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Sydney/Gütersloh (Germany), 04/07/2008

Australia is not ''God's own country''

International Religion Monitor registers Australia as one of the world’s least religious countries – But religion is not a dying philosophy of life – Australian Catholics are not the country’s most devout Christians

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When Pope Benedict XVI travels to Australia for the first time for World Youth Day this week, he will be descending on one of the least religious nations in the western world. Although two-thirds of Australians identify themselves as Christians, religion plays an important role in the minds and everyday lives of only a minority according to the Religion Monitor, an international survey carried out by the Bertelsmann Foundation, Europe´s biggest operating foundation. The Religion Monitor is the most extensive and detailed international comparative study on the significance of religion in the main cultures of the world.

According to this representative international survey of 21.000 people, 28% of the Australian population see themselves as not at all religious, with religious practices and beliefs barely featuring in their lives. A similar number classify themselves as deeply religious (25%) whilst 44% of Australians say they consider themselves religious but that religion does not play a central role in their lives.

48% of Australians do not partake in personal prayer, and 52% never or very seldom visit a church, mosque, synagogue or temple for religious reasons. 31% said that they did not believe in God or a divine power or in life after death. Religion scored lower than all other parts of daily life, with 50% of Australians considering religion the least important when compared to family, partners, work/career, leisure time and politics.

In an international comparison this ranks Australians at the bottom end of the scale (ranked 17 out of 21 nations polled) in terms of their religiousness. This is a stark contrast to the U.S., where over 60% are deeply religious and only 11% are not religious. The survey finds that the only countries to show less interest in religion than Australia were Russia, France, Germany and the United Kingdom. 

According to the latest population censuses, 64% of Australians classify themselves as Christian, while 31% classify themselves as not religious or give no information. Totaling over five million people, or 25% of the population, Catholics represent the largest faith group and Christian denomination in Australia. Yet the Religion Monitor reveals that they are not the most religious group.

Religion is strongest among the small group of free-church and Pentecostal Protestants, which also includes the Charismatic Movements. According to the Religion Monitor, 50% of this group is unequivocally deeply religious and 38% are religious. Only 11% are officially members of one of these faith communities but are, de facto, not religious. In comparison, 30% of the followers of the Anglican Church are deeply religious, but almost a fifth of Anglicans classified themselves as not religious. The Catholics score in the middle with 37% deeply religious people, 52% religious and 10% non-religious people.

Religious belief in Australia is also very much a women’s thing. While 34% of Australian women are deeply religious, the proportion of deeply religious men is less than half that figure (16%). 20% of women and 36% of men are not religious.

There is also a wide generation gap when it comes to the importance of religion. In the over 60 age group, 40% are deeply religious and 37% religious. In the younger age groups, only half that number are considered deeply religious. The proportion of non-religious people amongst adults aged between 18 and 59 varies between 28 and 33%, about 50% higher than amongst those aged over 60.

This is not to say that the Pope will be landing in a religious desert on his visit to the World Youth Day in Australia.

“One the eve of World Youth Day it is interesting to note the strong religious vitality recorded amongst the nation’s youth,” said Dr. Martin Rieger, leader of Bertelsmann Foundation’s religious project.

“72% of Australia’s young adults believe in God or a divine power and/or a life after death – this is even more than in the over 60 age group. Almost half of those under 30 said that they partake in prayer on a more or less regular basis and the same proportion see God as a personal being. These figures clearly refute the assumption that religious belief is dwindling from generation to generation,” said Dr. Rieger.

Australians also have a largely positive perception of God. The majority of religious people evidently think of God as a loving, kind-hearted being. The most frequent feelings they associate with God are gratitude, hope, happiness and love. These are followed by attributes such as security, help, awe and justice. Markedly less people feel despair, fear or deliverance from guilt when they think of God. And even less people associate vengeance or deliverance from evil with God. Only amongst Anglicans did the feeling of despair make it as high as fifth place.

The majority of religious Australians are not just “Sunday Christians or believers”. Their belief is highly relevant to their everyday lives. Their belief influences the upbringing of children the most, coming next is religion’s role in providing support at special occasions such as births, weddings and deaths. At third place – and this was a surprise for researchers – was the role people’s religious beliefs play in how they treat nature. In contrast, religion has much less influence when it comes to sexuality, how they spend their leisure time and work and it has the least influence on people’s political views. Especially Catholics do not let their belief influence their views on sexuality and politics. Religious Protestants and Anglicans are more influenced in these areas by their belief.

As in other industrialised countries, there is a clear trend in Australia towards a “patchwork” belief structure, one comprised of individual interpretations and belief models drawn from different faiths. 

While 43% of Australians envisage God as a personal being, 44% said that the divine power is nature and 43% said that God is “a force that flows through everything”. The same number believe that “God or the divine is only an idea conceived by humankind and has no existence of its own.20% of Anglicans shares this view. Almost a fifth of Australians (19%) believes in psychic powers to a relative or large extent, however fewer believe in astrology, with only 11% convinced. A similar figure (12%) believe in the power of demons, but interestingly 28% believe in angels – in particular young adults (32%) and women (36%).

Dr. Martin Rieger, the leader of the religion project of the Bertelsmann Foundation, therefore concludes in the run-up to the World Youth Day and the Pope’s visit: “That Christianity and Catholicism in Australia are not blossoming, but equally are not in danger of losing their core roots. The big polarity between religious and non-religious people is very defined here. Typical is the trend towards a loose, perhaps seeking, spirituality that no longer has any clear relationship to the different churches and denominations. This reveals a great potential for religions and all churches that has so far been neglected and perhaps overlooked.”

For more information, please contact:

Kristen Atkinson
Weber Shandwick for Bertelsmann Foundation
T: 61 2 9994 4055 
M: 61 423 352 617
E: katkinson@webershandwick.com

Notes to Editors

Online Religion Monitor on the Internet: The surveys, which were carried out internationally, find their complement through an ongoing online survey. In the online survey on www.religionsmonitor.com users can compile their individual religiousness profile and compare it with the average values for their country.

About the Religion Monitor: The Religion Monitor is a new, interdisciplinary and inter-religious project of the Bertelsmann Foundation. In a first phase, over 21,000 people from 21 countries were polled on over 100 items. Six core dimensions of religion and belief were investigated, including religious beliefs, religious experiences, public and private religious practices and the relevance of religion to everyday life. The results are consolidated in a central index comprising the classifications “deeply religious”, “religious” and “non-religious”. With this data, wide-reaching conclusions can be drawn on the importance of religious belief for individuals, for different areas of daily life and on the ramifications on social dynamics. The findings also contain important information on the different religions. 

About the Bertelsmann Foundation: The Bertelsmann Foundation is committed to the common good. It works in the fields of education, business and social justice, healthcare, and international understanding by promoting inter-cultural interaction. The Foundation is non-profit. It was founded in 1977 by Reinhard Mohn and holds a majority of the shares in Bertelsmann AG. The Bertelsmann Foundation is an operational, non-partisan foundation.

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