In 1966, the Australian census indicated that only 0.8% of the population had ‘no religion’. In 1976, it was 8.3%; in 1986, it was 12.7%1; in 1996 it was 16.6%; in 2006 it was 18.7%. In the last census in 2016, it was 30.1%, and was the largest of any option given in the census. At that census, 52% of the population still maintained some affiliation with Christianity, and the largest group among those were Catholics, who formed 22.6% of the population2.
The most recent census held in New Zealand, for which the data have been compiled, was in 2013, and that indicates that 41.9% of the population had no religion, up from 29.6% in 20013. Similarly, the most recent census (2011) in Great Britain (i.e. UK, excluding Northern Ireland) had 26.1% of the population having no religion, up from 15.9% in 20014. In Canada, the proportion of the population with no religious affiliation in 2011 was 23.9%, up from 16.5% in 20015.
In the United States, ever the laggard, it is now estimated that 18.2% of the population have no religious affiliation. This is an increase from 8% in 1990, and 15% in 2008. Even more startling for Christians in the US is that in the 18-29 year old demographic, about 33% have no religious affiliation6. This trend is true not just in Anglophone countries, but also across Europe, with the 16-29 year old demographic being far less religious than their elders. The proportion with no religion ranges from about 17% in Poland to 91% in the Czech Republic with the median of European nations being about 55% (the UK is at 70%)7. In Australia, among the 20-34 year old demographic, 38.3% have no religious affiliation8.
Steven Reiss, former professor of psychology at the University of Chicago considers that there are four main reasons for the decline of religion. These were: a move away from organised religion into mysticism or ‘spirituality’; globalism breaking down the tribalist aspects of religious affiliation; fewer ‘traditional’ families like those idolised by religions; and the loss of trust in organised religions9. I think these are only a small and proximal part of the story.
Religion is about control, especially of women, including of their fertility and sexuality. Its insistence of virginity prior to marriage; its insistence on sex as being for procreation only; its attempts to prevent or limit access to contraception; its bizarre myths surrounding masturbation, are all about taking people’s sexual autonomy from them10. This all started to break down with the advent of the contraceptive pill, which separated sexual practice from conception for women over the last 50 years or so. It has changed women’s sexual autonomy dramatically and has led to a realignment of social and political attitudes, and even some less conservative religious attitudes11. However, while it was mostly about controlling women (most religions are run by blokes, after all), it also affects men. It infects them with an unhealthy attitude to sex, with guilt and anxiety about how they feel10. As an example; my parents knew a couple of very devout Catholics (both dead now) who were childless, and it turned out the wife had severe fibroids and eventually had to have a hysterectomy. After that, despite being only in their early 30s, they never had intercourse ever again. The wife came crying with sadness to my mother numerous times. It is sickening to think of a church actively discouraging human intimacy. It can only be construed as cruelty. As Arthur C. Clarke said: “one of the greatest tragedies in mankind’s entire history may be that morality was hijacked by religion”. This change in attitude to sex with the advent of the contraceptive pill has changed society dramatically, and despite protestations from churches, the sky hasn’t fallen, society hasn’t descended into raping and pillaging. It seems that people are starting to realise the warnings and threats from the churches were baseless and hollow, respectively.
The religious and their churches have also maintained that you cannot be moral unless you are religious. They seem to think that to be moral, you need fear to make you toe the line, under the ultimate threat of hell, or something similar. This has been effectively demolished by what has been termed the ‘new atheism’. People like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens12, with their books, interviews, lectures, debates and podcasts have spread the word of atheism whereas, in the past, atheism was nowhere nearly as well popularised. It used to only occupy the relatively quiet corners of philosophy. The argument against ‘morality requires religion’ assertion largely goes like this: if you need to fear something to make you moral, then you are simply being blackmailed to be moral. I have been an atheist for several decades and all I require is an understanding of the golden rule: treat others as you wish to be treated yourself. In addition, the explosion of revelations of child abuse, both sexual and otherwise within the churches, all across the world, has demonstrated that the religious do not always act the way they insist others should. Nothing has more clearly demonstrated that the assertion that you cannot be moral unless you are religious is very much counterfactual.
