Religious affiliation in Australia

Exploration of the changes in reported religion in the 2021 Census

Released
4/07/2022

Key findings:

  • Christianity decreased by more than 1 million people but is still Australia’s most common religion.
  • Other religions continue to increase.
  • Australia is becoming more religiously diverse.
  • Almost 10 million Australians reported having no religion.

Understanding religious affiliation

A question on religion has been included in all Australian censuses since 1911. Answering this question has always been optional but is answered by nearly all respondents.

The Census religion question is designed to capture a person’s religious affiliation. This is defined as the religion to which a person nominates an association. This may be different from their practice of or participation in a religious activity. The Census also allows people to respond with secular or spiritual beliefs and to indicate if they have no religious affiliation at all.

Religious affiliation is output in categories according to Australian Standard Classification of Religious Groups (ASCRG). This classification presents a hierarchy of religious affiliations. There are broad groups, which are each made up of narrow groups. The narrow groups, in turn, are made up of ‘religious groups’ which is the third and most detailed level of the classification. 

For the purposes of this article, ‘No religion’ refers to the broad group Secular Beliefs and Other Spiritual Beliefs and No Religious Affiliation. In 2016, this group was expanded from the No Religion category to capture the full range of relevant responses to the religion question. It consists of people who do not identify with a religion and those with non-religious beliefs including Agnosticism, Atheism and Humanism.

The term ‘Other religions’ refers collectively to the religions Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and the broad group Other Religions (which includes narrow groups such as Australian Aboriginal Traditional Religions, Chinese Religions and Sikhism).

For more information see the Religious Affiliation variable.

Religious affiliation in 2021

In 2021, more people opted to answer the Census religion question than in 2016. In 2021, the number of people who answered the religion question was 93.1% of the population, an increase from 90.9% in 2016.

In 2021 the most common religions were:

  • Christianity (43.9%)
  • No religion (38.9%)
  • Islam (3.2%)
  • Hinduism (2.7%)
  • Buddhism (2.4%)

Change in religious affiliation over time

Over the past 50 years, there has been a steady decline in the proportion of Australians who reported an affiliation with Christianity. The same period has seen a consistent rise in Other religions and No religion, particularly in the last 20 years.

(a) Comprises Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Other Religions.

(b) Secular Beliefs and Other Spiritual Beliefs and No Religious Affiliation.

Migration and religious affiliation

Australia’s religious profile has been shaped by waves of migration. In the late 18th Century, Christianity was introduced by the British. Other migration to Australia that has likely impacted the religious landscape includes:

  • 1800s and early 1900s: British and Irish free settlers
  • 1940s and 1950s: Post World War II migrants from Europe
  • 1960s: Refugees from the Middle East
  • 1970s: Refugees from Southeast Asia
  • 2000s: Humanitarian entrants from Africa and Middle East; skilled migrants from North-east and Southern Asia(1).

The trend of an increase in Other religions and No religion in Australia is reflected in the religious affiliation of migrants who arrived since the last Census.

Religious affiliation of recent migrants(a)
Religious affiliationNumber of migrantsProportion of migrants

Christianity

290,200

29.1%

Other religions

414,900

39.9%

No religious affiliation

290,700

28.6%

Not stated

24,200

2.0%

Total(b)

1,020,000

100.0%

(a) Arrived in Australia from 2017 to 10 August 2021.

(b) Includes inadequately described.

Yezidi: Highest growing religion from 2016 to 2021

The religion with the highest proportional growth since the last Census was Yezidi.

Yezidis (or Yazidis) are an ancient religious minority, who are mostly from Northern Iraq. Many Yezidis fled their country in the past decade due to religious persecution.

The number of Yezidis in Australia increased from 63 people in 2016 to 4,123 in 2021 (an increase of 6,444%). Most of this group arrived in Australia in 2018 and 2017. This was a result of Australia’s Humanitarian Program that specifically focussed on resettling Yezidi women, children and families from Iraq and Syria(2).

In 2021, Yezidis were mainly located in regional locations in Queensland and NSW. These areas are designated regional refugee settlement locations as part of the Humanitarian Settlement Program(3).

Christian affiliation by generation

Christian affiliation of people in Australia varied across generations. Generally, older generations were more likely to be affiliated with Christianity and younger generations were more likely to have no religious affiliation.

For example, more than two-thirds (69.4%) of the Interwar generation were affiliated with Christianity and were the least likely to have No religion (18.6%).

Millennials had the highest proportion of No religion (46.5%) and Other religions (14.9%). This reflects the age profiles of these religions. For example, the median ages for Hinduism was 31 years, Sikhism was 30 years and Islam was 28 years.

The religious affiliation of Generation X closely aligned with the proportions of the Australian population overall.

(a) Comprises Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Other Religions.

(b) Secular Beliefs and Other Spiritual Beliefs and No Religious Affiliation.

(c) Comprises religion not stated or inadequately described.

Decline in Christian affiliation

The number of people affiliated with Christianity in Australia decreased from 12.2 million (52.1%) in 2016 to 11.1 million (43.9%) in 2021. This decrease occurred across most ages, with the largest decrease for young adults (18-25 years).  

