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4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 1994  
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Contents >> Religion >> Special Feature: Trends in religious affiliation

Special Feature: Trends in religious affiliation

Despite the increasing diversity of religions represented in Australia, almost three-quarters of Australians stated that they were Christians in 1991.

Australia is a multicultural society with predominantly Christian affiliations, but there has been a downward trend over the last 80 years in the proportion of people identifying with Christianity. While this is partly a consequence of the way the data has been collected each census, increases in the last 10 years in the numbers of people with a non-Christian religion reflect recent immigration patterns. There are also differences in religious affiliation between males and females and for different age groups.


The religion question

A voluntary question on religious affiliation has been included in every national census. In 1911 and 1921 an instruction was included indicating that people could 'object to state' their religion. From 1933, the voluntary nature of the religion question was emphasised on the form. As a result, at the 1933 Census, 13% of people did not answer compared to 2% in 1921. In 1971, the instruction 'if no religion, write none' was introduced with the result that 7% of people reported having no religion compared to less than 1% prior to that. In 1991, the form of the religion question changed from a write-in response to a tick-box response for the most commonly reported religious groups and a write-in space for the others. This is likely to have increased the selection of one of the seven largest religious groups included in the list.


It is important to note that while the religion with which people identify is recorded, the census does not measure the extent of their involvement or commitment.



Historical perspective

At the first national census in 1911, 96% of people stated their religion as Christian. In 1933 this fell to 86% as attention had been drawn to the voluntary nature of the religion question and 13% did not respond. The proportion of people stating Christian religion remained reasonably stable until the 1970s, but then declined to 74% in 1991. Most of the decline over the last 20 years was recorded in the early 1970s, in association with an explicit instruction for people with no religion to indicate as such.


Between 1933 and 1991, there was an increase in the proportion of the population identifying as Catholic, due primarily to immigration. Over the same period the proportion of the population identifying as Anglican fell from 39% to 24%. This was due in part to the declining proportion of migrants from the UK. However, it is also likely, given the Anglo-Celtic heritage of many Australians, that a larger proportion of those who formerly identified as Anglican either did not answer or specified 'no religion' once these options were explicitly stated on the census form.

MAJOR RELIGIOUS AFFILIATIONS

Anglican
Catholic
Other Christian
Total Christian
Non-Christian
No religion
Not stated(a)
Total
Census year
%
%
%
%
%
%
%
'000

1911
38.4
22.4
35.1
95.9
0.8
0.4
2.9(b)
4,455.0
1921
43.7
21.7
31.6
96.9
0.7
0.5
1.9(b)
5,435.7
1933
38.7
19.6
28.1
86.4
0.4
0.2
12.9
6,629.8
1947
39.0
20.9
28.1
88.0
0.5
0.3
11.1
7,579.4
1954
37.9
22.9
28.5
89.4
0.6
0.3
9.7
8,986.5
1961
34.9
24.9
28.4
88.3
0.7
0.4
10.7
10,508.2
1966
33.5
26.2
28.5
88.2
0.7
0.8
10.3
11,599.5
1971
31.0
27.0
28.2
86.2
0.8
6.7
6.3
12,755.6
1976
27.7
25.7
25.2
78.6
1.0
8.3
12.2
13,548.4
1981
26.1
26.0
24.3
76.4
1.4
10.8
11.4
14,576.3
1986
23.9
26.0
23.0
73.0
2.0
12.7
12.3
15,602.2
1991
23.8
27.3
22.8
74.0
2.6
12.9
10.5
16,850.3


(a) Includes religion inadequately described.
(b) Includes object to state.


Source: Census of Population and Housing



The past decade: 1981-91

Australia's population grew by 16% in the decade to 1991. Over the same period, the number of people identifying with a religion increased by 14%. However, widely varying growth rates were observed for different groups. Between 1981 and 1991, the number of Catholics increased by 22%, overtaking Anglicans as the largest religious group in the country. The fastest growing groups in percentage terms (in the 10 years to 1991) were Buddhism, Pentecostal and Islam, although growth was from a low base in all three cases.


