Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Some thoughts from the recent results from the 2016 Australian census (particularly from the "religion"section)

Well, last year's census results were released yesterday, and there's some interesting reading (at least for those of us who are interested in that sort of thing).

One of the most commented-upon facts from the census was the fact that, on the question of religious affiliation, 30% listed themselves as "no religion", up from 22% in the census five years ago.  I think there are some interesting possible reasons for this jump in the numbers.

One reason, in my opinion, for the growth in the number of the officially non-religious would be the growing scandal involving child sex abuse, and particularly the negligent and inept response by many religious leaders to this problem.  When the same conservative religious leaders who (actively or passively) tolerated paedophilia also get hot under the collar about other sex-related issues (only this time involving consenting adults), many people decide that these faith leaders need to experience the adult equivalent of being called into the headmaster's office for a serious chewing-out.  I believe that, for some of the 30%, listing themselves as "no religion" was their way of administering a well-deserved public bollocking to Australia's would-be Savonarolas, John Knoxes, Rasputins, Obadiah Slopes, and Elmer Gantrys.  (As well, this may be another good reason to reconsider my "modest proposal" from last year that all Christian churches in Australia undertake a voluntary moratorium on public comments about sex until all faith communities worldwide have satisfactorily dealt with the issues of child sex abuse.)    (1)

Another section of the 30% may be those whom the churches have seriously failed.
  • Some may be those who are survivors of child sex abuse in faith-related contexts, or family members / friends of survivors / victims.
  • Others may be those who were refused Communion by their church because of their marital status or their sexuality.
  • Others may be those who tried to present a child for Baptism, but were told they couldn't do so because they didn't attend worship frequently enough.  (Or they may have been the child who was rejected.)
  • Others may have been aware of family members who were treated badly by their churches back in the pre-ecumenical "bad old days" when they married a person from a different denomination or a different faith tradition.
  • Others may have found that over-exposure to "hellfire and damnation" preaching in their youth led to a lifetime of low self-esteem (or even more serious mental health issues).
There are those in the community whom the churches have seriously failed.  In the light of this serious pastoral ineptitude, can we blame them if some choose to list themselves as "no religion" on the census?

Looking more particularly at Tasmania, where the percentages listing a religious affiliation are even lower, there are some distinctly Tasmanian factors at work here.
  • The fact that we have a far more "Anglo" population than the rest of Australia may suggest that we also have a far more secular population.
  • As well, the fact that we have a far higher percentage of working-class people than the rest of the country may also indicate that we have a lesser rate of religious affiliation.
  • Also, the leadership of the two largest Christian denominations in Tasmania has become far more theologically and socially conservative than the bulk of their lay membership in recent years and, as a result, are increasingly perceived by the wider community as out-of-touch with the community. Many people who once would have identified on the census with the denomination in which they were brought up are less likely to bother doing so.

As a minister of religion myself, albeit a retired one, I think all of this may be a challenge to the churches - around Australia and here in Tasmania - to lift our pastoral game.

(1)   Please note that this paragraph was written and posted a day before a senior figure in a major Christian denomination in Australia was charged with offenses relating to the sexual abuse of minors.  As a result, this paragraph was not a comment on those charges which, at present, are sub judice.   

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Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.