Nonreligious ‘Nones’ On A Roll in Secularizing Australia

Nonreligious ‘Nones’ On A Roll in Secularizing Australia October 25, 2018
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“Saint George” mural of late gay singer George Michael that had been defaced by angry Christians in Melbourne, Australia. (JAM Project, Flikr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

People in the West have been moving away from religion for decades now, and the secular exodus is clearly accelerating.

But in some places, like Australia, the faith-leaving seems to be moving at closer to warp speed.

For example, in June 2017, National Geographic magazine reported that 10-year census data released in 2016 showed that while the number of Australian Christians had held steady for a few years at about 52 percent of the population, it previously plummeted from 88 percent to 74 percent over the quarter century from 1966 to 1991. Also during the latest census period, the proportion of Australians who checked the “no religion” box jumped from 22.6 percent to a whopping 29.6 percent.

For the faithful, it is certainly a concerning slide. But it’s even worse than it seems.

Religiosity eroding ever faster

In June of this year, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) in an online report anticipated not only a continuing erosion of religion in the nation but with increasing velocity.

ABC reported that the key driver of the quickening pace in expansion of nonreligious Australians is youth, as it appears to be everywhere faith is foundering.

Although the proportion of nonreligious Australians — “nones” is a common label for people with no religious affiliation — has only ticked up slightly to 30 percent since the 2016 census, other data bodes ill for religion Down Under. Nones are now even more numerous in every age grouping than Catholics, the largest Christian denomination in Australia, except those 70 and older.

Teens lead the way

ABC noted that steadily increasing numbers of nones likely will, so to speak, be the gift that keeps on giving far into the future in turning Australian culture in a less supernatural direction:

“Research into the intergenerational transfer of religion indicates that parents who have no religion are almost certain to have children who have no religion, whereas the children of religious parents have a less than equal chance of being religious themselves. Migration from China has further filled the ranks of those declaring that they have “no religion.” These factors account for the rise of “nones” and point to a future where being “none” is even more prevalent.”

Factoring in Australian teens makes the situation even more dire for faith, according to the National Geographic article. Among current youths 13-18, 52 percent claim no religious allegiance, while only 38 percent self-describe as Christians (about 50 percent for the overall population now identifies as Christian). Wrote NG:

“Quite simply, having ‘no religion’ is becoming the new ‘normal’ in Australia. This has profound effects in ways that are only just becoming apparent. One implication of these changes is the fact that increasingly those who do have a religion are the ones who stand out — the ones who now are ‘not normal’ — and need to explain themselves. The ‘need to explain’ shoe, is now on the other foot.”

In all Australian states and territories, the proportion of nones matches or exceeds the 30 percent national figure, and it’s increasing sharply. At the same time, Christian identity continues to fall precipitously from a historical high of 96.9 percent in 1921 to about 50 percent today.

Rather unintuitively, this change, while eroding the “plausibility” of religion in the minds of a growing number of secular Australians, it seems to have not led to religious intolerance.

“Indeed,” the National Geographic article notes, “according to recent research the responses of young Australians to religious diversity is one of great openness. They are most likely to be of the view: ‘Be whatever you want, or nothing, as you wish; just do not try to use religion to block, shape or change me.’”

Still, it’s not Eden.

Some believers feel cornered

Especially among the roughly 15 percent of the population who take their religions very seriously, the encroaching nones can feel like an unwelcome, invading force. The uber-faithful people find it a “major challenge” to have such religious naysayers in their midst, and some have approached the government for protection even though data doesn’t support charges of attacks or harassment from the unchurched.

Most nones say religion is simply “irrelevant” to them, not something to be attacked.

But the game is not over. Although Christian identity is slipping, the same is not true for other religions. The 2006-2016 census showed that Hinduism enjoyed the largest increase, a phenomenon demographers believe was driven by increased immigration from South Asia. Muslims, perhaps for the same reason, are also increasing.

‘Give nones a chance’

Kylie Surgess of The Atheist Foundation of Australia proposes that religion be excised from cultural, political and business arenas, and that government policy should be scientific evidence-based. Surgess believes political leaders should note nones’ growing strength in numbers and give them more of a voice in crafting public policy and a greater presence in leadership roles.

“This includes policy on abortion, marriage equality, voluntary euthanasia, religious education in state schools and anything else where religious beliefs hold undue influence,” she says.

The United States is moving in this direction but much more slowly.

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