[Book Review] Religion and Non-Religion Among Australian Aboriginal Peoples edited by James Cox and Adam Possamai

In this post, Liam Sutherland reviews Religion and Non-Religion Among Australian Aboriginal Peoples edited by James Cox and Adam Possamai (2016, Routledge). He praises that the book persuasivelyliam-sutherland demonstrates hybridity of Indigenous Australian identification and makes contributions to postcolonial studies of nonreligion. However, Sutherland argues that the questions of the necessity and appropriateness of defining nonreligion when one investigates how and why indigenous peoples have identified themselves remain.

James Cox and Adam Possamai introduce this collection of essays by noting that according to the 2011 Australian census, identification as ‘non-religious’ is higher among Indigenous Australians (24%) than the general Australian population (22%). This fact challenges the widespread notion that indigenous peoples are overwhelmingly or irrevocably ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ but leads to questions such as, why is identification higher among Indigenous people and what does it actually entail for them specifically? It is questions such as these which drive this volume and its integration of ‘non-religion’ theoretically and empirically into the study of ‘religion’ among Indigenous Australians.

The key theme of the volume is Indigenous Australian cultural hybridity in relation to questions of religious identification. Cox and Possamai make a persuasive case for the use of ‘hybridity’ as an analytical tool (drawing on Mikhail Bakhtin), rejecting ‘syncretism’ because of its pejorative connotations and disavowing any notion of hybridity as the fusion of homogenised entities. For them the key is to emphasise the agency of the actors involved in this hybridisation, reminiscent of Claude Levi-Strauss’ concept of ‘bricolage’, which should challenge the characterisation of indigenous peoples as ‘passive’ recipients of history. Indeed, it would seem impossible to account for the interaction of peoples as once geographically and culturally distant as Europeans and Australian Aborigines without some concept of hybridity.

The first section of the book is specifically concerned with ‘non-religion’ among Indigenous Australians. Cox in his own chapter, examines the prevailing debates about the definition of ‘non-religion’ to provide theoretical groundwork for the incorporation of ‘non-religion’ into wider discussions of Indigenous Australian ‘religion’ or research on contemporary Indigenous peoples generally. He defines religion as involving ‘identifiable communities’ with an authoritative tradition passed down the generations, with that which does not fit this classified as ‘non-religious.’ In their chapter, Awais Piracha, Helena Onnudottir and Kevin Dunn map Indigenous non-religious identification in the greater Sydney area and Australia as a whole. Although rather thin on available data, I would argue, Alan Nixon sets out to test the links between New Atheism and this rising Indigenous non-religion with online research.

The later chapters move on to discuss the continuing hybridisation of Indigenous traditions with Christianity, highlighting the lack of uniformity or finality of these processes. The linguist David Moore provides a vital deconstruction of the Aranda concept of ‘altjira’ (or ‘alcheringa’), the root of the term ‘Dreaming’, also translated as ‘God’ by missionaries. Moore demonstrates the variety of uses to which ‘altjira’ has been put by different actors. Hart Cohen in his chapter on the Lutheran Hermannsburg Mission in Aranda country locally known as Ntaria, discusses the particular relationship between Indigenous traditions and Christianity evident there. This case involves very particular combination of cultural influences from the Aranda traditional owners, the German Lutheran background of the missionaries and the wider Anglophone Australian culture by which Ntaria is surrounded.

Steve Bevis outlines the development of modern Indigenous Christianity and the changing influences it is subject to, particularly after the decline of the church-governed ‘missions’ to which many Indigenous communities were confined until the 1970s. Increasingly Indigenous self-determination has effected the ways in which hybrid practices or identifications have been negotiated but also other key factors such as generational differentiation are also shown to be significant. He also touches on the use of secular narratives such as ‘education’ and ‘the environment’ to legitimate Indigenous traditions. Theresa Petray reveals the centrality of churches to Indigenous political activists, including many non-religious people, in Townsville in Queensland which reveals how much the practices of those affiliating as non-religious must be thoroughly contextualised.

