The Atheist Foundation of Australia (AFA) has launched a “Mark No Religion” campaign in the lead-up to the August census, taking advantage of the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ decision to move the “no religion” option from the bottom of the list to the top of the faith question.
In the last Australian census in 2011, 61.1 per cent of people (13.1 million) identified as Christian, while 22 per cent (4.7 million) marked the “no religion” box or wrote down atheism, agnosticism, humanism or rationalism in the “other, please specify” box.
Author of Post God Nation, Roy Williams predicts that the percentage of Australians marking a Christian option this year will fall to about 50 per cent, partly because of the new methodology and partly because of increasing secularisation among the young.
“I don’t have a problem with the notion that it’s in everyone’s interest that the numbers that come out of the census are meaningful,” he says.
“In my opinion that 61 per cent figure from 2011 was misleading. It was a very soft number that meant next to nothing and I think in large part it reflected vague notions of cultural conformity or lingering ideas that Christianity is a good thing.
“It would be more interesting to know what the real number is, for the sake of the Christian churches, if nothing else.”
The number of people who say they have no religion is escalating and outweighs the Christian population in England and Wales by 48.5 per cent to 43.8 per cent, according to 2014 figures.
In New Zealand, Christians made up a bare majority at 47.65 per cent in the 2013 census, while no religion came in at 41.9 per cent.
AFA president Kylie Sturgess emphasised that the aim of the “Mark No Religion” campaign is to get to the truth, a goal that she says has been supported by people of faith as much as atheists.
“We’re after accurate answers to the census questions, so they can benefit all Australians and so far we’ve been flabbergasted by how supportive people have been of getting the truth out there,” Sturgess tells Eternity.
“We hope to benefit all Australians because policy and funding decisions are made on the basis of data that accurately reflects modern-day Australia. We want to see that people are honest and thoughtful about filling out the census and have a reflection about what they are saying.”
The AFA is using crowd-funding website indiegogo to raise the funds to launch an advertising campaign challenging people to consider if they truly believe in the faith of their cultural or family tradition. So far it has raised 73 per cent of its $25,000 target.
Its website urges people to measure their beliefs against the tenets of the Nicene Creed (a widely-used profession of faith – check out the creed at the bottom of this story).
“The position of the Atheist Foundation of Australia is that no one should consider themselves Christian if they do not accept the basic tenets of the Nicene Creed – or at the very least, they should reflect upon whether there are good enough reasons as to why they consider themselves Christian,” the website says.
Sturgess, who says she taught comparative religion at Christian and Islamic schools, does not believe the drop in those identifying with Christianity comes from a decline in religious education.
“I think people are increasingly interested in matters of ethics and philosophy. We can see that all round the place with people taking up things like TED talks or hopping online asking the big questions,” she says.
“So it’s entirely possible that we might get something on the census that reflects this interest in the world that we live in, but I’ll be very intrigued to see whether we do have an understanding of what value secularism can have and how we can have benefits for everybody in this country if we are open-minded and allow for the fact that there is such diversity here.”
Williams believes there will be no good news in the census for the Anglican, Presbyterian, Catholic and Uniting churches.
“Some elements of the Christian churches of all denominations are too complacent,” he says.
“They still think it’s 1950 and they latch on to figures like 61 per cent as though it actually means that 61 per cent of people are with them when they’re not.
“The very word ‘religion’ is a bit pejorative, really. If you were framing a fairer question you’d get rid of that word because of the implications of being tied to the institutional churches.”
However, he doubts that efforts by groups such as the AFA to use the results to influence public policy will be successful because he believes politicians at all levels tend to be more religiously affiliated than the general population.
“In a nutshell all the political parties will come under more pressure to pay less deference to the churches, and the atheists and more extreme secularists will be arguing this proves that the chaplaincy programme should be defunded, church schools shouldn’t be funded as generously, gay marriage should just be put through – all those policy causes of the moment,” says Williams.
“I’m less convinced that politicians in power will actually bow to the pressure.”
Williams believes a tipping point towards a majoritarian argument may come sometime down the track if the proportion of Christians continues to fall to 40 per cent or 30 per cent.
“I think it’s very important that the Christian churches don’t react in the wrong way to these numbers when they come through by trying to spin the figures,” he warns.
“They need to say unquestionably this trend exists and we have to redouble our own efforts rather than whingeing and complaining about it. Accept we’re a minority and a shrinking minority at the moment but actually do something about it.”
Here’s the Nicene Creed. What will you be ticking on this year’s census?
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and he became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.