Massive shifts in how and whom we worship

YOUNG Australians and migrant families are driving a religious revolution that is changing the spiritual makeup of Australia.

Christians have plummeted from 88 per cent of the population half a century ago to just 52 per cent, while the nation's fastest-growing religions are Sikhism and Hinduism, ahead of Islam.

That coincides with the arrival of 300,000 permanent migrants from India since 2000, the highest number from any country including China and England.

By raw numbers Christianity is still the nation's largest faith but almost one-third of Australians now no longer identify with any religion - up from 0.8 per cent in 1966, census figures show.

 

Choirboys gather at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney’s largest Catholic church. Picture: Giovanni Portelli
Choirboys gather at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney’s largest Catholic church. Picture: Giovanni Portelli

Demographers say thousands in the no religion group, mainly younger Australians, are worshipping at a different altar, taking their spiritual needs from practices such as meditation and veganism.

Data also shows that Sydney's northwestern "Bible Belt" is losing its religious mantle to the growth suburbs of the southwest, which are populated by increasing numbers of migrant families.

One researcher said: "The Hindu community is already much larger than the Pentecostal community in Australia and the Sikhs are much larger than the Salvation Army.

Sheikh Yahyasafi leads prayers for drought-stricken Australian farmers at Lakemba Mosque last month. Picture: Hollie Adams/The Australian
Sheikh Yahyasafi leads prayers for drought-stricken Australian farmers at Lakemba Mosque last month. Picture: Hollie Adams/The Australian

"If their rate of growth continues the Hindus and Sikhs will surpass the number of Muslims and the number of Buddhists in Australia … making them the second-largest religious community, surpassed only by the Christians."

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his family, who attend the Horizon Pentecostal Christian Church at Sutherland in Sydney's south, have focused a new spotlight on Australians' religious life.

A video from a Pentecostal Church in Melbourne shows the PM leading prayers for victims of the Sulawesi earthquake and for Australia's drought-afflicted farmers.

Filmed by a member of the congregation, the video shows fellow worshippers cheering, laughing and applauding Mr Morrison as he prays.

 

Worship inside the Hillsong conference at Homebush last year. Picture: Jenny Evans
Worship inside the Hillsong conference at Homebush last year. Picture: Jenny Evans

 

Pentecostal numbers in Australia have increased but the Anglican Church lost 216,563 adherents in NSW between 2011 and 2016, the Catholic Church shed 67,731 and the Uniting Church 53,841, while Hindus added 61,559 and Muslims 48,306.

Off a small base, Sikh numbers nationally soared by 74 per cent to 126,000 from 2011 to 2016. Sikhs also had the youngest age profile, with almost three-quarters under 35.

But lecturer and researcher Dr Jonathan James from Edith Cowan University said many younger Aussies refused to be pigeonholed by religion.

"The fact that the younger demographic is more inclined to admit to 'no religion' does not bode well for the future of faith in Australia," he said.

"The label need not necessarily mean the espousal of atheism but rather the rejection of religious labels."

Demographer Glenn Capuano from ID Consulting said there had been decreases in traditional religions across all age groups.

Hillsong Chapel at Baulkham Hills.
Hillsong Chapel at Baulkham Hills.

 

"We are changing spiritually and moving away from the traditional Christian religions," he said.

"Australia-wide, the Anglicans have lost 578,000 since 2011, the Uniting Church almost 200,000 and the Catholics are down in some areas. Pentecostals are up by 22,500 but that is in line with population growth."

Figures show Sydney is the most religious city of Australia's state capitals with the most devout Christians living around the western suburbs of Abbotsbury, Horsley Park and Bossley Park.

 

Nan Tien Temple near Wollongong is the largest Buddhist house of worship in the southern hemisphere.
Nan Tien Temple near Wollongong is the largest Buddhist house of worship in the southern hemisphere.

 

Sociology of religion expert Associate Professor Ruth Powell of Charles Sturt University said while religion was declining, spirituality was robust.

"Fewer people now are saying that part of their identity is associated with the Christian faith. This is particularly true for young people, who might have quite a spiritual life," Prof Powell said.

"From our surveys we know that six in ten people say they believe in a personal God or life force … and 30 per cent pray or meditate at least once a week."

 

Sikh family Charandeep and Norin Singh and children Harnoor and Avreet, pictured at their Kellyville home this week. Picture: David Swift
Sikh family Charandeep and Norin Singh and children Harnoor and Avreet, pictured at their Kellyville home this week. Picture: David Swift

 

Prof Powell said all volunteer institutions had seen people pulling away and since the royal commission into child sexual abuse some might feel disillusioned and betrayed.

New South Wales had the highest religious affiliation rate at 66 per cent, while Tasmania (53 per cent) was the lowest.

At Kellyville Ridge in Sydney's northwest, Charandeep Singh, Norin Singh and their children Harnoor, 10, and Avreet Kaur, 8, are part of the Australia's growing Sikh community, which dates back to the 19th century.

"Our religion … promotes an enduring spirit of positivity, a life of service and dedication and loving communities," Norin said.

"Sikhi is respected the world over as a religion of peace and unity of mankind."

 

PONDERING PROS OF A DIY FAITH

THE mental health and wellbeing movement is seemingly a modern alternative to church.

But meditator and author Amy Molloy says Generation Y is no less spiritual.

Amy Molloy, meditator and author on inspiration and overcoming adversity. Picture: Jody Pachniuk
Amy Molloy, meditator and author on inspiration and overcoming adversity. Picture: Jody Pachniuk

 

"We just live our entire lives outside the box including on a census form," she says.

"We crave rituals and ceremonies that show results right now - not only the promise of salvation after we pass over.

"Millennials more than ever get to choose our own paths ... what we do (or don't) worship."

Demographers say eclectic New Agers draw from a variety of sources.

Dr Jonathan James says: "In many ways it's a DIY faith, mostly without the strong mediating influence of a priest."

 

HOLY CHURCH OF VIRTUAL REALITY

A NEW army of religious faithful has emerged who never set foot in a church.

They are the virtual devotees who go online for sermons and devotions.

While many young people have no interest in traditional religious services and look elsewhere for spiritual fodder, others have been driven away from churches by horrendous revelations of child sexual abuse. Many people are now happy to identify as 'spiritual" but not as religious, sociologists say.

From the comfort of their own home, the new group of virtual devotees can access services on the religious website of their choice and at the time of their choice.

Dr Jonathan James from Edith Cowan University says: "Many people, especially the younger demographic aged 18-34, are experiencing the postmodern phenomenon of believing without belonging. In line with this, spirituality may actually be growing in Australia. Spirituality includes all forms of faith, including New Age beliefs.

"Church-going and Christian discipleship can be demanding compared to New Age practices that can be done in one's own time."

Associate Professor Ruth Powell of Charles Sturt University says surveys she has conducted show 27 per cent of respondents claim to have had a mystical or supernatural experience.

But 20 per cent say they are agnostic and 23 per cent do not believe in God at all.

"There are many different dimensions to spiritual activity," Prof Powell says .

"The census does not tell you what people believe or practise."

The Lakemba Muslim group conducted prayers and collected donations to send to affected farmers at the ceremony. Picture: Hollie Adams/The Australian
The Lakemba Muslim group conducted prayers and collected donations to send to affected farmers at the ceremony. Picture: Hollie Adams/The Australian