Friday, December 02, 2022

‘No religion’ is Australia’s second largest religious group – and it has a profound effect on our laws

The latest census results are out and the number of Australians who chose “no religion” rose again to 38.9%, compared to 30.1% in 2016.

This makes them the second largest “religious group” after Christians, who make up 43.9% of the population, down from 52.1% in 2016.

Australia is often described as a secular country and this constant movement from religion to “no religion” is one way it manifests.

The numbers are interesting, but as a law academic I am more interested in what they mean in practice and how this constant shift in Australia’s religious demographics plays out in our laws.

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Shifts in Australia’s religious demographics are playing out in our laws.
AAP Image / Lukas Coch

Read more: Why Australia Needs Religious Discrimination Act

Equality, euthanasia and abortion

Perhaps the most obvious example is marital equality.

I started teaching law and religion at the University of Western Australia just over a decade ago. At the time, we taught students about the arguments for and against same-sex marriage. However, this was a purely theoretical concept.

The campaign for same-sex marriage had already progressed by then. But repeated refusals at the time by political leaders such as John Howard, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd to even consider the legalization of same-sex marriage has made it seem as if marital equality is still decades away. At the time of the 2016 census, marital equality was still theoretical.

How fast things change.

In the five years between the 2016 census and the 2021 census, Australia has seen a monumental shift in what can be broadly considered moral laws.

In December 2017, the definition of marriage was officially changed to the commitment of two people who were voluntarily entered into for life, regardless of gender.

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The definition of marriage was officially changed in December 2017 to the commitment of two people who were voluntarily entered into for life, regardless of gender.
AAP Image / Joe Castro

But marital equality is just the tip of the iceberg. Euthanasia and abortion laws were also reformed in the five years between the censuses.

Victoria, WA and Tasmania have all enacted laws to legalize euthanasia. Queensland and New South Wales have also enacted similar laws since the 2021 census.

Abortion has been decriminalized in all states, with South Australia, NSW, the Northern Territory and Queensland all bringing about reforms to their laws.

Read more: What happens if you want access to voluntary assisted dying, but your nursing home will not allow you?

An ongoing debate on religious freedom

Given this shift in law away from what are sometimes referred to as “traditional moral laws”, it may seem strange that at the same time there was also an ongoing debate on religious freedom.

The debate was the fiercest and most painful with regard to discrimination by religious schools.

On the one hand, some religious schools claim to be able to maintain their unique religious identity, especially where it is out of step with mainstream beliefs.

On the other hand, LGBTQ + groups in particular argue that discrimination is harmful and no longer acceptable in modern Australia.

It is tempting to argue that, given the number of Australians who do not have a religion, religious belief should make way for the secular.

However, it is important to remember that a large portion of the population still identifies with a religion.

It is also important to note that Australia’s religious diversity is increasing.

As I noted in 2017:

In the struggle for supremacy between the “none” and Christianity, we must also be aware of minority religions that made up 8.2% of the Australian population in 2016. For small and emerging faith groups, whose beliefs and practices may not be well understood in Australia, there is always a real risk that policy decisions will influence their religious beliefs and practices unintentionally or as a result of misunderstanding.

It is therefore more important than ever to have a robust and respectful debate on religious freedom and the place of religion in secular Australia.

Part of the answer may lie in a balanced Religious Discrimination Act. It will also lie in respectful discussions on law reform. It should include those of minority religions, those of the majority Christian faith and those of no faith.

Read more: Abortion is no longer a crime in Australia. So why is it still so difficult to access?

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