Australians who declared in last year's Census that they had "no religion" have overtaken the number of Catholics for the first time, although Christianity is still the religion of more than half the population.
Figures released recently from the Census held last August showed that 30 per cent of Australians reported that they had no religion in 2016, with Catholics making up 22.6 per cent of all Australians - more than 5.2 million people - down from 25.3 per cent in the previous Census in 2011. Anglicans have dropped even more significantly - from 17/1 per cent in 2011 to 13.3 per cent five years later.
Christianity is still the most common religion (52 per cent), down from 88 per cent in 1966 and 74 per cent in 1991. Islam (2.6 per cent) and Buddhism (2.4 per cent) were the next most common faiths reported.
The religious affiliation question was the only non-compulsory question in the Census and for the first time, "No religion" was the first option offered.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics said in a statement accompanying the release of the figures: "Australia is increasingly a story of religious diversity, with Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, and Buddhism all increasingly common religious beliefs. Hinduism had the most significant growth between 2006 and 2016, driven by immigration from South Asia.
"The growing percentage of Australia’s population reporting no religion has been a trend for decades, and is accelerating. Those reporting no religion increased noticeably from 19 per cent in 2006 to 30 per cent in 2016. The largest change was between 2011 (22 per cent) and 2016, when an additional 2.2 million people reported having no religion.
"How likely a person was to identify as religious in 2016 had a lot to do with their age. Young adults aged 18-34 were more likely to be affiliated with religions other than Christianity (12 per cent) and to report not having a religion (39 per cent) than other adult age groups. Older age groups, particularly those aged 65 years and over, were more likely to report Christianity."
Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane said the Census figures suggest “the young are more interested in unorganised spirituality than organised religion, and that they aren’t as interested in denominations as their forebears were”.
“There’s nothing very surprising about the new census figures, which tend to confirm what we already knew,” Archbishop Coleridge told Brisbane's Catholic Leader. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that people, young or old, are less religious than they were; but it does mean that they’re religious in very different ways than in the past. And the Church needs to look carefully at that, lest the communication gap between believers and non-believers grow even wider.”
Anglican priest and Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Melbourne's Monash University, Dr Gary Bouma, wrote in The Conversation that to keep a stable percentage of the population from 2011 to 2016, a religious group had to grow by 8.8 per cent – the national population growth rate.
"Australia now has more Muslims and more Buddhists than Presbyterians; more Hindus than Baptists or Lutherans; and nearly as many Sikhs as Lutherans," Dr Bouma wrote.
"The Christian proportion of the population has fallen to just over 50 per cent, down from 88 per cent 50 years ago. More significantly, the British Protestant percentage has declined to about 20%, making it smaller than Catholics. This marks a major shift in Australian culture, which – until about 1990 – was resolutely British Protestant, with Anglicans, Presbyterians and Methodists dominant.
"Not only has the proportion of Christians declined, it has become much less British Protestant. Australia’s religious life has changed beyond recognition from the 1950s and 1960s, when British Protestants comprised two-thirds of the population."
PICTURE: Catholic Church 80 kilometres to the east of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, Australia