The 2021 Australian National Census makes sobering reading. Figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics reveal that the number of Australians who ticked the “No Religion” box has almost doubled in the past 10 years—up from 22 per cent to almost 40 per cent today. At the same time, fewer people are willing to identify themselves as Christian: 44 per cent, down from 61 per cent a decade ago.
Of course, not everybody thinks that is cause for concern. Dr Heidi Nicholl, CEO of Humanists Australia, says it’s a turn for the better. She heads a movement that champions the philosophy of “being good without god”.
But John Anderson, former deputy prime minister of Australia, thinks the evidence proves otherwise. It’s quite out of place to be dancing on the gravestone of Christianity, he says, when the census does not indicate a concurrent improvement in Australian society. If less religion is a turn for the better, why are conditions in society getting worse? “Our society looks frankly more fractured, less trustworthy . . . less coherent than ever. So my question to those who are dancing on the grave, as they think they are, of Christianity—what’s the alternative? Where is your better way?”
Good question, says one Facebook philosopher. “As an agnostic individual, raised in a Christian household, even I can see the cost in the loss of Christianity in our nation—especially as it pertains to a backwards step to cultural values. Whilst I may be agnostic to the existence of a god . . . I am a fervent protector of Christianity purely for its philosophical values on morals, ethics and how to conduct oneself throughout life.”
However, it seems these larger questions are rarely considered by those who drift away from their faith heritage. What feels comfortable is what is good.
Sydney student Alexandra Wright, 24, is a good example. Alexandra grew up in a devout, church-going family and felt so connected to her faith that when it came time to choose a high school, she insisted on attending a Catholic college. In her mid-teens, however, she began to think that religion was not for her, and in the recent census, chose “no religion” without hesitation.
“It’s this generation,” she said. “We all grew up with religion; but when you start living your life, you realise you don’t identify with it.”
Her story is all too familiar. Time-honoured values discarded because they no longer “fit”. However, just because you don’t like something, doesn’t of itself mean it is not right.
But what is it exactly that she, and so many others, don’t identify with?
When asked, Alexandra replied that, while there was undoubtedly a good side to religion, the church was riddled with corruption and the abuse of power by its leaders. She wanted nothing to do with a way of life that could produce such ugliness.
But was she, and many like her, turning away from Christianity itself, or a distortion of it? The mess that some people make of religion does not mean that religion itself is bad. Perhaps it is simply being misrepresented.
If, as a non-musician, I pick up a cello and try to play a Bach sonata, the result is likely to be less than pleasant. But if the sound I make is noise instead of music, that does not mean that the sonata itself is awful; it simply means that I don’t know how to play it.
Jesus predicted that the majority of those who would profess Christianity wouldn’t know how to play it. “The way that leads to destruction is broad,” He said, “and its gate is wide for the many who choose the easy way. But the gateway to life is small, and the road is narrow, and only a few ever find it” (Matthew 7:13,14).
Based on current trends, non-believers could overtake Christians as the largest religious group in Australia by the time the next census is taken in 2026. But let us not conclude that Christianity is a failed religion.
As GK Chesterton famously remarked, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has not been wanted, and never really tried.”
Roger Vince pastors the Norfolk Island Adventist Church.