Australians have turned their backs on religion, but not their faith

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But for traditional churches, it has been a particular disaster. While it is true that secular and atheistic beliefs have flourished, it is not so much in the intellectual sphere as in the moral sphere that Christianity has lost its hold on Australian hearts.

People haven’t lost faith, as such. Although I’m not a mind reader, I guess checking off ‘no religion’ wasn’t so much a statement of outright atheism as a statement of identity: I don’t comfortably identify with one of the traditional religious groupings the way my ancestors once did.

The thirst for transcendence has not waned.Credit:PA

Census data does not give us this detailed analysis. But we don’t have to guess. The National Church Life Survey is a useful supplement to the census, as it investigated the actual beliefs of Australians.

And what the survey showed in 2019 is that 61% of Australians “still believe in God or a higher power”. Another question, who asked how people view themselves, found that around a quarter of Australians see themselves as actively religious. Another quarter is “not practicing”. Another 13% say they are “spiritual, not religious,” and 40% of respondents said they have connected to God without needing to attend a religious service.

More anecdotally, I would say that the thirst for transcendence has not waned, even if it is now expressed in a non-traditional way. On the contrary, we have seen an increase in interest during COVID. Australians, at least as I encounter them, are very open to a conversation about the spiritual, tend to be intrigued by the person and teachings of Jesus, and are looking for something beyond the endless cycle of work and consumption, for themselves and for their children.

Well-known authorities, such as psychologist Martin Seligman, are increasingly noting the general benefits to the health and well-being of individuals and communities of traditional religious beliefs and practices. People are noticing the higher levels of volunteerism and giving among religious communities and are curious.

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This is the challenge – and the opportunity – for Christian churches. It’s not that we need to become more secular or cooler. We have lost confidence where we have become too institutionalized and too desperate to cling to our influence. Our goal should not be to “win” the census, but to be more like Jesus Christ.

The Reverend Dr Michael Jensen is the Rector of St Mark’s Darling Point and co-host of the podcast With all my respect.

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