‘God is dead and we have killed him’: Media responses to increasing nonreligiosity in Australia

Dr. Rebecca Banham

2021 Census figures show that for the first time, almost 40% of Australians identify as having ‘no religion’, while fewer than half identify as Christian.[1] As an Australian researcher interested in nonreligion, mainstream media responses to these figures has been striking, often reflecting a sense of disquiet – if not outright fear – about the effect of this change on Australian society, and about who these ‘nonreligious people’ are.

Notably, the Census figures reflect the number of Australians who described themselves as having ‘no religion’, and not necessarily how (else) they identify, what they believe or practice, or the communities to which they belong. While the Census does allow respondents to select more specific options (for example, ‘agnosticism’ or ‘atheism’), only a very small number do; indeed, various nonreligious lobby groups advocated for nonreligious Australians to select ‘no religion’.[2] This homogenisation of what it means to have ‘no religion’ is also reflected in media responses to the figures, as identified below.

Here, my primary focus is on editorial or opinion-style pieces, rather than news-style reporting (although some examples of the latter are included below). This includes several particularly outspoken examples of conservative commentary decrying the rise in nonreligious affiliation. Other examples, while more restrained in tone, similarly reflect implicit understandings of religion/Christianity as a primary source of morality, cohesion, and/or Australian national identity. My concern is that such understandings carry the implication that – at best – these Census figures are indicative of a loss of morality and coherence which will need to be ‘replaced’ in some way (due to the loss of Christian influence). At worst, the implication of this commentary is that rising rates of nonreligious affiliation indicate a moral or cultural ‘failing’ that undermines the nation. As such, I argue it is important to understand how mainstream publications broadcast and perpetuate concerns and misconceptions about Australia’s changing religious landscape.

‘God is dead and we have killed him’

This was the hyperbolic quote that first piqued my interest in this topic. From the examples I have read most clearly expressing concern about the Census,[3] two themes emerge: a sense of shock, and consolatory assertions that despite the rise of nonreligiosity, “core Christianity” will retain its significance:

The 2021 census represents an explosive dam burst, with a flood of biblical proportions to follow … We live in an age of spectacular cultural and religious ignorance … But history shows Christianity’s ability, metaphorical and literal, to rise from the dead.

[B]efore atheists and anti-God readers start seizing on this as a sign that Australians are finally rejecting God by rejecting organised religion, it has to be emphasised that the census does not capture belief.

The long historical view suggests the great religions possess immense recuperative power and Christianity has an underestimated institutional influence in Australia with the potential for revival.

Some commentators explicitly highlight the (perceived) significance of Christianity for social cohesion (itself a problematic concept[4]):

Core beliefs that once bound our nation tightly are loosening.

But this headline felt particularly bad for my tribe and for the cohesion of a nation that was built on the Judaeo-Christian foundation.[5]

The consequence is apparent: Australia is more divided on the pivotal moral issues, once seen as the bedrock for a stable cultural order.

Emotive language referring to the ‘abandonment’ of Christianity permeates multiple articles. One headline reads ‘Abandoning God: Christianity plummets as ‘non-religious’ surges in census’; another, ‘Not my tribe: Australians have turned their back on religion, but not on their faith’. The mainstay pun of reports about nonreligion – ‘losing my religion’ – also draws on this sense of rejection. While some articles discuss the Census figures in relatively ‘neutral’ tones, the impact upon Christianity remains the focus: how even conservative, rural areas are becoming increasingly nonreligious; discussion of ‘salvation’, Christian morality, and the importance of religious community; and the privileging of Christian clergy perspectives.[6]

Who are the nonreligious, anyway?

The specific language used throughout these articles also reflects a homogenising of what it means to be nonreligious. This is most obviously reflected in commentary equating ‘no religion’ as (sufficiently understood as) an atheistic lack of belief, and/or anti-religion:

We are on the way to becoming, for the first time, an avowedly anti-Christian nation. Not just non-Christian, but anti-Christian. The census tells us. The culture tells us. The law tells us.

