Through the kindness of my Baylor University colleague Bernard Doherty, I have been looking at the findings of the latest Australian census on religion. Even if you have no specialist interest in that part of the world, it’s a fascinating document, because it shows how a traditionally Christian country (divided fairly equally on Protestant-Catholic lines) has diversified massively, and developed a significant community who frankly deny any faith tradition whatever.
Out of a population of 21.5 million, Christianity claims the allegiance of just 61 percent of Australians, a figure that has declined rapidly in recent years. The largest single group of all is the 5.4 million Catholic Christians, but the runner-up, remarkably, is the 4.8 million of “no religion.” This group alone accounts for 22 percent of all Australians. By the way, those Christian numbers only refer to self-description, and make no claim at all about attendance or participation.Not surprisingly, given the country’s recent history of immigration, “Other” religions are well represented. Between them, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus comprise six percent of Australia’s population, a far larger minority than in the United States. Still, though, the numbers are so small as to make nonsense of any claims that either Islam or the Asian religions is somehow poised to sweep the country. We won’t be seeing a Caliphate in Canberra any time soon.
The real story here, in my view, is Australia’s very marked movement to a strongly European pattern of secularization. In its religious coloring at least, the United States looks ever more isolated in the traditional Western Christian world.