Growth in the number of people identifying with a religious group can arise through overseas migration, births, and transfers from other groups (including no religion). These will be offset to some extent by deaths and transfers to other groups. It is possible to gain some insight into the relative importance of the factors underlying growth in specific religious groups over the last 10 years by examining recent migrants together with the numbers of children who are identified with each religious group.


Of the 820,000 increase in the number of Catholics between 1981 and 1991, 321,000 (39%) were migrants who had arrived in Australia since 1981. A further 221,000 were children aged 0-9 years who had one or both parents born overseas. In comparison, 86% of the growth in the number of Buddhists can be attributed to immigration between 1981 and 1991 and a further 10% to the Australian born children of (these) migrants. Because the migration wave of Muslims, mainly from Lebanon and Turkey, commenced in the 1970s, a larger proportion of the growth in Islam between 1981 and 1991 arose through births to overseas born people than in the case of Buddhism (40% compared to 10%).


The combined effect of migration and births had a much smaller impact on the Baptist, Lutheran and Pentecostal denominations, accounting for 30-40% of the growth between 1981 and 1991. The increase in adherents to these groups is, therefore, likely to have involved transfers from other religious groups. It is also possible that changes in the way that the religion question was asked on the census form were responsible for some of the increase. The 1991 Census was the first in which respondents were able to tick a box if they belonged to one of the seven largest religious groups. These included Lutheran and Baptist but not Pentecostal.

GROWTH OF MAJOR RELIGIOUS AFFILIATIONS

1981
1981
1991
1991
Growth 1981-91
Religion
'000
%
'000
%
%

Christian
11,133.3
76.4
12,466.4
74.0
12.0
      Anglican
3,801.5
26.1
4,018.8
23.8
5.7
      Baptist
190.3
1.3
279.8
1.7
47.0
      Catholic
3,786.5
26.0
4,606.6
27.3
21.7
      Churches of Christ
89.4
0.6
78.3
0.5
-12.5
      Jehovah's Witness
51.8
0.4
74.8
0.4
44.4
      Lutheran
199.8
1.4
250.9
1.5
25.6
      Orthodox
421.3
2.9
474.8
2.8
12.7
      Pentecostal
72.1
0.5
150.6
0.9
108.8
      Presbyterian & Reformed
637.8
4.4
732.0
4.3
14.8
      Salvation Army
71.6
0.5
72.4
0.4
1.1
      Uniting Church
1,203.4
8.2
1,387.7
8.2
15.3
      Other Christian
607.8
4.1
339.6
2.0
-43.3
Non-Christian
197.6
1.4
445.1
2.6
125.3
      Buddhism
35.1
0.2
139.8
0.8
298.6
      Islam
76.8
0.5
147.5
0.9
92.1
      Judaism
62.1
0.4
74.3
0.4
19.5
      Other non-Christian
23.6
0.2
83.6
0.5
254.4
Inadequately described
73.6
0.5
49.9
0.3
-32.2
No religion
1,576.7
10.8
2,176.6
12.9
38.0
Not stated
1,595.2
10.9
1,712.3
10.2
7.3
Total
14,576.3
100.0
16,850.3
100.0
15.6


Source: Census of Population and Housing
COMPONENTS OF GROWTH

Children aged 0-9 years

Growth 1981-91
Migration 1981-91
Both parents born in Australia
One or both parents born overseas

Religion
%
'000
'000
'000
'000

Catholic
21.7
820.1
320.6
450.6
220.9
Baptist
47.1
89.5
24.4
27.2
9.9
Jehovah's Witness
44.4
23.0
5.2
7.1
4.9
Lutheran
25.6
51.1
12.9
24.1
6.2
Pentecostal
108.8
78.5
14.4
18.8
9.3
Buddhism
298.6
104.7
90.0
0.6
10.4
Islam
92.1
70.7
46.8
0.7
28.1


Source: Census of Population and Housing


Birthplace

Overall, 23 per cent of Australians counted at the 1991 Census had been born overseas but, because of the strong association between religion and birthplace, there was a great deal of variation between religious groups in the proportion born overseas. Over 80% of Buddhists and Hindus had been born overseas, as had 72% of Oriental Christians (made up of Armenian, Assyrian, Coptic and Syrian elements) and 64% of adherents to Islam. In contrast, less than 10% of adherents to the Salvation Army and the Uniting Church had been born overseas.


