Religion in Australia

Religion in Australia

There is no state religion in Australia, the establishment of which is prohibited by the Constitution. Nearly two thirds (64%) of the population claim at least nominal adherence to a Christian-based religion, but nearly one third (30%), do not identify with any religion. [Gladigau K., West, Dr B.,"Flinders Social Monitor", No. 8, April 2007 (ISSN 1834-3783),] The remaining population is a diverse group that includes fast-growing Islamic and Buddhist communities. [Australian Christian Lobby, Voice for values 2003 - 2008,]

Indigenous religions

At the time of European settlement, the Indigenous Australians had their own religious traditions of the Dreamtime (as Mircea Eliade put it) "There is a general belief among the [indigenous] Australians that the world, man, and the various animals and plants were created by certain Supernatural beings who afterwards disappeared, either ascending to the sky or entering the earth" [Eliade, M., Australian Religions: An Introduction, Oxford University Press, London, 1973 ISBN 080140729x, p. 1.] and ritual systems, with an emphasis on life transitions such as puberty and death [Berndt, R. M., Australian Aboriginal Religion, E. J. Brill, Leiden, 1974 ISBN 9004038612, pp. 4-5] .


Prior to European settlement in 1788 there was contact with Indigenous Australians from people of various faiths. These contacts were with explorers, fishermen and survivors of the numerous shipwrecks. There has been countless artefacts [ [ Aboriginal painting "Coming of the Macassan traders"] ] retrieved from these contacts. The Aboriginals of Northern Australia (Arnhem Land) retain stories, songs and paintings of trade and cultural interaction with boat-people from the North. These people are generally regarded as being from the east Indonesian archipelago. (See: Macassan contact with Australia.) There is some evidence of Islamic terms and concepts entering Northern Aboriginal culture via this interaction. [ [ Article about Islam in Australia] ] [ [ A History of Islam in Australia ] ]

Centuries before European sailors reached Australia, Christian theologians already speculated whether this region, located on the opposite side of the Earth from Europe, had human inhabitants, and if so, whether these Antipodes have descended from Adam and have been redeemed by Jesus. The prevailing point of view, expressed by Augustine of Hippo was that "it is too absurd to say that some men might have set sail from this side and, traversing the immense expanse of ocean, have propagated there a race of human beings descended from that one first man." [Saint Augustine, "De Civitate Dei", xvi, 9. Quoted from .] [ABC Boyer Lectures, 2004. [ Lecture 1: Antipodes] ] A dissenting view, held by the Irish-Austrian St. Vergilius of Salzburg was "that beneath the earth there was another world and other men"; while not much is known about Vergilius' views, Catholic Encyclopedia speculates that he was able to clear himself from accusations of heresy by explaining that the people of the hypothetical Australia "were" descended from Adam and redeemed by the Lord. [.There is also an article on JSTOR: John Carey, "Ireland and the Antipodes: The Heterodoxy of Virgil of Salzburg". "Speculum", Vol. 64, No. 1 (Jan., 1989), pp. 1-10]

By the early 18th century, Christian leaders felt that the natives of the little known "Terra Australis Incognita" and "Hollandia Nova" (still often thought as two distinct land masses) are in the need of conversion to Christianity. In 1724, young Jonathan Edwards wrote:

... And what is peculiarly glorious init, is the gospelizing the new and before unknown world,that which is so remote, so unknown, where the devil hadreigned quietly from the beginning of the world, which islarger – taking in America, Terra Australis Incognita,Hollandia Nova, ... – is far greater than the old world. I say, that thisnew world should all worship the God of Israel, whoseworship was then confined to so narrow a land, iswonderful and glorious! [Jonathan Edwards, Sermons and Discourses 1720-1723, ed. Wilson H. Kimnach, The Works ofJonathan Edwards, vol. 10 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), p.279. Quoted from [] ]

Christianity was introduced with European settlement of Australia from 1788, denominations represented were predominantly Roman Catholic found amongst Irish convicts and Anglican among other convicts and their gaolers. Other groups were also represented, for example, among the Tolpuddle Martyrs were a number of Methodists.

