When Religion Declines

One of the most striking developments in Australian society in recent decades has been the sharp decline in religious belief and observance, especially among the various denominations of Christianity. This decline in Australia has been mirrored throughout the Western world. This has occurred at a time when there have been extraordinary and unprecedented changes in attitudes towards social behaviour, especially sexuality, in the direction of greater liberality. One key question which may be asked of these changes is if either caused the other, a question whose answer may not be straightforward. An even more important question is what effect the decline of religion will have on Western democracy and on the philosophical and spiritual underpinnings of Western civilisation itself.

We have apparently accurate statistics about the decline of religion in Australia from the federal censuses, which are held every five years and which have always included a non-compulsory question about the religion of all respondents. Below are the national results from the 1986, 2011, and 2021 (the most recent) censuses, together with the results for the three largest Christian denominations and the two largest non-Christian religions. For each religion, the number of its adherents found in that census and the percentage of the total Australian population are also given.

These statistics simply record what respondents stated on the forms they filled out, and not on formal membership in a religion or actual attendance at religious services. Figures for membership or attendance are much more fragmentary than the census statistics, and also much more dire for the major Christian denominations. No official statistics are kept by the Anglican Church in Australia, but Anglican sources have estimated the number of those attending an Anglican service, anywhere in Australia, during a typical week in 1991 at 192,000 and in 2011 at 155,000; given the decline in Anglican numbers found in more recent censuses, this figure is presumably even lower today. The Roman Catholic Church in Australia has done better, with 662,276 attending a typical Mass in 2011, and 623,356 in 2016. The attendance figures for the Uniting Church are the worst, with numbers attending a typical Sunday service estimated by that church at 97,000 in 2013, but only 63,000 in 2021, for the whole of Australia.

It is possible to view these figures, and the inferences one may draw from them about the future of religion in Australia, in a more positive light. For instance, most private schools in Australia are, at least in a formal sense, connected to a religious denomination, whose students thus absorb at least a smattering of their beliefs. Today, there are 1756 Catholic schools in Australia, with, in total, 804,761 students. Victoria has 500 Catholic schools, with 212,608 students overall; New South Wales has 592 Catholic schools, with 212,608 students. Most of Australia’s most prestigious (and expensive) private schools are connected with a Protestant denomination, among them such elite institutions as Geelong Grammar School (Anglican), Scotch College (Presbyterian, Melbourne), and Methodist Ladies’ College (Uniting Church, Melbourne), ensuring that the upper tiers of society are likely to retain some religious linkages at least for decades to come. Smaller denominations often founded their own private schools as a central means of survival. For instance, there are eleven Jewish day schools in Melbourne and seven in Sydney, ranging in orientation across the Jewish spectrum, and apparently doing well.

And if the level of religious enthusiasm may be declining, both here and overseas, it also seems clear that the kind of militant agnosticism (or atheism) represented in the past by figures like the American Robert G. Ingersoll (1833–1899) or the Briton Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) have also greatly diminished in number and visibility. So, too, has hostility among the Christian denominations, especially between Catholics and Protestants. On the other hand, recent changes in laws and lifestyles in Australia may well have contributed to the decline in religion. For instance, until 1991 in Victoria (and presumably in the other states), all major shops and shopping centres were shut from 12.30 p.m. on Saturday until Monday morning—precisely the only times when many people could visit them—and only “milk bars”, which sold only some necessities and newspapers, were open—a type of shop now all but extinct. Since then, all major shops as well as shopping centres have been open on Saturday afternoon and on Sunday, a change which may well have decreased religious attendance and has clearly diminished the special nature of Sundays.

Regardless of these caveats, however, it seems undeniable that Christianity has systematically declined in membership in recent decades, and not merely relatively but absolutely. Some readers will also be concerned at the dramatic increases of non-Western religions, especially Islam, and also Hinduism, which have grown substantially through both heavy recent immigration, and birth rates which are higher than the Australian norm. Ironically, in view of the discussion below, Muslims in Australia would in many cases be among those opposing liberalisation in societal values, especially in sexual behaviour and in the role of women.

It is a reasonable inference from these statistics and others not set out here that left-liberal religious denominations have declined faster and more consistently than more traditional denominations. This is clear from the sharper decline in membership in the Uniting Church, which is known for its open support of “social justice” issues. In fact, it appears to be a rule that the more a religious group openly supports left-wing causes, the emptier its pews become, as they are deserted by its conservative members, who are looking for their church to promulgate traditional values and beliefs, and not to operate as a de facto branch of the Greens or some other radical group.

The point should also be made that exactly the same decline in religious belief and membership found here has occurred throughout the Western world. In Britain, there has been a dramatic decline in the Church of England, its official membership and its rites de passage such as baptisms and marriages in church, and a catastrophic decline in membership in Nonconformist denominations such as the Methodists.

