Media Release: New report reveals support for religion in Australia grossly misrepresented

Meredith Doig / 11 June 2021

A new report Religiosity in Australia—Personal faith according to the numbers has revealed that the level of support for religion in Australia has been grossly misrepresented and the views of religious leaders are largely out of touch with those of the Australians they claim to represent.

Dr Meredith Doig, president of the Rationalist Society of Australia, the organisation which commissioned the report, said that despite claims religion was becoming more important in Australian politics and society, this report provided evidence to the contrary.

“Seven in ten Australians (71%) say that religion is not personally important to them, 62% say they don’t belong to any religious organisation and a further 23% say they belong but are inactive members. Only 15% of Australians say they are active members of their religious organisation.”

Launching the report, former Justice of the High Court and RSA Patron, The Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG, said it was vital that politicians and the broader community had an accurate picture of Australia’s religious views.

“Politicians who seek to reflect the patterns and trends of Australian opinions on ‘religious freedoms’ will find guidance in this report for the proper direction of contemporary laws.

“The detailed statistics paint a rich and dynamic landscape that is changing radically from the Australia of my youth. It portrays a community in the throes of substantial change.”

Dr Doig said it is widely assumed the Australian census provides a reliable headline indication of Australians’ religiosity but this is not necessarily true.

Bias in the census religion question leads to overstatement of religious affiliation on weak family historical grounds, rather than actual religious belief and practice.

“When those self-reporting a religious denomination were expressly asked if they belong to their religious organisation, more than a quarter (29%) said they didn’t, including 24% of Catholics, 44% of Anglicans, 27% of minor Christian denominations, and 45% of non-Christian denominations. A further 40% said they were inactive members.

Dr Doig also said the report reveals that the views of religious leaders on a range of key policy issues were out of touch with those of the Australians they claim to represent.

“The Catholic Bishop of Townsville, for example, wrote to all Queensland MPs to urge them to oppose voluntary assisted dying law reform on behalf of his Catholic flock, despite empirical data showing 79% of them are actually in favour of it.

Most Australians are in favour of progressive social reforms such as availability of abortion, voluntary assisted dying, marriage equality, smoking marijuana and addressing global warming.

“Indeed, support for many of these reforms continues to grow, including amongst Australia’s religious who do not endorse the opposition of their clerical leaders.”

Michael Kirby said that while the Religious Discrimination Bill remained on the Morrison Government’s agenda, the majority of Australians oppose its more damaging provisions.

“Eighty-two per cent of Australians are opposed to the expulsion of students by religious schools on the grounds of their sexual orientation and relationships. Seventy-nine per cent are also opposed to permitting such schools to dismiss teachers because of these things.

“Some Australians may believe in a God who condemns sexual minorities, although I do not.

“They may preach their beliefs in their temples; but once they enter the public space, the rights of others must also be respected and protected, and the lines of the law must be drawn accordingly.

“My entitlement to religious liberty must be accommodated to the rights of others to be themselves, to be safe and enjoy their own rights, and to hold their heads high with dignity as Australian citizens.”

Dr Doig said the report will be a valuable tool for Australia’s law makers, influencers and decision makers seeking to gain a more accurate understanding of the religious views of the Australian people.

“Legislators and governments would be wise to keep clearly in focus the real attitudes of all Australians, religious or not, rather than focusing on or favouring Australia’s most vocal religious conservatives.

“Failure to do so would not only be an affront to democratic principles but would increasingly lead to electoral backlash.”

The comprehensive report was compiled by RSA Research Fellow Neil Francis who drew on a wide range of academic research and statistical data, including studies run by expert scholars at the Australian National University: the Australian Election Study, the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes and the Australian Values Study.

All the more reason.