The final chapter written by both editors presents the results of interviews conducted among urban and rural Aborigines on their understanding of the categories of ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’, and the relationship between Christianity and Indigenous traditions. What they demonstrate is that these understandings are highly varied, though discernibly distinctive from those of other Australians. Their informants varied in the extent to which they regarded the commonly identified Aboriginal Australian ‘religions’ as religions, most preferring ‘culture’, while one born-again Christian woman did not identify herself as ‘religious’, associating the word with falsehood. It is notable that only 1.28% of the Indigenous population identified with an ‘Aboriginal Traditional Religion’ in the census while engagement with some of the practices associated with them is much wider than this would seem to indicate. To an extent then, the decline of Christian affiliation has led to a decline in affiliation as ‘religious’ akin to what has happened in the wider population but perhaps may not preclude the practice of these traditions.

Cox and Possamai as well as many of the other contributors suggest that this low identification with ‘Aboriginal Traditional Religion’ may reflect the widespread Aboriginal Australian understanding of ‘religion’ as Christianity, with Indigenous traditions being understood as ‘culture’. This is reflected by the widespread Indigenous Australian adherence to a common ‘two ways’ paradigm – identifying with both the ancestors and the narratives and rituals associated with them and Christianity. This would also mean though that declining Christian affiliation would be understood as entailing ‘non-religion’ without necessarily indicating the absence of what some would label Indigenous Australian ‘religion’ or ‘spirituality’. This demonstrates the legitimating function that categories such as ‘culture’ and ‘religion’ have. Though the necessity of providing an initial definition of ‘religion/non-religion’ considering that the research is so concerned with the emic perspectives of their Indigenous informants remains unclear to me.

However, this book should contribute to the necessary incorporation of indigenous peoples into the study of ‘non-religion’ and ‘non-religion’ into the study of indigenous peoples. It also provides fruitful theoretical reflection and original research. It is commendable that the study of ‘Traditional’ Indigenous religion, as well as Aboriginal Christianity and Non-Religion, are integrated together into a discussion of postcolonial social identity construction in Indigenous Australia (though other affiliations such as Islam and Buddhism are mentioned, they are not discussed). The book also shows that that hybridity is a vital tool for analysing these processes.

Liam T. Sutherland is a fourth-year PhD candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His doctoral research concerns the representations of religious pluralism and national identity in the literature of Scotland’s national interfaith association (Interfaith Scotland). He is a native of the city and gained his MSc by research and MA also from the University of Edinburgh. His MSc by research examined the role and relevance of Sir E.B. Tylor for debates about the definition of religion and Neo-Tylorian theories of religion, while his MA dissertation looked at modern Indigenous Australian spirituality. His current research interests include: religious pluralism, the critical study of the interfaith movement, religion and nationalism as well as theory and method in the study of religion.

[Census Reflection] The ‘Nones’ and the Australian Census

In the await for the Australian Census result coming out in mid-2017, Kevin Lenehan reflects onlenehan demographics of Australian ‘nones’ from 1971 to date. He demonstrates that inconsistency and complexity of the question of ‘nones’ result in confusion over how to best describe these people and interpret their expression of unbelief, anticipating the upcoming Census report will bring us new insights.

Tuesday 9th August 2016 was Census night across Australia’s states and territories, the night on which a snapshot of key characteristics of the nation’s 24 million people is taken in the quinquennial Census of Population and Housing. For the first time an online option was provided for completing the Census instrument this year. Despite the website being compromised by a number of distributed denial of service (DDoS) events on the night, the gathering of Census data continued in electronic and paper formats and was completed on 23rd September 2016. Researchers interested in the religious and nonreligious identification of Australians are eagerly awaiting the release of the census data sets from mid-2017. Will the significant increase in the percentage of ‘nones’ in the Australian population over recent decades continue in this Census, even outranking any particular religious affiliation?

