Its a big day in the media today, because the Australian Bureau of Statistics has released a whole lot of population data (along with some pretty graphics) which has been picked up and reported with gusto. The most common thread, and the introduction to most of that reporting, is that Australians are losing their religion – the number of those reporting ‘no religion’ has now become the largest single category.
I am not entirely sure that Australians are losing their religion. I think what they are losing is religion as a marker of identity. And it all comes down to how we define religion.
Our culture has changed, and religion is no longer a category which we use to identify ourselves with.
When I was in primary school (slightly younger than my youngest children), most kids then would have said they were Christian. It was a cultural marker. But I was the only kid in my class whose family went to church. There may have been one or two others, but I was the only one I remember getting teased about it. And that doesn’t sound to me like 80-something percent of Australians following Jesus at that time.
A religion not practiced can hardly be said to be a religion that is important to the person claiming it.
I’d expect to see these numbers drop considerably as time goes on – because the headline figure of 52% of Australians identifying as ‘Christian’ vastly overstates the number of people heading to churches.
Which represents another interesting point to note: Australians have a strange idea that religion is something you think in your head, but not practice. Which is quite bizarre.
In no other area of life would we allow that kind of logical fallacy to stand unchallenged. “Put your money where your mouth is” is the not unreasonable challenge we make when someone says they believe something. Everywhere except when it comes to religion.
Because most Australians think of religion as an identity marker (similar to which primary school you went to), and not something which is to be lived, acted on, or have an impact on your life.
Religion isn’t dying in Australia (although some denominations, such as the Uniting Church, is obviously doing something much worse than the rest of the churches, as its self-identification decline has been the greatest of any Christian group). Christianity isn’t dying. People are just starting to be a little more honest about whether they actually believe something.