The decline of organised religion in Australia and elsewhere has been clearly paralleled by dramatic and, indeed, previously almost unimaginable changes in mainstream attitudes to behaviour and lifestyles previously regarded as utterly beyond the pale and, in many cases, illegal. The most obvious example of this are the extraordinary changes in mainstream attitudes to sexuality, especially homosexuality, but also to premarital sex in any form, birth control, abortion, and gender change and ambiguity, as well as to the open discussion and depiction of sexual matters previously taboo. It is not an exaggeration to describe these changes as revolutionary, compared with the situation of, say, seventy-five years ago. In particular, the widespread acceptance of homosexual “pride” and visibility would have been unthinkable—and illegal—sixty or even forty years ago. That 61 per cent of the Australian electorate voted in 2017 to legalise same-sex marriage is evidence of a far-reaching change in attitudes, as is the lack of vocal opposition to the acceptance of homosexuality by Australian conservatives, including its conservative churches.

Of course, some qualifications are needed in any discussion of this process. Lesbianism, for instance, was never criminalised. Older unmarried women regularly lived together in order to share the rent, without a single eyebrow being raised. In complete contrast, “two gentlemen sharing” almost automatically and invariably implied that they were gay, even if they were not. The change in attitudes towards male homosexuality may have occurred in part because of a crucial change in the image of male gays, largely engendered by themselves. At some time in the 1960s or 1970s male gays did what they could to bury their former image as effeminate, mincing pansies, so repellent to most straight men, and substituted its precise opposite as their image, the hyper-masculine half-naked muscleman. It is also of course the case that down the ages royals, aristocrats, millionaires, as well as writers, artists, musicians, and others in the intelligentsia have often—at least in private—lived a lifestyle in which “anything goes” and apparent increases in the volume of unorthodox modes of sexuality simply reflect their greater visibility. Many would also link these changes to the growth of feminism and to women’s role in society, although most feminists (and other women) would oppose changes in women’s sexuality which exploits them, such as pornography and prostitution.

A central question is just how the decline in religion is actually related to the vast change in traditional and previously almost universally accepted mainstream attitudes to sexual behaviour. There must, it seems clear, have been a relationship of some kind between the two changes, but the question of which came first and influenced the other, or, on the contrary, whether there were previous changes which produced both shifts, is unclear. It is quite possible that both changes may be related to greater individual autonomy in Western society, especially among the affluent and better educated, or simply a refusal to remain secretive about modes of behaviour which have always existed in private. The growth of highly individual-oriented forms of entertainment and communications, with the ubiquity of the internet and the move away from a handful of press and media outlets to those tailored to the particular interests of individual persons, may well be a factor, as well as the fact that sexual behaviour of any kind is, as a rule, no longer legally punished if it represents the voluntary behaviour of adults in private. No adult today is jailed for homosexual acts in private with another consenting adult, a vast change from sixty years ago.

Whether these changes should be welcomed, or should be regarded not merely as regrettable and harmful, but as undermining Western society, is a valid question. The Christian religion has been the central pillar of Western civilisation since the Dark Ages, and certainly many have thought that extreme and widespread sexual permissiveness would inevitably lead to societal collapse à la ancient Rome. So far, however, this has really not occurred, possibly because private behaviour is involved, and the right of a person to have individual autonomy and freedom is upheld by conservatives as well as radicals, in the sexual sphere as well as in the economic realm. It is also the case that conformity in personal behaviour has, in the past century, been a notable hallmark of totalitarian regimes.

But how far this can be taken remains unclear, and those who champion the values of Western civilisation should be on their guard. Small religious sects, which deliberately cut themselves off from the increasingly liberal values of the outside world in order to maintain their traditions and traditional modes of behaviour, may have grown in size, as, for instance, the remarkable growth in Charedi (“Ultra Orthodox”) Judaism shows. This does not mean that Western society may not commit suicide through excessively strong libidos or from some other factors, only that this has not yet occurred and its enemies lie in other directions.

William Rubinstein held Chairs of History at Deakin University and the University of Wales.


9 thoughts on “When Religion Declines

  • Andrew Campbell says:

    When the Uniting Church came into existence in 1977 a significant minority of Presbyterians remained Presbyterian. Sure, some stayed to keep their Scottish traditions alive, but they have largely passed on. Others stayed Presbyterian, concerned that the Basis of Union lacked a clear statement on the authority of the Bible. The Presbyterian Church of Australia has rebuilt over the past 40 years, even buying back (once Presbyterian) Uniting churches. We have plenty of problems, and are seeing a decline as many denominations. However, in a Presbyterian church you’ll experience conservative, Reformed, worship,, focussed on the Bible and not on woke issues.

  • padmmdpat says:

    I have often wondered if the advent of television in the 50’s had an impact on declining congregations. Entertainment.
    One swallow does not a summer make, but let me give an example. When I was a boy sometimes I would accompany mum to visit a nun who had taught her. One Sunday visit mum asked her if she would like to come for a drive and visit the Botanical Gardens. “Thank you dear, but on Sunday we have to go to Mass twice, in the morning and in the evening or we can go to morning mass and say prayers in the afternoon. I’ll be going to prayers rather than the evening Mass so I can watch Showcase 66.”
    I think now of the mega churches with their huge congregations and their style of ‘worship’ – sort of a feely-good religious rock concert. Entertainment takes precedence. As someone said to me, “I go to church to feel good.’
    When television was first introduced in Catholic Italy, Pope Pius XII gave a speech in which he welcomed all the benefits that television could provide, and then he added a cautious note. “But we must point out to you our beloved children, that this advance in technology is coming into the very heart of your homes and families.” For good or ill.

