First we lost the America’s Cup, and now this…

Australia is trying to show us up again, aren’t they? Their 2006 census shows that religious believers have dropped to 79% of the population, a substantial decline from 83% in the the 2001 census. And from previous data, it looks like an accelerating trend. Come on, America, we have a godlessness gap! We have to catch up!

Of course, I’d be even more impressed with Australia if I didn’t have a sneaking suspicion that it wasn’t caused by a rapid growth of rabid, militant, middle-of-the-road fundamentalist agnostics.


  1. says

    OT: Australia has also produced a distance runner, Craig “Buster” Mottram, who has proven capable of not only hanging with the best Kenyans and Ethipians, but beating them. He’s charismatically brash, ever eager to talk in postrace interviews about his giant balls. (He also wound up on the cover of my book, though I had nothing to do with that.)

    What would happen if Ken Ham returned to Australia and brought all of his acolytes with him? That alone would destroy the happy trend you mention.

  2. DragonScholar says

    Clearly what we’re looking for here is the Atheist’s cup.

    Though I’m really not sure how one competes for that.

  3. Woodwose says

    Good as our Aussie friends may be, 2001 Stats Can data ( shows that Canada’s north and west may be leading the way. Although the overall Country has a slack 16% “no religion” return on census data, Alberta is substantially higher at 23%, British Columbia at 35% and the Yukon Territories at 38%.

    New data up later this year.

  4. says

    I think it was Salman Rushdie at the New Humanism conference said something like, “America got England’s religious refugees, and Australia got England’s criminals. I think Australia got the better deal.”

  5. Silmarillion says

    We were only pipped at the post into the number 2 spot (behind Catholics) by the Anglicans! A mere 11,697 more people are Anglican than No Religion. We’ll definitely be pushing for the number 1 spot next time. Wiki entry with stats.

  6. says

    Of course, I’d be even more impressed with Australia if I didn’t have a sneaking suspicion that it wasn’t caused by a rapid growth of rabid, militant, middle-of-the-road fundamentalist agnostics.

    Come on PZ you’re just jealous because Mr Wilkins has got people playing Mornington Cresent on his blog and you haven’t!

  7. kate says

    I think the census data definitely underestimates the number of atheists/agnostics in our country.

    One of the things that fascinates me when reading american blogs/newspapers etc is how constantly, publicly, in-you-face religious the US is.

    Australia is nothing like that. A lot of Aussies are ‘Christian’ in the same sense a lot of Brits are- it’s a cultural thing. But only about 10% of Australians regularly go to Church, and the vast majority of Aussies have never read the bible (although I guess that’s not much different from America), and many people who put down a religious affiliation on the census don’t even go to church even once or twice a year. We have scripture time at government schools, once a week, where various religious folk come and do lessons for whatever religion you belong to, but non-scripture was by far the most popular option at my school, a few years ago. Plus, I think a lot of nominally religious parents use school scripture to take the place of teaching it themselves, so they don’t feel to guilty about not taking them to church regularly, with the happy result that most kids think of religion as something akin to maths- you have to do it at school, and then you can forget all about it.

    I think probably about 50% of Aussies are agnostic/apatheists. Either they don’t know and don’t care, or they have a vague sense that god exists, and that they should be good, but they don’t feel the need to read the bible/go to church. It’s just not part of their life.

    I don’t think we have more than 20% hardcore christians.

    In my own day to day living, religion rarely comes up. It just isn’t something most people talk about. Even if you are religious, the evangelical thing isn’t that common (except for the happy clappers at Hillsong, who are the prosperity gospelists beloved of conservative politicians).

    Beyond my own opinion, Australian Catholic University did a big study called the spirituality of generation y, which found (from the media release, which you can find by googling the study’s name):

    Key Findings
    Belief 48% of Generation Y (Gen Y) believe in a God, 20% do not, and 32% are unsure.

    Two-thirds of those who do not believe in God, or are uncertain, do believe in a ‘higher being or life-force’.
    Spirituality There are three main strands in the ‘spirituality’ of Generation Y:

    Christian: (44% of Gen Y)
    Eclectic: (17%)
    Humanist: (31%)
    Only 19% of Gen Y are actively involved in a church to the extent of attending religious services once a month or more; (conservative Protestant denominations–16% of Gen Y–have by far the highest rates of attendance); but many more believe in God and Jesus, and pray regularly. Religion is seen as a private matter, and there is a strong tide of movement among Gen Y Christians away from previous involvement or identification with a church, and even from religious belief.

    Eclectic 17 % of Gen Y have an eclectic spirituality, believing in two or more New Age, esoteric or Eastern beliefs (including belief in reincarnation, psychics and fortune tellers, ghosts, astrology) and perhaps engaging in one or more alternative spiritual practices (yoga, Tarot, tai-chi). Some of these people attend religious services but
    most do not. Such beliefs and practices are more common among young women than young men.

