The religious landscape in Australia is diverse and changing.
Many aspects of this landscape have changed since 1945 through to the present, some of these include: denominational switching, the rise of new age religions and secularism. In addition to this, the notion of non-religion has been a growing reality for many Australians; this can be explored through an observation of humanism. Each of these aspects has helped to shape Australia’s present religious landscape.Denominational switching is a phenomenon that has occurred largely in the Christian religious tradition. It involves people (usually young people) moving to another denomination under the same umbrella of a single religious tradition (for example, a Catholic believer joining the Assemblies of God). ‘Switchers’ usually move over to more modern, Pentecostal denominations, such as Hillsong (an Australian branch of Assemblies of God).
The vast majority of people that change denominations are young people between the ages of 15 and 24. This trend has increased over that last ten years, as shown in the 1996, 2001 and 2006 census data. Over the 10-year period from 1996 to 2006, traditional Christian denominations have seen a decline in 15 – 24 year olds whereas Pentecostal denominations have seen a slight increase. It is important to note that the ‘slight increase’ is due to a fundamental aspect of denominational switching: lots of people ‘switch’ in but lots switch out as well (humorously coined: ‘revolving door syndrome’).A large number of people that move over to Pentecostal churches, within two years, have returned to their original denomination. This occurs most commonly, again, in the 15 – 24 age bracket. The National Church Life Survey has shown that one third of Pentecostals in the 1990s either ‘switched out’ or stopped attending church.
A possible reason for people leaving these churches is the Pentecostal focus on evangelisation and personal fulfilment, rather than spiritual development and prayerful reflection. An example of this is the Hillsong church (based in Castle Hill, Sydney), which puts an emphasis on “Christian Rock” worship music and charismatic gifts, rather than personal spiritual reflection. Denominational switching is a reality for many young Australians and is an important aspect of Australia’s religious landscape. Moving away from religious traditions altogether is another aspect of the Australian religious dimension: new age religions.’New age religion’ is a term given to alternative spiritual practices (that do not fit into the five major religious traditions).
New age spirituality can be explored in many ways, through astrology, numerology, crystals, yoga, feng shui Tarot cards and other expressions. The notion of New Age Religion, however, is a collective term grouping the many different spiritual alternatives sought after a movement away from traditional religions. Many new age religions draw from ancient and Eastern religious teachings to form a modern ritualistic practice in response to a desire for spiritual fulfilment. Some common beliefs of New age religions include: Monism (all things come from one divine energy); Karma and reincarnation; Aura (energy radiating from people); and Ecological responsibility (to keep Gaia, the spirit of the earth, alive).In Australia, as in many other Western countries, the expression of new age religion or spirituality is personal and relatively small (in comparison to major religions) however it does offer an alternative that is being more readily sought by those dissatisfied with traditional religions. It is interesting to note that aspects of the new age have infiltrated secular society (horoscopes – astrology – for example).
The rise of new age religions runs parallel to a rise in secularism. Both these facts show that Australia is becoming tired of traditional religions and that traditional religions, while still existent, are not being practiced as readily. It is because of this that Australia’s religious landscape is ever changing.An important part of Australia’s religious landscape is, in fact, the opposition to religion itself. The movement away from religion has led to a rise in secularism in the Australian community. Australia, as a nation and system of government, is a secular country although, like many Western countries, it holds basic Judeo-Christian values. The rise in secularism is linked with a decrease in church attendance (as indicated in the National Church Life Survey) and an increase of ‘No Religion’ responses in the Australian Census in the past three decades (in particular). An increase in secularism can also be observed through the number of civil marriages and funerals that are being celebrated.
The number of civil marriages has risen from 1973, when it was 8% to a massive 50% of all marriage services today.Secularism in Australia can be observed in two ways: through political secularism and also through the ‘social process of secularisation’. Political secularism is expressed through the official separation of church and State – Section 116 of the Australian Constitution. Also, it is expressed through a commitment to tolerance and multiculturalism, and with this, freedom of religion.
Social secularisation involves a decline in influence, celebration and respect for religious leaders, ceremonies and symbols (respectively). Social secularism involves disenchantment with religion and the questioning of what is sacred in a modern society. All religious institutions in Australia must adhere to the rules and expectations of the secular society and therefore, secularism plays an important role in shaping Australia’s religious landscape. Humanism is a specific philosophy that provides the basis of secularism.Humanism is a product of the intellectual and liberal thinking in the period known as the Age of Enlightenment (c.
1700-1804). Humanism is a school of thought that puts an emphasis on the search for morality and truth for individual. In a religious context, humanism is the belief in the strength of the human spirit, rather than the power of a deity or God.
The humanist ideology is based on a belief that science and reason offer the best response to questions of human reality. Humanism can be separated into two main streams: rational humanism and scientific humanism. Rational humanism was birthed directly from the Age of Enlightenment, keeping true with the ideology of exploration of human thought and progress through application of rationality (the human mind).
Scientific humanism focuses on morality and ethics as a human responsibility. Its ethics are very similar to modern Christian ethics, with an emphasis (‘faith’) on the progression of science and technology.In Australia, humanism has been a small presence since European settlement in 1788 (never exceeding more than a few hundred). Since the 1960s, humanism has been a more prominent presence, with the starting up of Humanist Societies in New South Wales (1960), Victoria (1961), South Australia (1962), Western Australia (1965) and Queensland (1967). In 1965, The Council Of Australian Humanist Societies (CAHS) was started, as the national head of the Member Societies (in each state). Today, the CAHS are responsible for organizing the Annual Australian Humanist Convention (where philosophy and different issues are openly discussed by humanists); writing the quarterly magazine: The Australian Humanist; awarding Australian Humanist of the Year; monitoring legislation (for human rights); promoting ethics in communities and governments and participating as a member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union.
The religious landscape in Australia is ever changing and sensitive to shifts in philosophy and ideology. As the world continues to change, so will the religious landscape. Denominational switching, new age religions, secularism and humanism are all aspects of our religious (and non-religious) landscape that have changed in recent times (since 1945) and that are important in defining religion in Australia in the present day.