Religion and Australian Society

Researcher: Dr Paul Bain

Date: 5th March, 2010


This project examined people’s views of the role and effects of religion and atheism on Australian society in the future. We wanted to understand how people believed Australian society would change by 2050 if the religious “mix” in society was altered in two ways: (i) where people’s own religion was more prevalent; or (ii) where atheism was prevalent. (Atheists were also asked to respond to Christian society in the future).

The focus on the future was used to direct attention to societal change, and to identify the broad types of things people believe their religion brings to society. This was examined because recent public debate has involved arguments that the role of religion is declining in people’s lives and arguments that some forms of religion are increasing (eg. evangelical Christianity, Islam). We wanted to understand a diversity of perspectives, so conducted interviews with people from different “belief systems” (Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Atheism; note that we use “belief system” as a term of convenience to describe the groups, acknowledging that some people do not consider atheism a belief system).


  1. To understand beliefs about the how religion (or atheism) may affect Australian society in the future for people within different belief systems (Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Atheism),
  2. To understand the perspectives of those with official leadership and/or educational positions within each belief system, as these people may have a wider influence on their belief communities.
  3. To identify the main features of people’s beliefs about religious/atheistic Australian society to guide areas of study in a broader quantitative (survey) study

Participants were sixteen people who currently or had previously occupied official roles (e.g., bishop, imam, nun) in their respective “belief system”. Five were Christians (including Roman Catholic, Anglican, Evangelical, Baptist); 3 were Buddhists (New Kadampa, Mahayana), 3 Muslims (all Sunni), and 4 Atheists, with at least one male and female interviewee from each belief system.

A standard interview schedule asked participants to respond to questions in the following main areas: (i) their personal religious background; (ii) their beliefs about society in the future where the majority of Australians sharing their broad belief system (e.g., Islam, Buddhism); (ii) their beliefs about society in the future where the majority of Australians were atheists (atheists were asked to consider Christianity); factors affecting the likelihood of these futures. One atheist (Atheist 2) was not able to address item (iii) in the allotted time.

Summary of themes
Some of the themes in participants’ responses are reported. The belief system of the interviewee is indicated, along with a number to track different responses of individuals, but no other identifying information is provided in order to protect individual identities.

1. How would each belief system change society in the future?

The two most common themes in interview responses involved the values that would be promoted, and the practical changes in social problems.

Values were a common theme in what each belief system brought to society. Christians responded that greater emphasis would be placed on “prosocial” values, including gratitude, respect for others, kindness, and generosity. Four of the five Christian respondents portrayed Christianity as a stalwart against the excessive materialism and individualism present in current Australian society, for instance:

Christian1: “the main goal of society at the present time and that is to have money… it is a matter of of value shifting and I think if we begin to appreciate um and respect the other person, then that will surely make a difference

Buddhists portrayed the belief system as changing similar values as Christians: helping others, not harming others, reduced materialism, respect for others, kindness, and compassion. However, they also saw Buddhism as bringing a distinct outlook to society, with society as calmer, more peaceful, and happier.

Muslim respondents, like Christians and Buddhists, noted prosocial values including compassion, mercy, respect for elderly, responsibility to others, forgiveness, tolerance and harmony (with God, yourself, others, the rest of creation). However, they emphasized moral and ethical changes more than Christians, citing moral values, equality before the law, justice, moral respect for women (e.g., women not treated as objects of sexual gratification). In the words of one Muslim respondent:

Muslim1: “moral values…religious moral values …if like more people become Muslim there’s no such thing as, for example, free sex and free love …extra marital relationship…that is not acceptable because it is forbidden by God

For Atheists, a common response was that most values wouldn’t change as a result of atheism becoming prevalent in society, but would be similar to typical values today, e.g., Athiest4: “looking after family, personal identity, work, trying to be healthy and survive and live in a in a sensible community where people have a concern for each other”. Where value changes would occur, they typically involved freedom, rationality and tolerance, with mention also made of equality, fairness, and stronger sense of social justice. Although prosocial changes were not emphasized to the same degree as religious respondents, the excerpt above shows a perception of society as basically prosocial (concern for others, family, community). However, one respondent did see an atheist future as distinctly more prosocial than today’s society: Athiest2 “a much better, safer, friendlier place”. Most atheist respondents did perceive that values may change by 2050, most likely becoming more individualistic, but attributed these changes to situational factors such as the existence of war and environmental challenges, rather than as a result of their belief system.

