What do the census results tell us about religious belief? –Insights magazine
There was a flurry of stories following the release of the latest census results on the demise of institutional religion, Christianity in particular. Data showed that only 44% of Australians now identify as Christian, down from 52% in the last census. And on the other hand, 39% of the population now identifies as non-religious. The reported abandonment of the Christian faith has been happening for some time, but has accelerated over the past decade. Many commentators have delved into the guts of these results in an effort to discern what it all means.
Some authors focus on disenchantment of young people with institutional religion to illustrate the drift of Christianity. But researchers from the National Church Life Survey point out that the results are a a little more nuanced than that. They note other NCLS research that shows young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 are the most frequent attendees at religious services. One in three people in this age group (32%) use the services at least once a month. The least frequent group is in fact those aged 50-64 (only 11% frequent once a month or more). The church’s negligence or outright complicity in institutional child abuse is seen as having undermined faith and trust in religion. Sydney Anglican minister Michael Jensen agrees the behavior has eroded the moral authority of the church. But he also sees a loss of trust in institutions of all kinds– political parties, banks, unions and churches. He makes a distinction between belief in God and active spirituality, with religious affiliation. Anecdotally, he claims that people are still open to spiritual things, are intrigued by the person and teachings of Jesus and still looking for meaning beyond the routines of work and consumption. There is some support for this perception in other NCLS research, which shows that 40% of Australians believe it is part of the church’s role to give meaning and direction to life and 51% believing it should encourage good morals.
Journalist Stan Grant sees census results in a broader and more historical perspective. He sees the decline of Christian belief as part of a widespread drift in the West from religion to other forms of faith and identity. It traces the evolution of secularism during the Age of Enlightenment and its division between the immanent (the world of politics and social order) and the transcendent (the world of spirituality and religion). He agrees that the church has been stripped of its moral authority by the child sex abuse scandal and alienated others by its stance on issues like divorce, abortion and same-sex relationships. But he also argues that secularization risks replacing the sacred with the cult of individualism, ugly nationalism and soulless consumerism. He quotes historian Tim Stanley who writes that across the West, “there is a dearth of purpose and spirit: we cannot agree on who we are or what we are, or even whether these big existential questions are important”.
Peter Senge, the systems scientist who became an organizational learning guru, once wondered at a major conference of American Christian ministers why books on Buddhism outsold books on Christianity in some bookstore. He replied that it might be because Christianity presented itself largely as a belief system, while Buddhism was seen more as a way of life. He advised ministers at the conference to rediscover and help others rediscover Christianity as a way of life. Interestingly, the early Christian belief was simply “Jesus is Lord” (no separation between the transcendent and the immanent) and the early Christians called themselves “Followers of the Way”. Perhaps the challenge and opportunity for Christian churches from these latest census results is to be less institution-focused and more concerned with following the way of Jesus, or in the words of the prophet Micah, “to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God”.
Jon O’Brien, Uniting Advocacy Team