The Changing Role Of Religion In Australia
Connect Blog - Religion

Written by Lachlan Crone

AUJS Member

October 7, 2021

This is an extract from my Personal Interest Project, HSC 2020.

I was born Jewish and identify as a Jewish Australian. Judaism can be practiced on a continuum from the orthodox practice to the progressive stream. In Australia the majority, over 70%, of Synagogues are affiliated with Orthodox Judaism. Prior to 1938, all Synagogues in Australia were Orthodox. In my micro world we practice Judaism at the centre of this continuum. However, my grandparents are more orthodox; and my great grandparents were more orthodox again. This started my thinking about the changing levels of religiosity across generations. My grandfather was a deeply religious man and religion informed every aspect of his life. While identifying as Jewish, I do not believe my religion has the same impact on me, even though my micro and meso world is imbued with Jewish beliefs systems, rituals, and customs. 

Over time I have observed that my friends are less interested in religion, are less observant and are indifferent in pursuing religion later in life. This is despite their attendance at a Jewish school and having come from Jewish homes. Again, I became curious to know whether these changes were just within my micro and meso world or were shared experiences across other denominations. So, I spoke with my non-Jewish friends and found their experiences were similar. This prompted me to use my Personal Interest Project (PIP) to explore some of these ideas. I wanted to look at religion and its changing role at the micro, meso and macro levels in Australia.

My central hypothesis is that the role of religion is changing in Australia in part due to the increasing secularisation and intergenerational transmission. Over time religious institutions will have less influence and in the absence of religion, young Australians will become advocates of a range of non-religious ideologies including environmentalism, feminism, and veganism. A decline in religiosity may lead to more division as differing world-views conflict or it could create a more tolerant and accepting society if diversity is genuinely valued.

Now there are some 7000 more words discussing my methodologies and results and of course a review of the literature but let me cut to the chase and tell you what I found…

Religion in Australia is changing, and the evolution is marked by complexities. The changes are most evident amongst those individuals who identify as Christians, and while that cohort is becoming less religious overall, other religions are increasing in numbers, due largely to patterns of migration. Whilst the Christian religion comprised 96.1% of the total population in 1901 in 2016 that figured had dropped to 52.1% of the population. Adding to the complexity is the variation across and within generations. In general terms, religious beliefs are decreasing in younger generations when compared to older generations, however there are sub sections within younger generations that are holding steadfast to traditional religious beliefs, thereby illustrating both continuity and change.

For those who are becoming less religious there are several explanations. A significant proportion of my secondary research cites increasing secularisation as the main driver of the change in religiosity and some of the participants from my primary research concur. However, another explanation is the theory of intergenerational transmission which states that as the number of parents and grandparents who explicitly choose to socialise their children with non-religious worldview, the younger generations become more irreligious. The members of the clergy I interviewed posit another explanation, citing that it is a breakdown in the connections between communities and their traditions that is giving rise to the ‘nones’. I believe upon reflection that it’s most likely a combination of all of the above.

Unfortunately, one sphere most likely to be negatively impacted by the loss of influence of religious institutions is the most vulnerable in society who are beneficiaries of welfare currently undertake by religious institutions. While it might be fashionable for the affluent and educated elements of society to declare their secular beliefs it is important to ensure this is not done so at the expense of the more vulnerable people within society.

It is important to note that while religiosity is declining in younger Australians, Australia is becoming more multi-faith due to immigration. A decade or two from now Australia is less likely to be predominantly Anglo Christian. All levels of society will need to actively work together to ensure our society remains tolerant and accepting of diversity or we run the risk of becoming a polarised divided nation. 

Banner image source: Pew Research Center 

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