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    “An even more important question is what effect the decline of religion will have on Western democracy and on the philosophical and spiritual underpinnings of Western civilisation itself.”
    My wife is a practising Christian of the Presbyterian persuasion. I call myself a lapsed Christian now a freethinker. But we never argue, over anything, have been happily married for 46 years, and I regularly accompany her to Church.
    Whenever I look around the congregation, I cannot help noticing all the grey heads and the lack particularly of teenagers. In the 1950s when I was a pre-TV teenager myself, the local churches were the place to go for any social life.
    But since, there have been massive changes in education and communications, bringing a huge increase in scientific knowledge and process at all levels of society. With all that has come a rise in critical thought and thinking.
    Clerics of all religions discourage that, lest it be turned on their doctrines. But in most cases, the cat is out of their bag. Islam and its clerics are the exception there, but their societies are economic basket cases in the main. Vide India vs Pakistan. And the oil-wealthy ones will decline with their oil reserves.
    In short, as clerical power has declined, democracy has grown.

  • Katzenjammer says:

    A great number of children today suffer from various anxieties. That’s an indication of the weakening of family as the sure footed foundation of society, and of the degeneracy of faddish redefining of individual identity.

  • Lewis P Buckingham says:

    There has been a decline in other non religious organisations.
    Our local ‘Progress Association’ has ceased to exist.
    headlines scream ‘Service clubs aren’t dead but the prognosis isn’t good.’
    Our local Lions and Apex clubs, if they exist, have no profile.
    Back in the 70’s I noticed ethnic Catholic families running their business on Sundays
    just to keep financially alive.
    That was when for some, missing mass was a Mortal Sin.
    Once outed they weren’t going back.
    After all , what god would kill your soul for missing a mass?
    Having a rest day has now become a self serving campaign to have a ‘work life balance’
    rather than practising a religion.
    Once Anglicanism split it lost its grounding, presently the conservative wing far exceeds the central declining authority and is found in Africa.
    In Australia a Catholic school is a very safe place to send a child after government mandated obligations.
    Catholicism in the north west sector of Sydney is booming.
    Some Australian Bishops have shown great leadership in public discussions.
    Consequently the de facto media ban on reporting ‘church news’ has been sidestepped.
    The constant attacks on the universal human rights of the religious by ‘progressives’ has actually helped the churches start to speak up about fundamentals of belief.
    The decision by George Pell in Sydney to regularly invite the heads of all major religions to discuss such threats and opportunities,
    put a plank under the worthwhile leadership of Anthony Fisher to clarify to the Catholic faithful what the attorney general has in mind.
    This in the context of Catholic lay leadership, who see the ‘light on the hill’ after the Voice fiasco as being the re run of another train wreck.
    Another lost opportunity.
    The political situation is heading to a unified religious response to Mark Dreyfus’ view to compromise on a fundamental human right.
    If Dreyfus fails to listen then all that will happen is the Faith Based organisations will go to the people.
    Our local school had 132 nationalities in it.
    A lot aren’t Catholic.
    I feel another Voice Moment coming on.

  • GG says:

    The decline in Catholicism – while partly down to social irrelevance on issues like marriage and procreation – is also linked to the church’s lame attempts at stylistic relevance.
    In the 1970s you saw rather lame attempts to connect with “youth” via modernistic graphics, music and even ugly stained glass windows.
    It’s like watching an 90 year old man get a mullet haircut, dress like a Gen-Z, use slang he doesn’t understand, try rapping and hitting on teenage girls.
    If the church had stayed the course of ageing gracefully, the inherent richness of that heritage would have sustained both the mystique and passion.
    Notice how millions of tourists flock to grand Cathedrals that are 500-1000 years old, in awe of their majesty and power? They don’t flock to modern versions.
    More recently the banning of the Latin Mass – that is, people worshipping God – was the stupidest thing any Pope has done in 2000 years.
    The second own-goal is its embrace of leftist Woke foolishness.
    To see Catholic churches and schools overtly embrace the naked anti-White racism of the “yes” side in the referendum, was appalling.
    In a heartbeat, they alienated 90% of their followers. The damage hasn’t come from the outside. When it comes to destroying Catholicism, sadly, Catholic clergy do it best.

    • lbloveday says:

      “Catholic clergy do it best”.
      Led by the Pope. A friend, a practising Greek Orthodox Christian says Pope Francis is by far the best recruiter they have.

    • David Isaac says:

      “Pope” Francis is a a committed socialist one-worlder. He knows full well the popularity of the pre-Vatican II mass and seeks to quash it.

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