After settlement, some Muslim sailors and prisoners came to Australia on the convict ships, Afghan cameleers settled in Australia from the 1860s onwards, from the 1870s Malay divers were recruited (with most subsequently repatriated). Islam was not a significant force in this period.

During the 1800s, European settlers brought their traditional churches to Australia. These included the Church of England (now the Anglican Church), and the Methodist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Congregationalist and Baptist churches.

With the exception of a small but significant Lutheran population of German descent, Australian society in 1901 was predominantly Anglo-Celtic, with 40% of the population being Anglican (then Church of England), 23% Catholic, 34% other Christian and about 1% professing non-Christian religions. The first census in 1911 showed 96 percent identified themselves as Christian.

Further waves of migration and the gradual repeal of the White Australia Policy, helped to reshape the profile of Australia's religious affiliations over subsequent decades. The impact of migration from Europe in the aftermath of World War II led to increases in affiliates of the Orthodox Churches, the establishment of Reformed bodies, growth in the number of Catholics (largely from Italian migration) and Jews (Holocaust survivors), and the creation of ethnic parishes among many other denominations. More recently (post-1970s), immigration from South-East Asia and the Middle East has expanded Buddhist and Muslim numbers considerably, and increased the ethnic diversity of existing Christian denominations.

As has been the trend throughout the world since the terrorist attacks of September 11, there has been an increasingly strained relationship between the adherents of Islam and the wider community. However, the influence of the identity politics as a whole is not to be discounted in this respects; reflected in the conflicting and ambiguous interpretation of the 2005 Cronulla riots.

Constitutional Status

Section 116 of the 1900 Act to constitute the Commonwealth of Australia (Australian Constitution) provides that::"The Commonwealth of Australia shall not make any law establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth."

In 1983, the High Court of Australia defined religion as "a complex of beliefs and practices which point to a set of values and an understanding of the meaning of existence". The ABS 2001 Census Dictionary defines "No Religion" as a category of religion which has sub categories such as agnosticism, atheism, Humanism and rationalism.

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) is able to inquire into allegations of discrimination on religious grounds, the Racial Discrimination Act, is also relevant.

HREOC's 1998 [ Article 18 Freedom of religion and belief] addressing the human right to freedom of religion and belief in Australia against article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights stated that "despite the legal protections that apply in different jurisdictions, many Australians suffer discrimination on the basis of religious belief or non-belief, including members of both mainstream and non-mainstream religions, and those of no religious persuasion."

Many non-Christian adherentsWho|date=September 2007 have complained to HREOC that the dominance of traditional Christianity in civic life has the potential to marginalise large numbers of citizens. An example of an HREOC response to such views is the "IsmaU project" [ [ Executive Summary: Isma - Listen ] ] , which examines possible racial prejudice against Muslims in Australia since the September 11 attacks in the USA, and the Bali bombings.


A question on religious affiliation has been asked in every census taken in Australia, with the voluntary nature of this question having been specifically stated since 1933. In 1971, the instruction 'if no religion, write none' was introduced. This saw a sevenfold increase from the previous census year in the percentage of Australians stating they had no religion. Since 1971, this percentage has progressively increased to about 19% in 2006.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2006 Census Dictionary statement on religious affiliation states the purpose for gathering such information:

"Data on religious affiliation are used for such purposes as planning educational facilities, aged persons' care and other social services provided by religion-based organisations; the location of church buildings; the assigning of chaplains to hospitals, prisons, armed services and universities; the allocation of time on public radio and other media; and sociological research."

The [ 2006 census] identified that 64% of Australians call themselves Christian: 26% identifying themselves as Roman Catholic and 19% as Anglican. Five percent of Australians identify themselves as followers of non-Christian religions, and 19% categorised as having "No Religion"; 12% declined to answer or did not give a response adequate for interpretation. As in many Western countries, the level of active participation in church worship is much lower than this; weekly attendance at church services is about 1.5 million, about 7.5% of the population.ref|NCLSattsurvey

According to the census, the fastest growing religions during the intercensal period between 2001 and 2006 were: Hinduism by 55.2 percent, Non-religion by 27.5 percent, Islam by 20.9 percent, Buddhist affiliation increased by 17 percent, and Judaism by 6 percent. Christianity was the only religion to show negative growth, with the number of followers falling by 0.6 percent.