Another feature of the modern world that the religious and their churches seem unable to grasp is that modern western society is becoming more tolerant and more progressive. In Australia, this was exemplified by the decriminalisation of homosexuality in various states, with Tasmania being the last to do so. This was despite active opposition from people like Senator Eric Abetz, who stated it was the thin end of the wedge13. That wedge extended to the legalisation of same-sex marriage, despite it being made illegal by the Howard government in 200414. While it had been clear for several years that the populace was quite accepting of same-sex marriage, many of the churches were stridently opposed to it, even to the extent of threatening the sky would fall, and lying about the assertions of those supporting legalisation. As if to emphasise the bigotry of some churches, it is they who are crying out for the ability to continue to discriminate against homosexuals in employment and in education. This is what many of the recommendations of the Ruddock review into religious freedom are about; the continuation of discrimination.
Lastly, there is the immediacy of modern communications. People can see other people from all over the planet who, in some cases, have vastly different belief systems, and at least in some, it probably engenders the thought: ‘why does their religion differ from mine?’ Or perhaps: ‘How can they worship another god if I have been told mine is the one true god?’. This must make them wonder about who has been told the truth, and to doubt whether anyone has been. As an aside; sometimes I wonder how immune to information are many of the religious when they still tell me that god will punish me for not believing in him. What I tend to do if they aren’t specific, is to ask the following question: ‘To which god do you refer?’ followed by the statement ‘There are thousands to choose from’. They tend either to baldly reiterate their previous assertion or just go away.
The rapid decrease in the proportion of the population with religious affiliation is what is driving the desperation of the religious, especially Christians, in the western democracies. It is rightly perceived as an existential threat to their privilege and the power that goes with it. To try to retain that privilege, they have either thrown their lot in with people, the likes of whom they would not countenance if they actually believed what they professed, or they have taken over a political party. The former is exemplified by the way the supposedly god-fearing evangelicals in the United States support Trump, who the editorial in the Baltimore Sun referred to as “the most dishonest man to ever occupy the Oval Office, the mocker of war heroes, the gleeful grabber of women’s private parts, the serial bankrupter of businesses, the useful idiot of Vladimir Putin and the guy who insisted there are ‘good people’ among murderous neo-Nazis”15. In Australia, rather than throwing their lot in with an animal like Trump, the religious have effectively taken over the Liberal Party and despite Morrison and company professing to be Christians, they just have policies and attitudes which are like those of Trump. However it is done, the result will be the same: A continuing decline in religious affiliation in part driven by the lies, bigotry and other disgraceful behaviour of the religious.
This thing religion, in all its manifestations, has never been absent from human societies. Whether we like it or not, beliefs in the numinous and related cultural practices have been integral to any organised, (generally post – cave people) gathering that uses speech communication. And in particular it arose whrn early cultures came to employ symbology and metaphor. Despite its links to deep tribalisms, its likely tendency towards corrupt hierarchy and brutalising authoritarianism across the ages, religion has also served immensely to civilise our many generations. It may be tempting automatically to scoff at that, so pervasive and normalised is a post-Darwinian/, purely secular stance among most educated people now. But I hold that Christianity in particular, even with its historically factual lapses/misdeeds, has a place for those who find it their best option. Myself, I am broadly agnostic, with non-acceptance of the Christ-as-God literalist position. But when it comes to what was taught in essence by those who genuinely, profoundly understood the Gospels from about 300 AD onwards, solid thinkers must give credit where due. The Jesus-based religion was massively successful because it was indeed a positive and civilising force. Yes, anti-Muslim warring, awful slaughters at times, power struggles etc, but still it abetted /enriched the notions of a rule of law, compassion to the poor and personal honesty/ethics. Science-cum-atheism post-1600 AD is too smug. Yet they remain no essential aid to solving moral dilemmas all humans are beset with, or to the issue of “the right way to treat (myself and) others”. I must allow any person who is not harshly evangelical or stuck in a crudely literal Christian sect, to be free to practice. Actually I cannot say to anyone of Christian faith, “Your beliefs are bunkum; modern science/tech is Truth, huge capital T”. The two are vastly divergent in what they mean and can achieve. It is arrogant if I myself believe in freedom to think and be as I want, but treat Christians as merely dumb or blind to “The Truth”. However, I agree that (- without denigration of religious faith itself) the nasty side of “Christian” actions – bigotry and perverted interpretation of the Testaments, must be countered. Bigotry and discrimination is witnessed in some crazier quarters of today’s Christianity, but not everywhere. It behoves us (ye olde phrase!) to gaze within postmodern cultural life, it being overwhelmingly secular and atheistic. This type of society a huge downside too, if one critically observes the global mess we face today. Let’s be certain where we target church-goers. The opposition to bigotry etc etc, needs allies within, who are not to be won over if we gratuitously dismiss Christianity as a whole, along with its best legacies.