As well as the extent of correlation between religion and birthplace, the differences reflect the various migration waves, and the length of time particular groups have been in Australia. In 1981, there were 35,000 Buddhists in Australia. During the 1980s South East Asians made up a sizeable component of the migrant intake and many of these were Buddhist. As this migration wave is relatively recent, by 1991 there had not been a large increase in the number of Australian born children in this religious group. People of Orthodox affiliation, mainly from Greece and Yugoslavia, came to Australia in large numbers during the 1960s while Jewish people, mainly from Poland and the USSR, arrived in the early post-war period. As a consequence, adherents to the Jewish and Orthodox faiths include a much larger proportion (about 45%) born in Australia.


A significant proportion of Australia's recent migrant intake has been of Catholic affiliation. However, over a quarter of the whole population identifies as Catholic and, consequently, the proportion of Catholics who had been born overseas remained relatively low at 25%.


The extent to which overseas born adherents come from one or a few main countries varies considerably between religious groups. Overseas born Catholic and Jewish people have the widest range of birthplaces with the two main source countries, Italy and the United Kingdom in the case of Catholics, and Poland and the United Kingdom in the case of Jews, accounting for less than a third of the overseas born. In contrast, three-quarters of overseas born Anglicans are from the United Kingdom.


Correlations between religion and birthplace of Australia's overseas born population are particularly evident among Lutherans (mainly from Germany and the USSR), Orthodox (mainly from Greece and Yugoslavia), Muslims (mainly from Lebanon and Turkey), and Oriental Christians (mainly from Egypt and Iraq).

BIRTHPLACE, 1991

Overseas born
Contribution(a)
Religion
%
Main source countries
%

Anglican
16.0
United Kingdom
New Zealand
12.3
1.6
Baptist
20.3
United Kingdom
New Zealand
6.9
1.7
Catholic
24.9
Italy
United Kingdom
5.2
2.9
Churches of Christ
11.5
United Kingdom
Philippines
4.2
1.6
Jehovah's Witness
27.7
United Kingdom
Italy
7.6
2.8
Lutheran
30.1
Germany(b)
USSR
14.0
4.1
Oriental Christians
71.8
Egypt
Iraq
31.4
8.5
Orthodox
54.1
Greece
Yugoslavia
27.0
13.6
Pentecostal
23.1
United Kingdom
New Zealand
6.5
3.5
Presbyterian & Reformed
19.6
United Kingdom
New Zealand
10.3
4.2
Salvation Army
9.0
United Kingdom
New Zealand
5.7
1.4
Seventh Day Adventist
26.7
New Zealand
United Kingdom
4.6
2.8
Uniting Church
8.5
United Kingdom
New Zealand
4.0
0.8
Buddhism
85.1
Viet Nam
Malaysia
33.5
9.2
Hinduism
82.7
India
Sri Lanka
26.5
12.6
Islam
64.1
Lebanon
Turkey
17.3
14.5
Judaism
54.0
Poland
United Kingdom
7.8
6.3


(a) Proportion of religious group born in a given country.
(b) Federal Republic of Germany.


Source: Census of Population and Housing



Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

At the 1991 Census, there were broad similarities in the religious affiliation of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population and the population as a whole. Overall, 74% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people reported a Christian affiliation, the same proportion as the total Australian population.


Anglican, Catholic and Uniting Church were stated by 26%, 23% and 6% (respectively) of the indigenous population. Corresponding figures for the whole population were 24%, 27% and 8%. Some of the smaller Christian denominations such as Baptist, Lutheran, Churches of Christ and Pentecostal had approximately double the proportions of adherents among indigenous people as they did among the rest of the population, probably as a consequence of missionary activity.


Some 13% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people reported 'no religion' and 11% did not answer the question, again similar to the rest of the population. In 1991, less than 2% of the indigenous population reported adherence to traditional religions or beliefs. It is possible, however, that some people with traditional beliefs reported 'no religion' or chose not to answer the question. In the Northern Territory, 7% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people reported a traditional religion.


