively about her upbringing in a religiously diverse Australia:

Coming from a practising Muslim household, I would read from the Bible and sing hymns at morning chapel service while fasting for the holy month of Ramadan and celebrating the holy days of Eid. When I asked my mother what I should do during chapel service when we read the Lord’s Prayer, she responded that I should also bow my head in prayer and remember that we all worship the same god.

In contrast, Hanson spoke of her fear that “we are in danger of being swamped by Muslims, who bear a culture and ideology that is incompatible with our own”. She insisted that those who come to Australian must accept “Australian” values:

If you are not prepared to become Australian and give this country your undivided loyalty, obey our laws, respect our culture and way of life, then I suggest you go back where you came from. If it would be any help, I will take you to the airport and wave you goodbye with sincere best wishes.

While we may individually agree or disagree with Hanson or Aly, the fact that both women and both views can exist side by side is testament to the strength of our democracy. The plurality of Australia’s religious beliefs is testament to the strength of religious freedom Australians enjoy. While the Constitution may be a little confused on the issues of religion, it speaks to all – those of faith and those of none.

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