Anglican and Catholicism have been, and are, the largest Christian denominations in Australia. In 2021, the number of people reporting each of these denominations has dropped and make up most (78%) of the decrease in an affiliation with Christianity.

In 2021, Catholicism decreased to 20% (from 22.6% in 2016). While this number has been falling over time, the decrease has been slowed by immigration from regions with high numbers of followers of Catholicism, such as Southeast Asia and South America.

Of all migrants who came to Australia between 2016 and 2021, almost 200 thousand (191,000) reported an affiliation with Catholicism in the 2021 Census, over one-quarter of which were born in the Philippines.

The Anglican Church (named the Church of England until 1981) was the main religious denomination in Australia throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries. At the 1911 Census 38.4% of the population reported an affiliation with the Church of England. This proportion remained steady throughout the first half of the 20th Century, driven by the continued British migration to Australia. The 1954 Census reported 37.9% of Australians were affiliated with the Church of England.

In the past 50 years this proportion has been steadily declining. In 1986, the proportion of Anglican affiliation (23.9%) dropped below Catholic affiliation (26.1%). In 2006, Anglican affiliation (18.7%) was surpassed by those reporting to have No religion (19.4%).

From 2016 to 2021, Anglican affiliation had the largest drop in number of all religious denominations – from 3.1 million to 2.5 million people. This was a decrease of nearly one in five Anglicans (19.5%), from 13.3% to 9.8% of the population.

The average age of people with an Anglican affiliation in 2021 was 56 years, compared with 47 years for Christians overall.

Rise of non-denominational Christianity

Not all Christian denominations are declining. From 2016 to 2021, the highest increase was in responses coded to the supplementary category, Christianity nfd (not further defined). Christianity nfd includes responses containing enough information to be coded to Christianity but not to a specific denomination. In 2021, most of this group were people who answered “Christian” or “Christianity” to the religion question.

In 2021, there were nearly 700 thousand people in the Christianity nfd category (688,400), an increase of 75 thousand since 2016 (76,100). They represented 2.7% of Australians - the same as the proportion affiliated with Hinduism.

Christianity nfd was first included as a group in the 1996 Census when the Australian Standard Classification of Religious Groups (ASCRG) was developed. Since then, the number of responses in this category has grown from 181,900 (1.0% of Australians) in 1996.

An increase in this group may indicate a growing trend of people affiliating more broadly with Christianity rather than specific Christian denominations.

From 2016 to 2021 other Christian denominations that increased included Orthodox denominations. These denominations grew in Australia in the second half of the 20th Century due to post-World War II migration from Eastern Europe. They are common to people with Greek, Lebanese and Serbian ancestries. The largest of these denominations, Greek Orthodox, accounted for 1.5% of Australians in 2021.

Growth in affiliation with Other religions

In 2021, over 2.5 million people reported an affiliation with Other religions. This was an increase of over 600 thousand (617,800) since 2016.

In the past 25 years the proportion of people reporting an affiliation with Other religions has increased from 3.5% in 1996 to 10% of the population in 2021. This growth has particularly accelerated since 2006.

These increases reflect Australia’s migration trends. In 2021, 93.8% of people affiliated with Other religions were either born overseas or had at least one parent born overseas.

In 2021, the main religions in Other Religion in Australia were Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

In the 1981 Census, data on Buddhism was released for the first time in response to the arrival of large numbers of Buddhists as Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s. A steady increase since then has largely been maintained by migration from Southeast Asia, China and Sri Lanka.

While the numbers of Buddhists continue to increase, in 2021 the main contributors to the increase in Other religions were:

  • Hinduism (243,700)
  • Islam (209,150)
  • Sikhism (84,500)

These increases were largely a result of recent migration from Southern and Central Asia.

Of migrants who arrived in Australia between 2016 and 2021, there were 210,500 who were affiliated with Hinduism. Most of these migrants (91.9%) were born in India and Nepal.

Similarly, nearly 60 thousand (57,300) recent migrants were affiliated with Sikhism, and almost all (95.9%) were born in India. Sikhism has grown in Australia particularly over the past ten years. The number of people who affiliate with Sikhism has almost tripled since the 2011 Census. In 2021, they accounted for 0.8% of the population (210,400 people).

The increase of Islamic affiliation can also be largely attributed to recent migration. Almost 126,000 people who arrived in Australia between 2016 and 2021 affiliated with Islam. Their main countries of birth were Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Bangladesh.

Growth of Hinduism and Islam in Tasmania

While NSW and Victoria had higher proportions of religious affiliation with Islam and Hinduism than other states and territories in 2021, the state with the highest growth rate in these religions since 2016 was Tasmania.

Hinduism

From 2016 to 2021, the proportion of people who affiliated with Hinduism in Tasmania increased from 0.5% to 1.7% of the population. This was an increase from 2,550 to 9,720 people. Most were Nepalese and Indian migrants.

Of those who reported Hinduism:

  • 5,088 born were born in Nepal
  • 2,802 were born in India
  • 898 were Australian-born children of migrants (aged under 15 with one or both parents born overseas).