Many people say that religion, usually the one with which they are familiar, has been a civilising force, but how you judge that in the absence of a control, I do not understand. I think all that religion did was provide another mechanism for people to exert control over others. It is the religious who are still trying to control others’ lives, even people who are not interested in their peculiar moral code. This desire to control people looks like a superiority complex: ‘You will do what I tell you because I know better than you what is good for you’. Personally, I have no problem with people believing what they wish, as long as they keep it to themselves and do not try to proselytise all over me. I have friends and colleagues who are very religious. I do not buttonhole them and tell them they are wrong, nor do they do that to me. We all have an understanding that my lack of belief is different to their belief and will most likely remain that way. Never have I heard a scientist say that their research is ‘the truth’. All those that I know (even the religious ones), know that they are on a quest to understand the universe or part thereof. For me it is the history of life and how it developed over a particular time interval. Nor do I think scientists are smug. Excited, engaged, enthralled, definitely, but not smug. Whatever we do in science is an approximation of reality, and we are only one experiment or one observation away from being proved wrong. That is a very sobering thought and is a very effective antidote to smugness. As for the global mess we face today, I’d argue that much of that is caused by religion, and its desperate desire to maintain its influence, such that it will do anything to hold onto it, even to the extent of attaching themselves to Trump, or perverting our democracy by lying profusely during the election campaign. So much for ‘thou shalt not bear false witness…’ I agree that we need allies within, but they are too few and far between. Most of the hierarchy of the organised religions seem to be bent on crushing any such allies. It is also not a case of us dismissing Christianity as a whole. People are leaving it in droves, and as I argue in the essay, it is not our dismissal, it is the behaviour of the churches which is to blame for their loss of influence.
Thanks for that reply. I think we both concur that if people practise faith with proper boundaries, and do not loudly evangelise, we (- but not all atheists) would let them be as they are. Of course this entails a willingness to compromise that is a sign of civiised conduct, partly the result of the Christian (gospel) tradition infusing itself over many generations, percolating into what we know today as social mores and common decency. Please think on that before opposing it. As to people mass volunteering to quit the Christian story/ideology , I would suggest that every mentally adequately equipped human being has as an adult, a belief system. The human merely slips from one set of givens into adopting another about the Unknown. Beliefs may be covertly, subconsciously held, or can be due to deliberate conscious choice – e.g the one who transfers from Ch to Muslim – more common these days, but illogical for me. Atheism is negative belief if you will, and is often defended as arduously as some Ch extremists rave about their saviour. I think it is precisely science, obvious more as as APPLIED science in the industrialising / industrialised world, that has given impetus to people to desert old-style strict religious institutions. Via scientific research proliferating at virus-like speed (- my image only, not disparaging it), the anglo-European world became full of things. New, amazing objects harnessing energies and capacities of myriad types. THINGS to make, to sell, to buy, to ease the once-precarious struggle of keeping alive. First millions, now billions, became able to afford and amass the objects, the hard-surfaced accoutrements for comfortable living. Also, the protections of 20th c medicine, diets and so on. Relieved of so many ages-old dangers that normally beset life, it is not surprising many have found religion less necessary. Wealthy westerners who nonetheless remain Christian or have a sense of the numinous, must be largely good thinkers. They realise that having commercial goods, gathering loads of modern “toys” still does not relieve us of ultimate questioning, nor