There was an increase between 1986 and 1991 in the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who identified with a religion. In particular, the number stating a Christian denomination increased from 67% to 74%. There was an associated fall in the proportion who did not answer the question, from 16% to 11%. It is almost certain that these figures are a consequence of the introduction of a tick-box for the major Christian denominations in the 1991 Census.

RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION OF ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER PEOPLE

1986
1991
Religion
%
%

Christian
66.7
73.8
      Anglican
24.3
26.1
      Baptist
2.1
3.5
      Catholic
20.4
23.2
      Lutheran
2.7
3.5
      Pentecostal
2.7
2.5
      Uniting Church
4.1
6.4
      Other
10.3
8.5
Non-Christian
4.4
2.0
Inadequately described
0.8
0.5
No religion
12.1
12.6
Not stated
16.0
11.2
Total
100.0
100.0


Source: Census of Population and Housing


Demographic aspects

The age profile of a religious group is a reflection of historic growth patterns as well as the relative importance of different components of growth in more recent years. In 1991, Islam had the youngest age profile of all religions with 53% under 25 years of age and 2% aged 65 years or more. This reflects the recent immigration of young Muslims, plus their younger age at marriage and relatively high rate of child-bearing. In comparison, the Jewish population had one of the lowest proportions of people under 25 years (32%) and the largest proportion of people aged 65 years or more (20%), a result of the high rate of Jewish migration associated with World War II.


Of Christian denominations in 1991, the most rapidly growing, Pentecostal, had the youngest age profile with 47% of adherents under 25 years, and only 5% aged 65 years or more. The Catholic population was also relatively young with 41% aged less than 25 years, compared to 33% of Anglicans and 35% of Uniting Church adherents. Of the main Christian denominations, Presbyterians had the largest proportion of adherents aged 65 years or over (20%).


Younger people were more likely than older people to report 'no religion'. 38% of the population were under 25 years of age in 1991 but 46% of people who stated 'no religion' were in this age group. Conversely, 11% of the population were aged 65 years and over, but they comprised only 4% of people who stated 'no religion'. Additionally, older people were less likely than younger people to decline to state a religious affiliation.


There were also differences in religious affiliation between males and females. At the 1991 Census, 79% of females stated a religious affiliation, compared to 75% of males. Correspondingly, males were more likely than females to state 'no religion' (14% compared to 11%). Although some of this difference can be attributed to the older age profile of females (10% of males are 65 years and over compared to 13% of females), differences were also apparent for particular age groups. In 1991, 76% of women aged 15-24 years reported a religious affiliation compared to 74% of men in the same age group. In the 25-44 years age group, 77% of women reported a religious affiliation compared to 72% of men.

RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION BY AGE, 1991

Age group (years)

0-14
15-24
25-44
45-64
65 or more
Total
Religion
%
%
%
%
%
%

Christian
      Anglican
18.1
14.4
29.8
22.1
15.6
100.0
      Baptist
22.2
15.4
31.1
18.7
12.5
100.0
      Catholic
23.8
16.8
30.6
19.1
9.7
100.0
      Lutheran
19.6
14.3
29.3
23.4
13.5
100.0
      Orthodox
18.9
19.2
29.1
25.2
7.6
100.0
      Pentecostal
30.5
16.4
33.4
14.8
4.9
100.0
      Presbyterian and Reformed
11.8
12.3
30.5
25.4
20.0
100.0
      Uniting Church
21.3
13.8
28.2
20.8
16.0
100.0
      Other
25.6
15.2
31.0
17.9
10.4
100.0
Non-Christian
      Buddhism
21.3
19.6
41.8
12.9
4.5
100.0
      Islam
35.5
17.8
33.5
11.4
1.9
100.0
      Judaism
19.5
12.3
29.3
18.8
20.1
100.0
      Other
23.7
15.8
42.4
14.2
3.8
100.0
No religion
27.7
18.3
37.2
12.3
4.4
100.0
Not stated
25.5
15.2
31.6
18.1
9.7
100.0
Total
22.3
15.8
31.3
19.2
11.3
100.0


Source: Census of Population and Housing


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