This month, Australian social researchers, McCrindle, published a national study on religion, spirituality and worldview trends entitled ‘Faith and Belief in Australia’.
It was commissioned “to investigate faith …. and to understand perceptions, opinions, and attitudes towards … Christianity.”
The research involved a nationally representative survey of 1024 Australians, focus groups with non-Christians and data analysis from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
‘Faith and Belief in Australia’ brings the state-of-affairs of Christianity and the Church in Australia into sharper focus by asking questions with greater specificity than those found in the census.
For example, whereas the 2011 census asked ‘What is your religion?’, FBA asked “What religion do you currently practise or identify with?” It did this in an effort to distinguish between those with only a nominal attachment to a religious tradition, and those who actively identified with it.
The research showed that 45 per cent of Australians still identify as a Christian at this higher threshold. These numbers were further broken down to reveal that 38 per cent would actually call themselves ‘Christian’.
In terms of regular church attendance, 15 per cent of all Australians attend at least monthly. One third of Australians claim to have no religion, while one in seven claim to be ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious’.
The survey is helpful vis-à-vis orienting the Church’s efforts at evangelisation. The nation is a mission field, with one third of Australian’s having no religious or spiritual bent. A slightly lesser amount (28 per cent) report knowing “little or nothing about Jesus’ life”. Nearly 1.5 million Australian adults do not know a single Christian.
Sharing the Gospel within the Australian context brings with it a number of particular challenges. One quarter of all Australians describe themselves as being negatively disposed towards Christianity, thanks in part to the child sexual abuse scandals, a perception that the Church is too moralistic and legalistic, and a dislike of church-related money matters, among other things.
The Church’s teaching on homosexuality was found to be the most significant hurdle in terms of cultural engagement, with two thirds of Australians claiming that it acts as a deterrent concerning their interest in Christianity. A similar number had difficulty reconciling the existence of hell with a belief in a loving God.
Of the reasons given by non-religious respondents as to why they shun religion, one in two cited a preference for a “scientific and rational, 'evidence-based'” belief system and 18 per cent believed religion “is a crutch for the weak” (males being almost twice as likely to take this view).
Nevertheless, the study provided clues about the best means of engaging those who are either unfamiliar with, or sceptical of, faith in Christ. Non-Christians revealed that “the greatest attraction to investigating spirituality and religion is observing people who live out a genuine faith” and one in ten of them report being “very interested/quite open” to changing their religious view subject to them being presented with “the right circumstances and evidence.” Personal conversations are the key to provoking thought about spirituality and religion.
To conclude, ‘Faith and Belief in Australia’ not only gives us a clearer snapshot into how the faith is faring across our nation, it spotlights a variety of challenges and opportunities regarding how we go about introducing the good news into people’s lives. It calls us to conversion, it challenges us to find new ways of articulating the goodness and value of the moral law, it demands that we heal the perceived disconnect between faith and reason, which is proving to be a stumbling block for many. I call to mind the words of Pope John Paul II who wrote, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” – may we in our words and deeds bear witness to the fact that the two go hand-in-hand.
Lastly, a key takeaway for the report comes from the gospel of Matthew - “let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Mt 5:16)