Media release: Politicians overestimate power of religion in voting behaviour, says new ‘Religiosity in Australia’ report

Meredith Doig / 15 December 2022

Politicians and political parties overestimate the power of religion as a driver of Australians’ voting behaviour, a new report into religiosity in Australia reveals.

The Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) has today published the latest instalment of Neil Francis’ landmark Religiosity in Australia research series, with Part 3 – Religion and politics – providing a fresh picture of the relationship between religion and how Australians are likely to vote on a range of issues.

Download the report here.

Drawing on gold-standard Australian university datasets, peer-reviewed scientific literature and government reports, Francis uncovers voting behaviour that seems to correlate with religious faith but has, in fact, little to do with religion. Such behaviour is driven by other factors.

In the report, Francis finds:

  • Political parties with an overt religious flavour are unlikely to win votes in Australia
  • Australians are becoming more socially progressive, making it more difficult for social conservatives to win power…
  • Yet, the most polarising factor among Australia’s remaining religionists is highly conservative attitudes toward sexual expression and gender roles.

Francis shows that, over the last 20 years or so (1996-2019), Australians who identify as socially progressive have more than doubled, from 20 per cent of the population to 42 per cent. Over the same period, religious moderates have decreased significantly (53 per cent to 32 per cent of the population), and religious conservatives have halved (15 per cent to 7 per cent of the population). 

“This spells difficult times ahead for parties and operatives who promote conservative social agendas, and especially so for conservative religio-social agendas,” he writes.

“This makes pursuing socially conservative policies a risky political proposition indeed for the major parties, and possibly for many of the minor ones… Advancing conservative social agendas will become harder over time.”

The report finds religiosity in Australia is declining even more than the headline national Census figures suggest. The census religion question is biased, assuming the person has a religion: ‘What is the person’s religion?’ Francis shows this bias causes the rate of religious affiliation to be at least 13 per cent higher than the real rate.

Correcting for this bias, as well as for non-responses, the real number of ‘Nones’ in Australia (those with no religion) is already more than half the population (55 per cent) – much more than the census headline figure of 39 per cent.

In a foreword to the report, media personality Andrew Denton comments on how religion and religiosity do not automatically translate to conservative social attitudes.

“Perhaps most strikingly, only 5 per cent of Australians say that religion has a significant influence on their voting intentions. Eighty-six per cent say religion doesn’t influence their vote ‘at all’,” he writes.

Dr Meredith Doig, president of the RSA, says the multi-volume Religiosity in Australia series is an invaluable tool, based on data and analysis, not mere opinion.

“In a genuinely secular society, there should be freedom of religion and belief, but not domination of one religion over any other worldview. This series investigates and clarifies the truth about the role of religion in Australia and how religious Australians actually are. The series provides a standard go-to resource for anyone interested in freedom of religion and belief in this country.”

Part 1 of the series – Personal faith according to the numbers – reveals the level of support for religion in Australia has for years been significantly misrepresented, and the views of senior religious clerics are out of touch with those they purport to lead.

Part 2 of the series – Religious minds, religious collectives – provides unique insights into Australians’ journey with religious faith from childhood to adulthood. It explores the increase in the numbers of people identifying as ‘spiritual but not religious’ and the decline of trust in religious institutions and their leaders, factors that have driven people to leave their religion.

Dr Doig said “Political parties with visible links to conservative religion — whether real or imagined — are doomed to repeat electoral mistakes of the past… not just the Coalition, but also specifically religious parties like Cori Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives, which folded in two years after multiple election failures.”

All the more reason.