Compared to other States and Territories, New South Wales is slightly more Christian in population than the average, but in the past fifty years that proportion has declined from about 90% to just over 70%.
The first Australian colony of NSW began in 1788 with a mixture of denominations without their geographic separation as in the United Kingdom. By the time of the Church Act of 1836 the colony had rejected both the concept of an established church and also the American principle of separation of church and state. The unique NSW compromise was one of equal treatment by the state for all religions, which could receive government funding for some of their activities in return for cooperating with the state in establishing hospitals, schools, asylums, and other social services that the young state could scarcely afford on its own. That principle has ebbed and flowed in strength, but still remains at the core of a society where religious freedom and diversity are generally allowed to flourish. While NSW has always had a majority of its citizens who claim to be Christian, in principle there is no preference by the state for Christianity over any other religion, although the larger Christian denominations have always had a louder voice in public affairs.
There is a special difficulty in interpreting Census data on Religious Affiliation not only because the question is optional, but because respondents effectively choose, or even invent, the title of the category that they want to belong to. Census officials or individual researchers then have to make difficult decisions to make sense of all the responses.
Compared to other States and Territories NSW is slightly more Christian in population than the average, but in the past fifty years that proportion has declined from about 90% to just over 70%. In that same time Catholics have overtaken Anglicans as the largest religion, while almost all Christian denominations have been steadily declining in numbers. The most significant Christian group that has been increasing its support is the category of ‘Pentecostal’, whose rise has been quite strong, although the numbers are still relatively small (1.1%).
The decline in the proportion of Christians has been taken up to some extent by growth in non-Christian religions, especially Buddhism (2.6%) and Islam (2.6%), along with Hinduism (1.1%) and Judaism (0.6%). Obviously this pattern is closely related to that of migration to the State and to ethnicity, as illustrated elsewhere. However, some distinctions must be made, as has always been the case. Just as it was wrong to assume that all Irish migrants in the 19th Century were Catholic, for a significant proportion were Protestant, so one cannot assume that all immigrants from Lebanon are Muslim, or all from India are Hindu. Most countries of origin have mixed religious populations, and it is often the adherents of minority groups that are most eager to migrate or escape.
The distribution of religious groups is visible not only on maps, but from street level in the many churches and religious buildings that dot the landscape throughout the State. Anglican and Catholic cathedrals compete for attention, while every suburb and country town has a collection of churches and other religious buildings, very often striving to be seen as bigger, more beautiful, or just more showy than the others. More recent arrivals, especially non-Christian religions, have joined in this competition with gusto.
Another important group whose religious identification does not appear in the figures is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. In NSW most people of Aboriginal descent (like those of European origin) have some association with Christian denominations, or have rejected conventional religious values, although adherence to some form of traditional Aboriginal religious values is possibly increasing. The percentages in any category are tiny.
The most significant change in the overall pattern in the past half century has been the willingness of more and more people to dissociate themselves from religious identification either in the categories of ‘No Religion’ or ‘Not Stated’. If we combine these categories, then it is clear that the ‘dissociates’, or the seculars, have overtaken Anglicans to become the second largest ‘religious’ group in the State. Combining these categories for the purpose of analysis is controversial. Nevertheless, although some people will have refused to answer the question for specifically religious reasons, they will be more than balanced out by the respondents who categorise themselves as ‘Pagan’, ‘Atheist’, ‘Humanist’, ‘Agnostic’, ‘Wiccan’ or ‘Witch’, not to forget ‘Jedi’ – which are usually not included in either category. In one sense this change reflects not so much a change in religious status as a change in honesty of respondents, and probably still underestimates the willingness of Australians to ignore religion. Most residents of NSW, as in the rest of Australia, have always been only lightly attached to the churches that they almost never attended.
As with other religious groups, the ‘dissociates’ have identifiable preferences for where they live. They are more likely to live in the city than in the country, and in Sydney they are more likely to live in the eastern suburbs than in the west.
As might be expected, women are more likely to claim some religious affiliation than men in almost all categories. An interesting exception is Islam, which shows 88,171 male respondents, and only 80,615 females. However, this is most likely to reflect the gender imbalance in a section of Australian society that still contains a high proportion of first generation migrants, where men are more likely to travel as refugees than women.
There is also an age variation in religious adherence which is not apparent in the maps and which cuts across other variables. Older people tend to be more conventionally religious while younger adults are more likely to renounce any religious affiliation, (at least till they start having children of their own). There are arguments about whether this is really a factor of age – that we get more conservative as we get older – or of generational transference – that older people were brought up in a society where religion was much more accepted as central to social life than it is today, and those values have persisted. Probably both influences are important. There may also be a difference for non-Christian communities (Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, etc.) where religion is still a fundamental marker of social identity and thus more likely to have an impact on younger members of those groups.
Within the State there are significant differences in the denominational mix between city and country. In the Sydney metropolitan area it is easy to see suburbs that contain above average populations of Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, ‘dissociates’ and other groups. It is not so obvious in country districts, although some patterns can be seen. This reflects the tendency of newly arriving migrant groups to live in the city and close to others of their own kind. By the second and third generation of such families, as has happened with previous waves of migration, that pattern is softened over time.
Still, there is considerable historical continuity in some of the apparent patterns. For example, very early in the 19th Century it was clear that chain migration from Ireland was producing higher Catholic proportions than normal in rural districts to the south-west of Sydney – from Goulburn through to the Riverina – while Anglicans were more strongly represented north of Sydney, through the Hunter Valley to the New England area. Mining districts like Broken Hill, the lower Hunter Valley, and the Illawarra, tended to have strong representation for dissenting Christian groups because of immigrant miners from Wales, Cornwall or the British north and midlands. All these patterns can still be seen on the modern maps, even though the original reasons have long evaporated. Despite the high mobility of individuals in modern Australia, family patterns survive strongly.
Some very localised patterns are worthy of note. In the metropolitan map the high concentration of Jewish respondents is apparent in the Eastern suburbs (especially around Bondi) and in the upper North Shore. In the State-wide map it is clear that Jewish representation is low in rural areas; it is no surprise to find that the Jewish community is highly urbanised. Similar local concentrations are evident for other non-Christian groups, such as Muslims or Hindus. Not shown on these maps are patterns for smaller groups, such as the concentration of Sikhs in the coastal districts north of Coffs Harbour, especially around Woolgoolga. Many of these patterns have been reinforced over time by the establishment of religious buildings – churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, schools – which provide a strong religious community focus. However, in none of these examples is there anything approaching a ghetto concentration; all these communities are minorities in the larger mixed religious population of the district.
Associate Professor Michael Hogan, University of Sydney