Since 1911, the Census has provided current information on religious identification in Australia. Since 1933, it has been optional to identify a religious affiliation, and in 1971 those with no religious affiliation were instructed ‘if no religion, write none’, resulting in a seven-fold increase on previous figures for no religion. The number of Australians reporting no religion has continued to rise steadily at about 3.9 percentage points per decade; the decade between 2001 and 2011 saw the largest increase at 6.8 percentage points. In 2011, 22% of Australians (just under 4.8 million people) chose the ‘no religion’ option.




Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Censuses of Population and Housing, 1971- 2011

In the 2011 Census, small numbers of the Australian ‘nones’ further described themselves as atheist (1.2% of the no religion respondents), agnostic (0.7%), humanist (0.2%) or rationalist (0.1%). The number of people who identified themselves as ‘atheist’ almost doubled between 2006 (32,300 people) and 2011 (58,900 people). A campaign by the Atheistic Foundation of Australia encouraging people to mark ‘no religion’ on the Census form may have been a factor in this increase.[i] Additionally, around 10% of the population usually do not respond to the religious affiliation question (11.5% in 2006, 9.4% in 2011). Thus in the 2011 Census over 32% of Australian did not identify a religious affiliation.

Features of the ‘nones’ in Australia include: gender, with the number of females reporting no religion increasing to similar levels as males, especially among younger respondents; age, with those aged 15 to 34 showing the most significant rates of increase; education, where 31% of those with a postgraduate degree reported no religion compared to 20% of those with school level education, and those in the creative arts, sciences, and information technologies the most likely to have no religious affiliation; state of origin, where Tasmania, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory have higher rates of no religion than Victoria and New South Wales; and country of birth, where 63% of Australians born in China reported no religion compared to 23% of those born in Australia.

Another indicator of nonreligion in Australia is the steady increase in those who state they have no belief in God. Australia has been described as ‘the most godless place under heaven’. Over ten years ago Norris and Inglehart claimed that 25% of Australians did not believe in any gods; the 2009 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes showed that the number of those who believed in God or some form of higher power had declined to 71%; a 2009 Nielsen Poll Report on Faith in Australia stated that 24% were nonbelievers and a further 6% unsure; the WIN-Gallup International ‘Religion and Atheism Index 2012’ ranks Australia 10th in the world listing of atheistic nations, with 10% identifying as atheist and a further 37% identifying as ‘not a religious person’.

Of course, social researchers prefer more nuanced measures of such a complex personal phenomenon as religious or nonreligious identity, and data-gathering demonstrates that what people mean when they describe themselves or others as nonreligious or nonbelievers can vary a great deal.[ii] Pew Research data (2016) in the US shows that 8% of those who describe themselves as atheists also say they believe in God or a universal spirit. Similarly, the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes found that of those who say they have no religion 29% did believe in a higher power, 10% believed in God with doubts and 2% believed in God without doubts; 32% of these nonreligionists considered themselves to be spiritual, while 54% said they were neither religious nor spiritual.[iii] On the other hand, Andrew Singleton argues that the religious ‘nones’ correlate strongly across a range of measures indicating a secular worldview and nonreligious practices.[iv]

This inconsistency in data responses and interpretive analyses call for qualified assertions concerning religious or nonreligious worldviews. Tom Frame distinguishes between considered disbelief and pragmatic unbelief, claiming the majority of Australians fall into the latter category. Kaldor, Hughes and Black likewise claim that the majority of Australians are ‘practical’ rather than ‘ideological’ atheists.[v] According to these researchers, of those describing basically secular worldviews, significant subgroups claim to believe in a personal God (‘something beyond’, 33%; ‘uncertain’, 15%; ‘nothing beyond’, 8%) or transcendent spirit or life-force (‘something beyond’, 50%; ‘uncertain’, 33%; ‘nothing beyond’ 22%). Such a blurring of the line between religious/nonreligious identification may be a consequence of the ‘expressive individualism’ that characterises late modern societies and constitutes one of the conditions of belief one of the conditions of belief in this context. It may also suggest that people continue to make use of concepts and symbols of a confessional cultural heritage in shaping a meaningful framework in which to live. As Danièle Hervieu-Léger puts it: ‘Today, individuals write their own little belief narratives using words and symbols that have “escaped” the constellations of meaning in which a given tradition had set them over the centuries’.[vi]

