From a lot of cultural indicators, you’d think that religious belief in Australia was on the increase. Certainly politicians and commentators talk about it more than they used to; Kevin Rudd is more open about his Christianity than any of his recent predecessors, and Paul Kelly assured us last year that secularists “are fighting a losing cause”.

And just the other day, the prime minister announced the allocation of an extra $25 million to his program for school chaplains, whose aim he said is to “provide counselling, support and where appropriate spiritual guidance.”

But if we move from the world of rhetoric to the world of hard data, the picture is quite different. This week’s release of 2006 census figures shows that only 70% of Australians identified with a religion, and only 64% with some variety of Christianity (down from 71% in 1996). Just under 19% said they had no religion, while about 11% declined to answer the question.

Even those figures, however, overstate the extent of religious commitment. While, for example, the 1.1% who described themselves as Pentecostals are probably serious about their religion, we know that more traditional categories – principally Roman Catholic (25.8%), but also Islam (1.7%) and Judaism (0.4%) – function more as social or cultural identities, and do not necessarily involve religious belief.

They certainly don’t equate to church attendance: the 2001 National Church Life Survey found that weekly attendance was down to 8.8% of the population. A 2002 survey found that 18.8% “claimed to attend religious services at least monthly”, down from 20% in just four years. And surveys of what people actually believe consistently find that many professed adherents of traditional religions are in fact gripped by what George Pell calls “heresy or unbelief”.

In light of this continuing shift, some hard questions need to be asked of the school chaplains program. Why does the prime minister think that religious representatives have some particular expertise in counselling and support? Why is Christian belief still being presented as the norm when it is patently no such thing? And what are the non-religious taxpayers getting for their money – where are the paid proselytisers for secularism?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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