Measuring Australian Religion: God is in the details

In the wake of the 2016 census results, a barrage of analysis proclaiming Australians are “ditching faith”, “turning away from God”, or “losing their religion” presents a concerning misunderstanding of both census data and religion.

Census data are limited by what questions are asked, and religion is far more complex than a single question. The census might capture religious affiliation, but this does not equate with faith, belief, or practice.

It is noteworthy that the “non-religious” population has grown to overtake Catholicism as the largest single affiliation, at approximately 30% of the population. It is also largely consistent with a global decline in organized religion across the Western world.

These results, however, miss almost everything about what makes religion in contemporary Australia interesting. For example, they tell us little about the person who identifies as Christian for cultural reasons, but attends church irregularly and is, at best, unsure about the existence of God. Indeed, these people are put into the same box as ardent evangelicals who attend services weekly.

‘Cultural reasons’ for identifying with a religion vary, from nationalism and educational upbringing, to parents filling in their children’s census data. More political motivations can be found in the public campaign urging lapsed Christians to answer “no religion”, or far more concerning, the Anti-Islamic, nationalist counter-campaign encouraging ‘Christian’ responses.

The results also reveal little about the modern phenomenon of ‘spiritual seekers’, who reject organized religious affiliations, but might attend Buddhist meditation retreats, Hindu festivals, and ardently affirm the existence of a ‘higher power’. As the ABS states, the category of ‘no religion’ in fact encompasses those with “secular and other spiritual beliefs”, including agnosticism, atheism, and humanism.

Finally, as the census directs respondents to select one affiliation, it does not reflect the existence of those who practice multiple faiths; where are the Bujews (Buddhist Jews) or Trinitarian Wicca (Christian Wiccans) in the data?


The disadvantages of using ‘affiliation’ as a proxy for religion reveal a more troublesome quandary for social scientists and demographers: how do we quantify religion?

There are several viable options, such as measuring the strength of belief in a doctrine, or the number of times one attends religious services, or performs a religious rite. More complex indexes, like The Duke University Religion Index (DUREL), propose a composite measure across multiple dimensions, including one’s experience of the divine and how religion influences one’s lifestyle.

At times, the different ways of thinking about and measuring religion – as identity, culture, belief, or practice – produce confounding results.


For example, marked differences emerge depending on how you ask the religion question. In a 2011 poll conducted by YouGov on behalf of Humanists UK, when asked “What is your religion?” (as used by the Australian census), 61% of respondents identified with a religious group. However, when asked “Are you religious?”, only 29% of respondents said ‘yes’.

Further afield in Japan, attempts to quantify religion yield a minefield of contradictions. It appears that the Japanese are mostly non-religious, but also frequently perform ritual activities and are (at least formally) members of several religious groups.

A 2015 Gallup Poll showed that 31% of Japanese respondents were committed atheists, and 57% were religiously unaffiliated. At the same time, however, ethnographic researchers report widespread participation in activities like religious festivals, visiting shrines, and ancestor veneration. And the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs reports that Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines claim members in numbers that account for nearly 200% of the total population.

Such contradictions stem from trying to measure religion in a context where identity, belief, and practice do not necessarily align, and the term ‘religion’ itself is a foreign import – a similar problem is found in the data from China.


In Australia, there are undoubtedly spiritual people lurking in the ‘no-religion’ data, just as there are spiritually-apathetic respondents in the religious categories.

There is far more to faith than affiliation. But if we continue to read religion in modern Australia in this frame, then we will miss out on all the complex ways it plays a role in our lives – whether we believe it, or not.

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