The largest population increase was Non-religion which increase by 800,557 people. Buddhism increased by 60,936 people, Islam by 58,816 people, Hindu by 52,657 people. Christianity was the only religion to decrease in population, decreasing by 78,513. During that same period the population of Australia increased by 1,086,039.

Indigenous Australian traditions

Indigenous Australians have a complex oral tradition and spiritual values based upon reverence for the land and a belief in the Dreamtime. The Dreamtime is at once the ancient time of creation and the present day reality of Dreaming. There were a great many different groups, each with their own individual culture, belief structure, and language. These cultures overlapped to a greater or lesser extent, and evolved over time. The Rainbow Serpent is a major dream spirit for Aboriginal people across Australia. The Yowie and Bunyip are other well known dream spirits. At the time of the European settlement, traditional religions were animist and also tended to have elements of ancestor worship.

According to the 2001 census, 5,244 persons or less than 0.03 percent of respondents reported practising Aboriginal traditional religions. Aboriginal beliefs and spirituality, even among those Aborigines who identify themselves as members of a traditional organised religion, are intrinsically linked to the land generally and to certain sites of significance in particular. The 1996 census reported that almost 72 percent of Aborigines practised some form of Christianity and 16 percent listed no religion. The 2001 census contained no comparable updated data.


The churches with the largest number of members are the Roman Catholic Church in Australia, the Lutheran Church of Australia, the Uniting Church in Australia, and the Anglican Church of Australia. The Pentecostal churches and charismatic movement are also present with megachurches being found in most states (for example, Hillsong Church and Paradise Community Church). The National Council of Churches in Australia is the main Christian ecumenical body. Denominations of Australia

Christian denominations:
*Anglican Church of Australia (formerly Church of England)
*Australian Christian Churches (formerly Assemblies of God in Australia)
*Baptist Union of Australia
*Christian City Churches
*Christian Outreach Centre
*Church of Christ
*Churches of Christ in Australia
*Congregational Federation of Australia
*CRC Churches International
*Lutheran Church of Australia
*Presbyterian Church of Australia
*Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia
*Presbyterian Reformed Church (Australia)
*Roman Catholic Church in Australia
*Seventh Day Adventist Church
*The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
*Uniting Church in Australia


Hindus are a religious minority in Australia of roughly 150,000 adherents according to the 2006 census. [ [,%202001,%202006%20Census%20Years)&producttype=Census%20Tables&method=Place%20of%20Usual%20Residence&topic=Religion&] ] In the 19th century, Hindus first came to Australia to work on cotton and sugar plantations. Many remained as small businessmen, working as camel drivers, merchants and hawkers, selling goods between small rural communities. These days Hindus are well educated professionals in fields such as medicine, engineering, commerce and information technology. As a community Hindus live relatively peacefully and in harmony with the local populations, and recent times have seen an influx of Hindu students and labourers into Australian society.


The first interaction that Islam had with Australia was through the Muslim fisherman from Makassar in Indonesia who visited North-Western Australia long before 1788. This can be identified from the graves they dug for their comrades who died on the journey, which face Mecca in Arabia in accordance with Islamic reguolations concerning burial, as well as evidence from Aboriginal cave paintings and religious ceremonies which depict and incorporate the adoption of Makassan canoe designs and words. [Morissey et al (1993, 2001), Living Religion, Pearson Education Australia Pty Ltd, (Malaysia). ] [Hussein Abdulwahid Ameen, 'Muslims in Our Near North',, (viewed) 7 May 2008]

Throughout the 19th century Muslims came to Australia in order to perform specific labour jobs which could not be done by European's at the time. Perhaps the most significant example is seen in the Afghan Camaleers, who used their camels to transport goods and people through the otherwise unnavigable desert. Nonetheless, despite their significant role in Australia prior to the establishment of rail and road networks, these camaleers were persecuted by legal means due to their Islamic faith and non-European ethnicity. This was seen in the fact that they were not allowed to bring their wives or children to Australia, and were unable to marry white Australian women, and hence often married Aboriginal women who had converted to Islam.

