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Scope of Religion in Australia

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Diversity in Australia

Australia is home to increased religious diversity and religious pluralism. Its current religious landscape is shaped through the dramatic effect of immigration, the movements to and from religions or denominations, the exploration of new religious movements and the acknowledgement of no religion. These many reasons have created an increase and decrease of many religious traditions, as well as ethnic and cultural diversity in Australia.

Post war immigration is directly linked to the emergence of Australia’s new wave of migration. This helped greatly in reshaping Australia’s religious connections with many religions and denominations in terms of ethnic diversity. Many religions existed elsewhere in the world but only appeared in Australia as migration and refugee patterns changed. When Indigenous Australians were counted in Census forms in 1960, a vast majority were Christian whilst some still had a desire to integrate Aboriginal spirituality and customs into Christian expression. Migrants whom entered after World War 1 were simply those who chose to assimilate and not change the British-European culture. This was because the ‘White Australia Policy’ was in place and it was racially prejudice, religiously intolerant and only accepted whites. However, by World War 2 Australia had to ‘Populate or Perish’, thus they were desperate to increase population for national security reasons and economic growth. This ultimately led to a huge population increase, as Australia accepted over 3 million migrants who had arrived from over 60 countries. With Christianity dominating the 19th century, a large majority of the migrants were from South-East Asia, the Middle East and Pacific nations. This however, had not significantly introduced a wide range of religious traditions until the White Australia Policy was abolished. The removal was a sign of recognition and acceptability of religious diversity, this beginning was a door to expanded immigration and rapid growth of religions.

From the 2006 Census data on Religions in Australia, there was a changing pattern of religious adherence happening. Buddhism is one the fastest growing religions, making 0.5% of the population in 1986 and 2.1% in 2006. They mainly come from Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos, Thailand, Japan and China. Islam is also one of the few religions that are growing at a fast rate, after Christianity and Buddhism, with 1.7%. Most Muslims come from Lebanon, Turkey, Indonesia, Iran and Iraq. Hinduism grew by 0.6% since 1986, making 0.7% of the population and most coming from India and Fiji. Based on today’s numbers and the past decades, Christianity and most of its denominations are still dominating Australia, despite the large percentages of decline in total. A steady rate with the Orthodox Christian tradition had significant numbers in affiliates of Orthodox churches, growing through the Greek, Cyprus and Eastern European migrations. The Roman Catholics have increased to 27% and the Protestant Christians have gradually dropped to 35%, however the Catholics do outnumber the largest single Protestant group, the Anglicans by 8%. Most Protestants switch denominations to a high degree and a National Church Life survey showed that 29% of respondents had switched denominations in the past 5 years and the majority to Pentecostals, which grew by 16%. Today in Australia, all religions or denominations within them are ethnically and culturally diverse. Anglicans no longer represent the British and Buddhists are not only Chinese and Vietnamese; Christianity clearly exemplifies this idea of diversity. Christianity and its many denominations have followers of different ethnicity and nationalities, which may all believe in the same God but might carry out their practices or way of life differently depending on their culture. Migration, religious conversion and denominational switching are the few forces that shape the Australian religious landscape today.

The huge expansion in Australian population has caused increases and decreases in some groups. But most importantly the reasons for these changing patterns are because of the rapid growth of New Age religions and many conversions within religion. New Age religions are a free-flowing spiritual movement with a network of believers and practitioners that have their own similar beliefs and practices that they extend onto a formal religion. Its teachings became popular during the 1970s in response to the failure of Christianity and secular humanism, in providing spiritual and ethical guidance. New Age religions can be referred to as para-religous, as they work alongside a religious tradition sharing their features, developing something new that is merely an extension of what is already introduced. However, they do contrast with many religions such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism in terms of ideas and practices. Rather than the idea of salvation and redemption by God, they focus and place greater emphasis on “individual fulfilment, perfection of higher states of consciousness”.

For example, many Australians or non-Australians voluntarily choose to become a follower of Buddhism or New Age religions that follows its beliefs and practices, because of the attraction to achieving a sense of inner peace. Buddhism isn’t a faith nor a religion but more of a psychology or philosophy of moral code, that doesn’t preach a god or any dogma. “Buddhism is in large measure an ‘atheistic’ system. We liberate ourselves only through detachment from the world. The fullness of such a detachment is not union with God, but what is called nirvana, a state of perfect indifference with regard to the world". The idea of mixing meditation, aromatherapy, yoga or psychology as a way to escape such limits. The New Age seeks to consume and cross-over traditions such as Buddhism as resources for personal experience and thus Buddhism is a huge influence of New Age attitudes and understandings. This also shows why Buddhism and New Age religions are high on popularity and rapidly increasing.

People who choose to explore New Age or alternate spiritualities may feel uncomfortable within their own and they haven’t got that spiritual connection and special relationship with God and the religion. There is no doubt people are still seeking for answers to the age-old questions that have not been answered in the religion tradition they are part of, thus seeking for answers in new places. As for those who choose to take up New Age spiritualities, their reasons for conversions to or from may be to search for personal fulfillment, finding that the method of transcendental mediation might be able to heal and raise people. To seek ethical guidelines, by believing that the inner body, mind and soul has the great potential to guide them through life and obstacles. It is them, themselves that they should trust and rely on to become a stronger, better and healthier person. These are the main reasons for religious conversions and to seek for new religious expressions and spirituality.

It was not until 1933 that the Australian census form clearly stated that the religion question was optional. In 1947, 10.9% of Australians did not state their religion and this remained pretty constant until 1971 when the instructions of ‘if no religion, write none’ was introduced. In the census, 6.7% declared themselves as having no religion and agnostics, atheists, humanists and rationalists consisted within this category. In the 2001 Australian census, 15.5% declared themselves as having no religion whilst 11.7% had not stated it, and within those 15.5%, 17565 were agnostics and 24466 were atheists. The huge increase was due to several personal reasons. People had stated themselves of ‘non-religion’ because they feel there is no need to identify one’s private religion to the government. By not answering the question, it does not mean in any way one’s rejection to religious traditions. How religious one feels is also another impact on these statistical figures. People may be spiritual or have such connections yet they don’t feel they particularly belong to a certain group and for others who are exploring other traditions may find it difficult to classify their religion as well. Other reasons for the growth of ‘no religion’ was because many people no longer accepted an inherited religious identification without a question being asked and answering ‘no religion’ had begun to be more socially acceptable. Materialism also had an effect, as it meant that many had very little interest in religion at all thus most probably ticked the obvious box of simplest words.

Through these statistical figures in the Census, it is very hard to define Australia’s religious landscape, but merely what Australians see themselves as. A vast majority, who have defined themselves as belonging to a certain faith, may say they are Christians yet may have completely no religious profession or practice at all. This then expands on the idea of religiosity, where we tend to question how religious or how often should believers do their practices to be considered as a follower. For example, would those whom go to church on Easter Sunday and Christmas be considered less of a Catholic, compared to those whom go every Sunday for mass as well as the important events?

Nonetheless, the religious scope in Australia continues to be dynamic and expansive. It has given Australia a richer variety of beliefs and values that may give us a broader understanding of many other cultures, religions and their way of practice. “It has given people the chance to become the measures of faith able to exercise their right of choice in being part of a religious community because they want to and not that they are”. Today, Australia stands as a multicultural multifaith society having a huge ethnic, cultural and religious diversity, promoting harmony and unity.

Bibliography

  • Living Religion textbook
  • Macquarie studies of religion guide
  • http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Hills/5977/newage.html
  • http://www.religioustolerance.org/newage.htm

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