Census 2021 and the decline of Christianity in Australia

The 2021 Australian Census findings are out. According to the data, Australians are less religious and especially Australia is becoming less Christian.

Of our 25 million Australians, 43.9% identify as Christian, down from 52% in 2016 and 61% in 2011. Australians who now identify as non religious are 39%, up from 30% in 2016. Let’s not pretend otherwise, this is a significant fall and jump. Of course, the non religious category isn’t a synonym for atheism or God-free secularism, but rather these are Australians who belong across a spectrum of views but who do not identify comfortably with any specific religious expression. 

What are we to make of the national census data? How can we interpret this changing landscape of Australians’ deepest beliefs and convictions? 

Photo by Nothing Ahead on Pexels.com

First of all, what we are seeing in Australia is not a decline of vibrant and genuine faith in Jesus Christ (i.e. Christianity), but the growing recognition that nominalism doesn’t count as real Christianity. What we are doing is simply observing the field and noticing that pretend grass isn’t the real thing and so we are now recognising it for what it is. People who have connections with Christianity are waking up to the fact that they don’t actually trust in Jesus or agree with the Bible or like the Church, and so they are simply pulling the plug. The decline of Christian nominalism is a positive, and I suspect we still have quite a way to go before this process is finished.

In that sense, as Australia moves into an environment where identifying as a Christian really means you are a follower of Jesus Christ and belong to a local church, then that distinction is good and healthy, not only for churches and for individual people but for the entire country. Instead of falling back onto the misnomer of Australia being a Christian country, we can properly cast that myth aside and rightly so. A Christian is someone who actively believes and lives and breathes the Gospel, not someone who attended a religious school or whose parents are believers. 

Of course, and I have noted this with the 2016 Census, accompanying this decline is a downside. As fewer people identify with the Christian faith, our activist and progressive overlords will use this as ammunition to further rid our society of Christian vestiges. That is a mistake because the very foundations of our civil society and the rule of law and social pluralism depend on the Christian worldview. Many Australians are unaware of this fact, that the air we breathe and the water we drink is heavily soaked in principles and ideas that stem from the Bible and depend upon the Bible. For example, the idea that all people have inherent dignity and worth, the idea that men and women are equal, and the view that we should persuade people with ideas and not use coercion.

We mustn’t be surprised therefore if we see all manner of values disappearing from the fabric of our society and being replaced with an artificial ‘heavenly vision’ which is undergirded by an authoritarian and intolerant secularism.

Carl Trueman assesses our modern age,

“The expressive individual is now the sexually expressive individual. And education and socialization are to be marked not by the cultivation of traditional sexual interdicts and taboos but rather by the abolition of such and the enabling of pansexual expression even among children.”

“While earlier generations might have seen damage to body or property as the most serious categories of crime, a highly psychologized era will accord increasing importance to words as means of oppression. … Once harm and oppression are regarded as being primarily psychological categories, freedom of speech then becomes part of the problem, not the solution, because words become potential weapons.”

While each Australian is responsible for what we believe and how we live, it is myopic of us to however lay all the blame on those Australians who are moving away from organised religion, and Christianity in particular. Christians are increasingly aware of not only our failings but of horrendous evils hidden and protected inside some religious institutions. Why would anyone walk inside a church when there are so many stories of clergy abusing children and men abusing women? The fact that such occurrences are relatively rare doesn’t reduce the reality of those incidences. The only way back from these great evils is repentance.

Another reason why churches need to shoulder some of the responsibility for the decline in Christianity is the insipid liberalism that has infected some denominations and churches for generations. As pastors convince themselves that the only way to stay relevant is to abandon biblical truths and water down key doctrines, the result isn’t growing churches and people professing the name of Jesus. The opposite is true. Visit the local theologically liberal Baptist Church and then visit the average Baptist Church and you will see a significant difference in attendance and ministry output.  These churches whose basic message is,  “God didn’t say“, are an irrelevance and they endanger people‘s eternal status by driving them away from the Lord Jesus Christ.

As Tom Hollands says, 

“I see no point in bishops or preachers or Christian evangelists just recycling the kind of stuff you can get from any kind of soft left liberal because everyone is giving that…if they’ve got views on original sin I would be very interested to hear that”.

It also doesn’t help when Christians see so little relevance of the Gospel in their daily living and are often more captured by the promises of the Aussie dreams than they are by God and his purposes. Why would anyone consider Christianity when the Gospel seems to leave little dent in the lives of Christians?