In the early twentieth century, people of non-European descent were discriminated against in the Australian legal system, in particular through the White Australia policy which restricted immigration of Asians, Indo-Aryans, Turkic peoples from Asia Minor and other non-Anglo European areas. In the 1920s and 1930s, Albanian Muslims were accepted due to their lighter European complexion, which was more compatible with the White Australia Policy.

From the 1970s onwards, there was a significant shift in the government’s attitude towards immigration during the years of Labor Government. Towards the end of the 20th and the beginning 21st Centuries Australia has encouraged legal immigration from all countries, but Governmental policy towards humanitarian refugees following the "War on Terror" has been criticised as a result of notorious refugee camps where detainees have been kept for up to eight years without their case being considered. This combined with religious conversion to Islam by Christian and other Australians, and Australia's participation in UN refugee efforts has increased the overall Muslim population.

Islam's relationship with the wider community in Australia has been difficult and subsequently has been labelled the "Muslim problem" by some commentators. [ [ Muslim Australians] ] Some Islamic leaders claim their religion suffered from stereotyping and a view that it is "overly religious" [ [ Govt considers Muslim advisory body] ] [ [ Muslim leaders back advisory body plan] ] [ [ Whites fleeing racially mixed schools in Australia: report] ] . This uneasy position within Australian society was apparent in responses of the most senior Muslim to the Sydney gang rapes [ [,20867,20646437-601,00.html Muslim leader blames women for sex attacks] ] . Additionally, persecution and bias against Islam and people of middle eastern appearance was evident in the Cronulla riots and in response to the Bali bombings and attack on Australian Embassy in Jakarta by Islamic fundamentalists. [ [ Solutions to the Muslim problem in Australia] ]


The history of the Jews in Australia began with the transportation of 16 Jewish convicts aboard the First Fleet in 1788 when the first European settlement was established on the continent in present-day Sydney. Today, an estimated 110,000 Jews reside in Australia, the majority being Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern European descent, with many being refugees and Holocaust survivors who arrived during and after World War II.

The Jewish population has increased slightly recently by immigrants from South Africa and the former Soviet Union. According to the 2001 Commonwealth census, 83,459 people identified themselves as Jews. The largest Jewish community in Australia is in Melbourne with about 50,000 followed closely by Sydney with 45,000 members. Smaller communities are dispersed among the remaining capital cities.

Following the conclusion of the British Colonial period, Jews have enjoyed formal equality before the law in Australia and have not been subject to civil disabilities or other forms of state-sponsored antisemitism which exclude them from full participation in public life.


According to the Australian census in 2001, Buddhism is the largest non-Christian religion in Australia, with 357,813 adherents, or 1.9% of the total population. It was also the fastest growing religion in terms of percentage, having increased its number of adherents by 79% since the previous census in 1996. Although the first concrete example of Buddhist settlement in Australia was in 1848, there has been speculation from some anthropologists that there may have been contact hundreds of years earlier. In the mid to late 19th century, groups of Buddhists arrived from China, Japan and Sri Lanka. The first instance of a monk in residence in Australia was in the 1970s, and Buddhism gradually grew after that, mainly due to Asian immigration.


Sikhs have been in Australia since the 1900s. The 2006 Australian Census shows about 26 thousand followers. [ Census Table 2006 - 20680-Religious Affiliation (full classification list) by Sex - Australia] ] In 1996 there were some 12,000. In 2001 there were 17,000. [ A Practical Reference to Religious Diversity for Operational Police and Emergency Services "2nd" edition] ]

Bahá'í Faith

The Bahá'í faith in Australia has a long history and a growing visible presence in the country since 1922. A Bahá'í House of Worship exists in Sydney, dedicated on 17 September 1961 and opened to the public after four years of construction. The 1996 Australian Census lists Bahá'í membership at just under 9 thousand Bahá'ís. [ A Practical Reference to Religious Diversity for Operational Police and Emergency Services "2nd" edition] ] The 2001 the 2nd edition of A Practical Reference to Religious Diversity for Operational Police and Emergency Services added the Bahá'í faith in its coverage of religions in Australia and noted the community had grown to over 11 thousand.

