Surge in non-religious Australia unsettling for some media, webinar told

Si Gladman / 29 September 2023

Significant sections of the Australian media are responding to the rapid rise in non-religious identification with concern, defensiveness and fear, the latest RSA Webinar has heard.

At Wednesday’s webinar, guest speaker, Dr Rebecca Banham shared insights from her project analysing the media’s response to the 2021 Census results, in which the proportion of Australian society marking ‘No religion’ surged to almost 40 per cent and Christianity plummeted to below 50 per cent.

Although she stressed that her findings did not form a representative study, Dr Banham, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at University of Tasmania, said she detected an underlying message of concern among not just loud conservative media but also mainstream media.

“I did notice a really interesting theme of concern, of defensiveness and, potentially, fear,” she said.

“The clearest examples of concern expressed this sense that the Census revealed something unsettling. But there was also this sense that Christianity is still important. It was like, ‘Something’s gone really wrong, but, it’s okay, Christianity will bounce back.’ There was a really interesting tension there.”

Dr Banham said that another key theme that she had detected in the media’s reporting on the Census result was that the idea of Australians “abandoning Christianity”.

“It’s obviously very emotively based. It is this sense that [Australians are] actively turning their back and abandoning Christianity, and pushing religiosity away, and that’s a problem,” she said. 

“Obviously, that is part of how mainstream media works – to do that emotive thing. But why is that that is what we’re trying to emote – the idea that religiosity/Christianity is being abandoned, rather than a shift away?”

Dr Banham said non-religious people face the difficulty in having their voices heard in a monopolised media landscape and where a sense of Christian privilege underpinned a vocal conservative media. 

“What I found really interesting about it is that media responses – and, in this case, media responses to the Census – are driven by narratives. And they’re driven by narratives that work for certain reasons. We know that the Australian media landscape is thoroughly monolopised. So why is it that those narratives work? What is being pushed forward and why, and by whom? And which voices are amplified over other voices?”

In her project – carried out as part of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and published on its blog – she found that much of the commentary suggested erroneously that those who marked ‘No religion’ were atheist, anti-religious and lacking something. 

By grounding the response in a negative way – having ‘no religion’ – the Census failed to capture how people really identify, she said.

“To say that you have no religion is only a small part of who someone is, and also only a small part of how they think about themselves as an ethical being and ontologically – like who they see themselves as, where they come from, what sort of things to do and also other people they relate to. All these things have often been, historically, the domain of religious doctrine or stories.”

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Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.

All the more reason.