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.