No Religion

Australia is one of the least devout nations in the developed world, with religion not described as a central part in many people's lives. [ [ God's OK, it's just the religion bit we don't like] Sydney Morning Herald] As of 2006, there are 3,706,555 people in Australia with purely secular beliefs, categorised by ABS as "No Religion". This category includes just 4 named sub-categories, namely agnosticism, atheism, Humanism and rationalism. A 5th sub-category is "No Religion, nfd" (nfd=no further definition).

According to earlier Australian Bureau of Statistics data, in 2001 15.5% of the Australian population identified themselves as having "No Religion" in a census question. This was 1.5% lower than the 1996 result but increased to 18.8% in the census in 2006. [ [,23599,21976369-2,00.html "Census figures show more Australians have no religion"] , "Mark Schliebs", "", 26 July 2007.]

A popular replacement for Atheist during the 2001 Australian Census was "Jedi" (see also Jedi census phenomenon).

Combined, non-theistic secularists are the second largest "religious" grouping in Australia after Christianity.

Despite non-theistic secularists representing nearly 20% of the Australian population, the Australian Bureau of Statistics does not provide information in the annual "1301.0 - Year Book Australia" on religious affiliation [ [ 1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2006 ] ] as to how many people fall into each sub-category.

Atheist interests in Australia are represented nationally by the Atheist Foundation of Australia. Humanist interests in Australia are represented nationally by the Council of Australian Humanist Societies. Rationalist interests in Australia are represented nationally by the Rationalist Society of Australia.


Going through the 2006 census shows 53 listed groups down to 5000 members (most of them Christian denominations, many of them national versions like Greek and Serbian Orthodox). Of the smaller religions Pagan shows 15 thousand, Bahá'í 12 thousand, Wiccan at 8 thousand, Humanism about 7 thousand. Between 1 and 5 thousand, other than small Christian denominations, there are the following religions - Taoist, Druse, Nature Religion, Satanism, Zoroastrian, Rationalism, Theosophy, Jainism, Pantheism, and Druidism. Some of these religions are ancient and some relatively new and small changes in actual numbers of people can substantially affect their community's size. See Claims to be the fastest growing religion for issues affecting growth in religions. In general, however, non-Christian religions, as well as those subscribing to no religion, have been experiencing a rise in proportion to the overall population. [ [!OpenDocument Census shows non-Christian religions continue to grow at a faster rate] - Media Fact Sheet, June 27, 2007] With fewer classifications, data from 1996 and 2001 shows Aboriginal Spirituality decreasing from 7 thousand to 5 thousand while Bahá'í grows from just under 9 thousand to over 11 thousand and the rest of the "Other" category growing from about 69,000 to about 92,000.

ee also

*List of the largest churches in Australia
*A Practical Reference to Religious Diversity for Operational Police and Emergency Services
*Iranian Australian (lists religions affiliation of Australians of Iranian descent, including those who are expatriates in exile or permanent immigrants.)


*Terence Lovat, "New Studies in Religion". Social Science Press pg 148 (2002)
*Berndt, R. M., "Australian Aboriginal Religion", E. J. Brill, Leiden, 1974 ISBN 90-04-03861-2
*Eliade, M., "Australian Religions: An Introduction", Oxford University Press, London, 1973 ISBN 0-8014-0729-X


Australian Bureau of Statistics

* [ Australian Standard Classification of Religious Groups (ASCRG), 1266.0, 1996]
* [ 1996 Census Dictionary - Religion category]
* [ 2001 Census Dictionary - Religion category]
* [ Year Book Australia, 2006. Religious Affiliation section]


# [ NCLS releases latest estimates of church attendance] , National Church Life Survey, Media release, 28 February 2004
# [ Australia in US Department of State "International Religious Freedom Report 2003"]

External links

* [ National Church Life Survey]
* [ Australia in USA Department of State "International Religious Freedom Report"]
* [ Australians Turning to Islam]

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