Practical outcomes.

Christian and Muslim respondents typically saw a general decrease of social problems in societies where their religion predominated, with both mentioning notable decreases in crime, violence, and drug use. Muslim responses also extended this to a greater respect for the law, and greater sexual segregation resulting in fewer extramarital affairs, unwanted pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases. In addition to reducing social problems, both Christians and Muslims also emphasized more pro-social effects on society (in accordance with predicted value changes), including tolerance of other religions, increased caring for and connectedness with others, and for Muslims an increase in charitable giving.

Buddhist respondents showed greater diversity in perceived practical outcomes of most people sharing their religion in the future. One respondent mentioned reductions in social problems similar to Christians and Muslims, based on people committed to six moral guides or “precepts”: Buddhist 2:
there are six lay Precepts that people take and that’s not to kill, not to steal, not to lie, not to engage in sexual misconduct, not to take intoxicants, and I think it’s idle gossip“. However, atypically for respondents, one Buddhist gave the view that although people would practice greater restraint under Buddhism, social problems would not necessarily reduce:

Buddhist1: “I’m not sure … how much difference that would make (to social problems)… Buddhism doesn’t necessarily have a very strong focus on external help…the main focus is on internal development…there are some Buddhist traditions I think that have more of a social focus but like we don’t particularly. I don’t think that you would remove those things...I mean obviously if you, as a Buddhist, if you walked down the street and you see someone in need then you help them, but it’s not like it’s not an externally driven program, it’s internally driven.”

Atheists typically perceived an atheist society as directed by logic and rationalism, with resulting advances in medicine, more rational, sensible laws which would reduce social problems, and less religion-based conflict. However, this was not portrayed as an unstructured or highly individualistic society. In the words of one respondent:

Atheist 4: “if we can base our laws on rational judgements, if we can teach people a way of life where they realise the importance of work, education and cultural past times and the foolishness of damaging yourself with alcohol and drugs of various kinds”.

2. “Antagonism” between religion and atheism

A reading of public discourse would suggest that religious people and atheists would have quite negative views of each other, but the views of many interviewees were far more nuanced, dependent primarily on the values held in religious or atheistic society. Religious respondents were typically amenable to atheistic societies governed by principles of secular humanism (as opposed to nihilism). We include several examples:

Buddhist2: “some of the feelings that I get is that they’re quite humanist…if you lived your life as a humanist, my feeling would be that again there’s the potential for people to think about others, so I don’t necessarily see it as being bad that people become atheist or agnostic

Christian 1: “if the purpose of living would be ah to build up a more um harmonious, loving, respectful society with greater equality of wealth and sharing of the goods of the earth, caring for the earth…if they had those values…I would still say well God is on about doing what God wants through whoever will respond, even if there is no explicit language that we would consider to be spiritual or religious

Muslim2: “…it depends on what values those atheists within the society uphold …(Interviewer: So if they were secular humanists?) Absolutely, there shouldn’t be a huge difference (with Islam)… without that spiritual commitment it might be difficult to achieve, but it depends on the values that they uphold.”

Muslim 3: “I cannot make a very blank judgement… a person who doesn’t worship or believe in a Creator…I don’t think that translates as bad person…a person who is not caring, a person who is not just, a person who is not honest…of course our religion enhances certain things, but it doesn’t mean that (an atheist) is now the scum of the earth.

One respondent even went further to acknowledge that atheistic society could be preferable to current society:

Christian4: “(Humanist atheism) could be very well could be better than certainly at the moment … being clear about morality not fudging it…at the best a society of people who think carefully about the laws that they make and respect the laws they make and therefore within them create a just society

However, several Christians indicated that it was more likely that atheist society would diverge from the path of humanism, and would lead to excessive individualism/egotism and an overly power‐based and unequal society:

Christian 5: “people will become lovers of self that their opinions and their desires and their advancements and their personal happiness will kind of become more and more and more dominant… inevitably increased poverty… increased separation from the people who are the haves and have nots…a decrease in morality because your needs are greater and your needs to fulfil them are justifiable

Christian 3 “(values would be) myself and me…(The happiest would be) the head of the mafia- type person

Christian1: “(it) is a matter of whether these atheists would be disrespectful of human beings, you know purely selfish and intent on, you know, the finality of this world, and therefore get what you can while you can