Mr Hildebrand said when comparing Christianity to, for example, Stalinism and the “godless atheism of the Soviet Union”, it’s “actually a pretty good moral code”.

[The results] should be devastating for people of faith. But it’s not, despite the glee of some secularists and atheists.

The census shows Australians are becoming less religious but why have we chosen to live without God?

What I fear more is the secular disrespect that feels triumphalist at the loss of religion. Humanists Australia’s campaign smacked of that.

Those engaged in the study of nonreligion are familiar with debunking claims that all those who identify as nonreligious are atheist, do not believe in God, and/or are anti-religious. The following quote (written, notably, by an Anglican priest in response to the Census figures) counters such assumptions well:

Yes, the proportion of self-identified Christians has dropped … But such facts, although bewildering for current adherents to experience and observe, are not to be equated with a descent into national godlessness … A changing religious landscape is not cause to imply that moral decline is underway.

While this assertion is unremarkable to many, its inclusion in one of Australia’s leading publications suggests that fear of the ‘godless’ is common enough as to find a widespread audience – and that such arguments are palatable enough as to need public refutation.

Nationally, responses to the Census figures are not wholly (or perhaps even mostly) reflective of the themes identified above. However, they are illustrative of genuine and potentially influential fears and misconceptions about the nonreligious in Australia. This is problematic when these misconceptions are broadcast by prominent voices, particularly given the notoriously monopolised and conservative nature of Australia’s media landscape.[7] It is therefore crucial to advocate for the complex and profound contributions that nonreligious people can make to social inclusion and identity in Australia – parallel to the contributions of religion/Christianity and religious people – and insist that those with prominent voices do the same.

[1] The Australian Census question from which this data is drawn (‘What is the person’s religion?’) is an optional question. As such, it is possible that the percentage of Australians who identify as having no religion is higher than the recorded figure of 38.9%.

[2] See also Lee, L. (2014). ‘Secular or nonreligious? Investigating and interpreting generic ‘not religious’ categories and populations’. Religion, 44(3): 466-482. DOI: 10.1080/0048721X.2014.904035

[3] While such outspoken examples are not particularly common, it is notable that the examples I discuss feature in widely-read publications – particularly The Australian. For readership figures, see: Roy Morgan (2022). ‘Australian Newspaper Readership, 12 months to June 2022’. http://www.roymorgan.com/industries/media/readership/newspaper-readership

[4] Ezzy et al. (2020). ‘Religious diversity in Australia: Rethinking social cohesion’. Religions 11(2). DOI: 10.3390/rel11020092

[5] While this comment is not published in a mainstream newspaper, the author – Tim Costello – is a prominent and widely-trusted figure in Australia.

[6]. Piccione, T. (2022). ‘ABS Census 2021 statistics reveal Wagga joining national trend away from religious affiliation’. https://www.dailyadvertiser.com.au/story/7800629/wagga-trending-away-from-religion-new-abs-census-statistics-reveal/;  Madigan, D. (2022). ‘Like the rest of Australia, Blue Mountains residents are identifying as less religious: 2021 Census’. https://www.bluemountainsgazette.com.au/story/7798645/like-the-rest-of-australia-blue-mountains-residents-are-identifying-as-less-religious-2021-census/. See Lee (2014) for similar observations.

[7] See also Weng, E. and Halafoff, A. (2020). ‘Media Representations of Religion, Spirituality and Non-Religion in Australia’. Religions, 11(7). DOI: 10.3390/rel11070332

Dr. Rebecca Banham is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the international research project ‘Understanding Nonreligion in a Complex Future’, led by Professor Lori Beaman. She is based at the University of Tasmania, Australia, where she completed her PhD in 2019, exploring the emotional and ontological connections that people form with forests. Bec is particularly interested in the ways that emotion, ontology, and relationship shape how people relate to both other people and to the nonhuman world, particularly in the context of rising rates of nonreligiosity in across the world. 


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