Islam

The proportion of the population affiliating with Islam in Tasmania increased from 0.5% to 0.9%. The number almost doubled, from 2,498 to 4,947.

Of those who reported Islam:

  • 1,385 were born in Pakistan
  • 534 were born in Bangladesh.

661 were Australian-born children of migrants (aged under 15 with one or both parents born overseas).

Change in No religion over time

Religious freedom is an important value in Australian society. People are free to choose, express and practice their religious beliefs in different ways. This includes the right not to profess a religion or belief.

In every Census since 1911, a proportion of people have responded that they did not have a religious affiliation. The 1911 Census form asked each person to state their religion. People could respond that they did not have a religion if they were “a free thinker, or if no denomination or religion”. Over ten thousand people stated they had no religion in 1911. This was 0.2% of the population.

Over time, we have changed how we present the No religion option on the religion question. Amendments have been made to reflect changes in Australia’s religious profile as well as in response to public consultation. These include:

  • 1971:  The first Census with instructions on the form “If no religion write none”.
  • 1991: The first Census with a check box list of religions, an option for free text and a check box for No religion at the bottom of list.
  • 2016: The No religion response option was moved from the last to the first response option on the Census form.

These changes may have affected the number of No religion responses. For example, the proportion of the population who reported they had no religion increased from 0.8% in 1966 to 6.7% in 1971 when instructions were added to the religion question.

No religion in 2021

From 1971 to 2021, the proportion of people reporting to have no religion in Australia steadily increased.

In 2021, the proportion was 38.9%, an increase from 30.1% in 2016, representing an increase of more than 2.8 million people. This increase indicates a shift away from religious and spiritual viewpoints, by either expressing their beliefs outside of traditional religious institutional settings or not holding a religious or spiritual viewpoint to express.

Most of the responses in the broad category, Secular Beliefs and Other Spiritual Beliefs and No Religious Affiliation, were in the sub-category No religion, so described. The remaining subcategories account for only 1.2% of responses.

Number of persons in the broad category, Secular Beliefs and Other Spiritual Beliefs and No Religious Affiliation, by religious group stated, 2016 and 2021
 20162021
No Religion, so described6,933,7109,767,450
Atheism32,30037,800
Agnosticism26,39031,680
Own Spiritual Beliefs21,10027,380
Other Spiritual Beliefs, nec6,5105,860
Theism6,1505,420
Multi Faith4,9103,580
Humanism2,9102,190
Other Spiritual Beliefs, nfd1,6201,770
New Age1,520950
Secular Beliefs, nec1,300830
Unitarian Universalism970830
Rationalism770750
Secular Beliefs, nfd310290
Secular Beliefs and Other Spiritual Beliefs and No Religious Affiliation, nfd240180
Total7,040,7209,886,960

nec – not elsewhere classified

nfd – not further defined

Find out more information about the codes we use for responses that do not fit into main categories in Understanding supplementary codes in Census variables.

No religion by state and territory

The proportions of people reporting to have no religion varied across states and territories. In 2021, Tasmania had the highest proportion with half (50%) of the population reporting to have no religion. The lowest was NSW with almost one-third (33.2%) of the population.

From 2016 to 2021, the highest growth in the number of people reporting to have no religion was in Queensland and Tasmania.

(a) Secular Beliefs and Other Spiritual Beliefs and No Religious Affiliation.

No religion by age

An increase in people reporting to have No religion in 2021 indicates that some people have changed from being affiliated with a religion since the last Census in 2016.

An increase in people reporting to have No religion between 2016 and 2021 was highest for young adults, particularly those aged in their twenties. In general, the likelihood of people becoming unaffiliated with a religion decreased with age.

(a) Secular Beliefs and Other Spiritual Beliefs and No Religious Affiliation.

People reporting to have No religion were younger than people affiliated with Christianity. In 2021 almost half (48.4%) of people aged 25-34 years reported to have No religion. Since 2016 however, the median age of this group increased from 31 years to 33 years.

In 2021, while the proportion of people reporting to have No religion increased for all age groups, the highest proportional increase was people aged 65 years and over. This was an increase from nearly 600 thousand (592,000) to just over 1 million people. Despite this shift, in 2021, almost two-thirds (64.2%) of people in this age group were affiliated with Christianity.

(a) Secular Beliefs and Other Spiritual Beliefs and No Religious Affiliation.

(b) Proportion of all Australians.

  1. Department of Home Affairs, ‘A History of the Department of Immigration – Managing Migration to Australia’, www.homeaffairs.gov.au/news-subsite/files/immigration-history.pdf, last viewed 6 June, 2022.

  2. Department of Home Affairs, ‘Statement on ABC Four Corners Reporting’, www.homeaffairs.gov.au/news-subsite/Pages/2019-Feb/statement-on-abc-four-corners-reporting.aspx, last viewed 6 June 2022.
  3. Australian National Audit Office, Performance Audit Report 2019-2020, ‘Delivery of the Humanitarian Settlement Program’, www.anao.gov.au/work/performance-audit/delivery-the-humanitarian-settlement-program, last viewed 6 June 2022.