Australia’s Census Lessons

A Methodist church in Silverton, New South Wales
Amanda Slater/Flickr

By Robyn Douglass

Since the Nativity, Christians have had a soft spot for a census. This week, on paper and online, Australia will take a national selfie of 24 million people, their occupations, their families, and their religions.

An Australian census is unique, said Gary Bouma, emeritus professor of sociology at Melbourne’s Monash University. He has been an expert on Australia’s population for decades since he arrived from the United States. He is also an Anglican priest.

“Australia’s censuses are unusual in the Western world for having been held every five years (since 1961), where most countries only hold them every 10,” he told TLC.

“And in very few countries is the question of religion asked, or if it is, it’s in general terms.

“Australia’s census is carefully constructed so you can answer honestly about any small branch of Christianity, for example, and that answer is taken seriously.

“It’s brilliant,” he said.

The result is a very precise picture of not simply “Christian, Jewish, Muslim, other” but Anglican, Lutheran, Sikh, Mormon — you name it.

“Americans find it amazing that we have more Buddhists than Lutherans or Baptists in Australia,” Bouma said.

Such accurate figures can challenge political groups that make claims on behalf of Australian Christians, for example. Gay marriage is not legal in Australia but is hotly debated and will be the subject of a national plebiscite.

“Right-wing Christian political groups can make claims about the Christian nature of our society, and the census can put it into context,” Bouma said.

“So if a Christian lobby groups claim that ‘only 1-2 percent of the population is gay,’ we can ask: ‘Who are you representing?’”

“Presbyterian and Reformed churches, for example, are 2.8 percent. Pentecostals are a stable 1.1 percent.”

Anglicans, who were 40 percent of the population in 1901, were 17.1 percent in 2011, and Bouma expects that to slip to around 15 percent in the 2016 count.

He said there was a slight halt in the decline of Christianity some years back, but that was because of growing numbers of older people, including Anglicans.

Most Christian churches are “holding a lot more funerals than baptisms,” he said. The Anglican Church of Australia will not plummet, but it will probably continue to decline. Many more people identify with the Anglican church than turn up on Sunday.

Bolstered by immigration, roman Catholics have held their numbers and their demographic is closer to the national average than those of other Christian denominations, he said.

The biggest rise in Australia’s religious affiliation has been Hinduism (1.3% in 2011), reflecting the huge numbers of people immigrating from South Asia. Buddhists (2.5%) slightly outnumbered Muslims (2.2%).

Bouma said Australian governments use the census information on religion to better address a diverse multicultural society. The State of Victoria, for example, has a multifaith advisory group to the police force.

He also said his vocation as a sociologist has meant he can speak truth to his church.

“I can shine as bright a light of sociology on it as I can,” he said. “I have spoken the truth to power.”

And yes, he would like the leaders of his own church to take the hard numbers more seriously.

The question on religion is the only optional item on Australia’s census — if you choose not to specify a religion, you can answer “no religion.” In 2011 that was the second-largest single category (22.3%), but Bouma said that is not the same as irreligious or atheist.

“Many of those people would describe themselves as spiritual rather than religious,” he said.

“Declared atheists numbered fewer than 100,000,” he said — not many more than the 65,486 people who decided the religion question was a joke and declared themselves Jedi, in honour of Star Wars. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has sent out a widely publicized media release scolding those who want make a joke of anything in this week’s census.

“But that reveals something very true about how Australians take their faith. We simply don’t like it hot.

“Australians have a historically low temperature about religion — we are almost allergic to people who are serious about it. We take it cool,” he said. “Even Pentecostals. It’s part of what our version is.”

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