While the media will make bundles of hay out of the Census data today, I don’t think anyone is really surprised. As I’ve suggested, there is something good about clearing the decks. There is also something to mourn. And like churches have done for millennia, as we look across our streets and suburbs what we must see are people who are made in the image of God and who are divorced from God and whom we wish to love and serve and to share the greatest news the world has ever known. With today’s announcement, there ought to be a conviction and even excitement that drives Christians to prayer and to holiness and to explaining with joy the wonder of God who loved his world so much that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have life everlasting. 

As Australians admit they are turning their back on God, there are other nations where the people are turning to Christianity in their millions. Christianity isn’t dead. As Jesus said the harvest is ready so let’s get to work.

The contentious Census question: Religion

Tuesday August 10th is Australia’s favourite night of the year. Every person will be in their house, flat, unit or caravan. Studiously we will open laptops or take out a pen and the journey will begin: Census 2021. Although, like myself you may be one of the millions who’ve jumped the gun and completed the form in advance.

Our local atheistic allies have been campaigning hard as though the Census is an election of some kind. The conversion plan is overtly evangelistic and with promises of life ending in nothingness to all who join them. In advance of victory,  I can almost hear their voices warming up to sing another rendition of ‘Imagine’. 

Monica Dux, writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, tries to sway lapsed Catholics by reminding them of all the things they mustn’t like about Catholicism. She claims, 

“In the upcoming census, religious affiliation is a category that will be closely watched, in part because participation in organised religion has declined so sharply, to the point that, in the 2016 census, the fastest growing belief was non-belief.”

Not so fast! ‘No religion’ is not a synonym for ‘non-belief’. ‘No religion’ is simply a junk draw for unbelievers, undecideds, spiritualists, and independents alike.

My advice is simple, just be honest. 

Perhaps for Census 2026 we can add another box, “uptight atheist”.

There is however a major flaw with the question on religion. No, I’m not referring to the top of the page preference that’s given to ‘no religion’. The error is this, Christianity doesn’t appear as an option.

Instead, Anglican, Baptist and Presbyterian, appear alongside Islam and Buddhism and Hinduism as though they are all different religions. As a friend noted, Pentecostalism doesn’t appear at all, even though there are more Pentecostal Christians in Australia than most of the denominations specified. 

I’m all for learning about the breakdown of how many Aussies identify with all the different Christian denominations; that’s useful information for a pastor such as myself. But Baptists are not a different religion to Anglican or Presbyterian or the Uniting Church (well, there is case that this last one should be separated). 

Let me illustrate,

It’s like the census asking this question, what sport do you play? Then the options given are the following;

Carlton

Hawthorn

Swimming

Tennis

Collingwood

Golf

Cycling

St Kilda

It’s stupid! Carlton isn’t a sport, it’s a club that plays the same sport as Hawthorn, Collingwood and St Kilda. It may be a legitimate question to find out who supports which AFL club, but that’s not the same question as ‘what sport do you play?’. 

Will our Census counters combine the numbers from across the Christian denominations? If so, will they include or exclude in those numbers cult like groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons?

Before sociologists explain to us why Australia is no longer a Christian nation (by the way, the answer is, we never were and we are not meant to be), it’s kinda important to know how the solicited answers shape the question being asked.  It’s also worth pointing out that in the last census only 60% of Australians answered the question on religion. So, just like a plebiscite, the answers have some value, but what the other 40% think and what Australian genuinely believe about religion remain a Census mystery. 

The Census provides useful and interesting information about the people who make up our nation. The data provides Governments, Councils, and community organisations a window into the people around us. We learn interesting facts about how old we are and how much income we earn and what languages we speak at home. 

The Australia Bureau of Statistics explains why there is a question on religion, 

“A person’s religion is asked as part of a suite of questions on cultural diversity and has been collected since the first national Census in 1911. This is the only optional question on the Census. Information gathered is used by religious organisations and government agencies to plan service delivery and encompass religious practices within community services, such as education, hospitals and aged care facilities.”

This information also becomes political hay and ammunition agitating for future Government funding and policy making. One thing the Census is not, and that is a measure of the spiritual health and intelligence of our country.

There is merit in knowing how people formally identify with different faith groups. Indeed, the fact that this question remains is quite telling. However, I’m more interested in knowing how many Aussies are in fact attending and actively belonging to a Christian Church and what are their beliefs and struggles and joys. I’m interested in learning why other Aussies have dropped out of church and /or why they no longer believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I’m interested in learning about what is it about other religions that appeals to people. These questions are for more interesting and beneficial.