So, those interested in the demographics of religious and nonreligious identification in Australia look forward to the results of the 2016 Census. In the lead-up to Census night, internet and social media sites promoting both ‘No Religion’ and ‘I’m Christian’ options encouraged people to make clear their affiliation, emphasising the implication of the results for future social planning and provision of education, health and community services by the Australian Government. The decision by the ABS to reorder the possible responses to the question ‘What is the person’s religion?’ indicates that the Bureau expects the ‘no religion’ option to attract the most respondents in this Census, outranking Catholics, who at 25.3% in 2011 were the largest group in the population. Will the 2016 Census report that ‘no religion’ is now the majority affiliation in the category of ‘religion’ in Australia, as in Britain?

Kevin Lenehan (PhD, Leuven) is Senior Lecturer in Theology, University of Divinity, Australia. His teaching and research are in the fields of fundamental and contextual theology, and theological anthropology. He is editor of Pacifica: Journal of Theological Studies and a member of the Editorial Board of The Bonhoeffer Legacy: Australasian Journal of Bonhoeffer Studies.


Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013, ‘Losing my religion?’ Australian Social Trends, http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0Main+Features30Nov+2013.

Bullivant, S. 2012, ‘Not so indifferent after all? Self-conscious atheism and the secularisation thesis,’ Approaching Religion, vol. 2, no.1, pp. 100-106.

Clifton, S. 2008, ‘Australian theology,’ in W. A. Dryness & V.-M. Kärkkäinen (eds), Global dictionary of theology, IVP Academic Press, Downers Grove, IL, pp. 92-4.

Dawson, L.  & Thiessen, J. 2014, The sociology of religion: A Canadian perspective. Oxford University Press, Don Mills, ONT.

Frame, T. 2009, Losing my religion: Unbelief in Australia, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney.

Hervieu-Léger, D. 2006. ‘In search of certainties: The paradoxes of religiosity in societies of high modernity,’ The Hedgehog Review, vol. 8, nn. 1-2, pp.59-68.

Hughes, P. 2012, ‘The persistence of religion: What the census tells us,’ Pointers, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 4-5.

Kaldor, P. Hughes, P. & Black, A. 2010, Spirit matters: How making sense of life affects wellbeing, Mosaic Press, Melbourne, pp. 6-16.

Lee, L. & S. Bullivant. ‘What’s in a name?’ Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network Online Blog, 6 September 2016, https://nsrn.net/2016/09/06/whats-in-a-name/.

National Church Life Survey, 2011, ‘A picture of the religious beliefs of the Australian community,’ http://www.ncls.org.au/default.aspx?sitemapid=6817

Norris, P. & Inglehart, R. 2004, Sacred and secular: religion and politics worldwide, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Pew Research Center, 2016, ‘10 facts about atheists,’ 1 June, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/06/01/10-facts-about-atheists/

Singleton, A. 2015, ‘Are religious “nones” secular? The case of the nones in Australia,’ Journal of Beliefs and Values, vol. 36, no. 2, pp. 239-243.

Taylor, C. 2007. A secular age. The Belknap Press, Cambridge, MA.

[i] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013, ‘Losing my religion?’ Australian Social Trends, http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0Main+Features30Nov+2013

[ii] see Bullivant, 2012; Lee & Bullivant, 2016.

[iii] Hughes, P. 2012, ‘The persistence of religion: What the census tells us,’ Pointers, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 4-5.

[iv] Singleton, A. 2015, ‘Are religious “nones” secular? The case of the nones in Australia,’ Journal of Beliefs and Values, vol. 36, no. 2, pp. 239-243.

[v] Kaldor, P. Hughes, P. & Black, A. 2010, Spirit matters: How making sense of life affects wellbeing, Mosaic Press, Melbourne, pp. 6-16.

[vi] Hervieu-Léger, D. 2006. ‘In search of certainties: The paradoxes of religiosity in societies of high modernity,’ The Hedgehog Review, vol. 8, nn. 1-2, pp.59-68 at p.59.