of human suffering and death – just yet. However, there is wisdom in the notion that money, capital and consumer accumulation have combined into a de facto belief system. Albeit a poor, shallow substitute for ancient ones. I think all the foregoing tells us much about why Christ has become old-hat; even Buddha and the revered eastern sages of long ago. Capitalistic materialism ( – clumsy epithet) is fantastic in what it does to remove pain, discomfort, slow movement ( meaning fast trains, powerful cars etc). But is the “god of the goodies” a chimera? For me it really is, but apparently, for vast numbers, accumulation to the point of weird fetishism, (or post-mod cargo cult?) suffices; it has obviated belief/ reflection on anything remotely metaphysical-numinous. And there is a downside there, just as there has been with Ch and, say, Buddhism (take the Sri Lankan or Burmese events recently!!). I must end here, no doubt you the reader have had it! Language has limits as we plumb these murky depths, huge heights. Wittgenstein’s thought. “Whereof……” . The religion of silence is best perhaps. By the way, I agree that scandal and lying etc have brought low the reputation of Christian clerics, and added to the numbers leaving Christianity as an institution. Not all cease to practise it.
You don’t have to thank me. I enjoy interacting with people who actually have something to say. It makes me think, which is always a good thing. Speaking personally, I do not attack christians de novo. I only respond when they tell me I am doomed or unthinking or stupid, or when evolution or climate change are hoaxes. As for having a belief system; someone like me probably does, but it is not a belief in a supernatural entity, but a belief in a method of enquiry, which is loosely termed the scientific method. I also have a belief that a parliamentary democracy is a better system that all others previously attempted. So, at that level, you are correct, but they are hardly in the same league of a ‘belief system’ which entails believing in a supernatural entity which supposedly created the universe. I agree that many people seem to think having lots of stuff is important, but I think it is hardly analogous to the cargo cult of post WW2 PNG and Melanesia. I suspect it is more akin to sexual display: “I have lots of stuff so you will find me attractive”. I also think deities have become old hat not entirely because of the amount of stuff and medicine and travel, but because of knowledge. Religion, as far as I can understand it, was, in part, to attempt to explain the world to people. Now we have a much more powerful tool; science. Whether the religious believe it or not, any god is in part a ‘god of the gaps’, and because of science, those gaps are getting smaller, and consequently the need for religion to explain the world is getting smaller. This change is only accelerating as the accumulation of knowledge accelerates.
Overall, I can’t deny the god-of-the-gaps proposition. Yes, religion is far less required or meaningful among many people these days: especially the young and millenials. Yet there is a stark fact right in front of we who might deem ourselves rather advanced – deistic belief still holds sway over entire cultures and populations. Two billion plus Muslims? One billion or more Christians. And then the Hindus. It’s a long long road humankind is yet to trudge in the “Hitchens” direction. (Not that Hitchens or Dawkins have me acceding to all of their spiels.)
At home here some Hillsong-style folk occupy positions in government, showing a few odd predilections. A problem, but not a patch on the one the USA faces over its large and extreme Christian sects – e.g. with their frequent blind support for the rabid right in Israel. In that sense we down under are in luck of a sort. We have a small struggle for maintenance of sensible policy making. And in any case, religion aside, the most pressing issue is repair of ecological mayhem on many fronts. The mother of all problems, particularly given conditions across the globe at present; Greenland ice, etc.
Yep, I cannot disagree with any of that. The thing that worries me the most is something I heard about two decades ago from some religious nutter on the radio. They stated that we didn’t have to worry about the environment (climate change hadn’t made into their lexicon by that time), as god will fix it. That is disturbing.