When Atheists evaluated Christian society, they were also careful to distinguish between different types of Christianity, specifically “tolerant” forms of Christian society (e.g., Anglican), as opposed to Evangelism of fundamentalism. They reported that tolerant Christian Australian society would be similar to secular atheist society:

Atheist1: “if it’s the current ah more liberal type of Christianity I don’t see there being a major change. I think a lot of Australian Christians are very laid back anyway and they tend to be virtually the same as atheists…they don’t tend to force religion upon people and they don’t tend to be too defensive, but the more conservative the religion becomes the more defensive and the more restrictive it becomes

Atheist3: “the major problem with religions from non religious people is they don’t want to be forced to follow that religion. They don’t mind if people practice that religion as long as it doesn’t influence them… provided it was a moderate Christian society and not a lunatic fundamentalist society… I think the quality of life would be perfectly good in the same way as it would be under a secular society which followed the same practices.”

One atheist, however, was more equivocal about Christianity:

Atheist 4: “there is a system of order, and as long as people know their place within it, they can manage… some would be treated extremely well and others quite unfavourably…whoever was the current moral pariah… there would be people at the bottom of the heap, who lived extremely badly - the quality of life would be dreadfulthose who were in power, particularly the powerful clergy were living off and exploiting the rest of society...”

3. Predictions for the future of Australian society

Respondents were asked about the most likely future state of society in 2050. There was agreement across all respondents, except Muslims, that religion would decline in the future and society would become more atheistic, or at least religion would be less important in people’s lives. Christian respondents appeared most pessimistic:

Christian3: “We’re expecting the future to go that way (atheistic)

Christian4: “I sort of think that the that the worst of those options (nihilistic atheism) is the most likely

Christian5: “the scripture clearly indicates that (a Christian future) is not the way that it is going to go, but in fact life actually will become darker, that society is likely to become darker and that then Christ will return… we have these two choices you know and yet and yet invariably we’re kind of hurtling towards the one which is not going to offer the most people that sense of happiness and joy

The lack of control asserted by Christians can be directly contrasted with responses from Muslims, who saw the prevalence of their religion in society as very much dependent on their actions:

Muslim1: “…depending on how hard the mosque or the churches work, you know, to make people aware of the importance of religious values and family institution and so on…I’m in a in between hopeful and not hopeful you see, as I say, very much depend on our effort”

Muslim2: “the factors that would maybe encourage a more Islamic society or Muslim society in Australia would be if Muslims are doing their job and are practising their faith and are putting their values on the table and so it’s seen and it’s appreciated… what might work the other way around is that if we are getting a lot of Muslims that are misbehaving and maybe not doing the right thing by their faith or themselves”

Muslim3: “One of the most important factors is that if the Muslims themselves wake up and show the true Islam, because Islam as I said is a way practical way of life. It’s not in books. The people out there want to see practicality, and practicality would be like they say the height of honesty – is when a pregnant woman jumps on a bus and pays for two, right…so perhaps we’ll have a society like that - very honest, respectful, modest society”

One Buddhist saw religion declining, but not disappearing, whilst another took the view that Australian society was already mostly atheist, and that this would continue.

Buddhist 2: “Unfortunately I don’t think it’s going to become Buddhist…. there’s still going to be some religion in in like forty, fifty, sixty years but I think that more people are going to be not that interested because…you know, everybody’s busy and … having a religious practice or even thinking about religion actually goes out the window

Buddhist1: “Well I think probably an atheist future is more likely [um] I think Australian society is quite strongly atheist and very anti-religious so I think that future’s more likely

Atheist interviewees perceived an atheistic future as promoted by education, particularly an educational culture of investigation, which they saw as anathema to beliefs based on faith: Atheist1 “as long as the kids …keep an open mind and question things it’s the end of faith and that’s I’m hoping this is where evolution is heading as long as people start to use their minds”. However, one saw a continuing role for religion in providing important social services in society.

Atheist4: “knowledge drifting around in the community generally will have the effect of discrediting ideas based purely on faith and on ancient texts …so atheism and hopefully humanism has quite a future based on that. The faith based people will always have a very strong platform even in countries like this…a lot of things churches do are very important, and we’d be lost without them…churches are fond of pointing out all the good things they do and I endorse them. I just wish they’d stop bending people’s minds while they’re at it”.

It is important to point out that these themes emerged from a small sample of interviewees with special positions of authority and status within their groups. We are furthering this research by interviewing “everyday” members of these groups, and by conducting larger-scale quantitative surveys.

Thank you to all those who participated