    Humanist 31 % of Gen Y can be classified as Humanists, rejecting the idea of God, although a few believe in a ‘higher being’. Of these secular-minded young people,
    almost half believe that there is very little truth in religion, and less than a quarter believe in life after death. They also largely reject alternative spiritualities.

    [end quote from study]

    31% humanists is pretty good I think. And if too many of the young people rejecting religion have replaced it with Woo instead of Reason, I still think that’s a better option.

    And I totally agree with the study saying young people think of religion as a private matter- it just doesn’t come up in the same way it does in America- I’ve had a few conversations with friends who are religious about their religion, but most of them I wouldn’t even know if they believed in god or not. I’m 21 and I’ve had three people in my whole life want to evangelise at me, and even then, they were pretty polite and restrained about it.

    Plus, the Catholic Cardinal for Sydney, George Pell, recently tried to threaten Catholic politicians in the NSW state parliament about a stem cells bill, and overwhelming reaction from the politicians was ‘bugger off’. Even our deeply conservative and religious Prime Minister, John Howard, is canny enough to know that talking about god more than occasionally isn’t going to get him anywhere.

    It’s a fantastic country to live in [plus, we’ve had universal health care for about 20 years]. You guys can keep Ken Ham, we don’t want him back :)

  8. gsb says

    Two-thirds of those who do not believe in God, or are uncertain, do believe in a ‘higher being or life-force’.

    So 2/3rds of “nonbelievers” really just switched out their old-age sky fairy for a new-age sky fairy? Or am I reading this wrong.

  9. says

    I know a few friends who put down FSM for their religion. Jedi was the choice in the one before 2006 (about 70 000 people if i remember correctly)
    I made sure I put down Atheist down just to help the numbers and because its true. Not sure what where they fit FSM in.

    I used to drive by ‘Answers In Genesis’ (didn’t really know what it stood for for a while) building in Ryde, NSW alot. It was painted yellow with Dinosaurs for a long time then changed to bunker grey. I don’t think it sees much action.

  10. Patrick C says

    In contrast to my fellow antipodean Kate, I only feel awkawrd embarrassment.

    It wouldn’t be so bad that we developed Ken Ham and a goodly potion of the modern creationist movement, and sent them on to Greener Pa$ture$, be we did it in the presence of *Marsupials*.

    Now you might think: Heh? *Marsupials*? Wot?

    But aside from the ability to go snorkelling off the beaches of the largest city in the country and see the largest species of cuttlefish in the world (mating season right now … flashy colours and bizarre lights … hubba hubba …), within 15 minutes drive, of several good research universities, (indeed 15 minutes *walk* of one of them) and have them interact with you in a most engaging way, you also have *marsupials*. Critters wot exist only in Australia and pretty much no-where else.

    Now on seeing your marsupial in Australia, and (pretty much) no-where else, your average person would think to themselves “Hmmmm. This is a lot of species of Marsupial. One God-awful (pardon the phrase Oh Lord) agglomeration of marsupial, wot happened to situate themselves in one particular continent and nowhere else”. And you might also think to yourself “These critters don’t swim too good” (which in fact they don’t).

    And then you get Ken Ham. Somehow he is brought up here long enough to retain this accent (and work hard to make it an embarrassment) and somehow it escapes this bloke that all these marsupials hung about in this country long enough to deposit their skeletons all over the place, and then a few (two of every species) had the brilliant idea “Why not a sojourn to Northern Climes? I understand there’s a rather large boat being built over there, and I wouldn’t mind a bit of yachting!”

    So off these poor critters trod, thinks Ken, the Intelligent Designer presumably stowing in their tucker-bags enough of the Antipodean fauna to provide for the trek and the 40 days and nights, and somehow (almost miraculously but not quite because we’re Scientific Creationists) keeping the lot of the carefully stowed vegetation fresh for them so they can survive.

    And then, having got on the Ark and had their impromptu yachting experience, the critters say to themselves “sod this Turkey thing for a lark, I’d rather trek 10,000 miles south-east when my natural range is a few dozen kilometeres.” And all of them do it, all several thousand species, trekking together over South Asia and swimming the oceans. Australia is obviously a pretty inviting pace to your Creationist Marsupial. After all you get to go snorkelling with giant cuttlefish after work.

    But I had never really thought about the joy of yachting all that hard, which as PZ points out is particularly well siuted to the Antipodes. Maybe now I see what Ken was getting at: there must be some raw Antipodean desire for yachting, which drove all these creatures to Anatolia for a spot of boating. (And then back. Maybe they all got very seasick or something.)

  11. kate says

    gsb- yeah, their definition of secular humanist is a little bit different to mine.

    I think the answer there might be that they defined as ‘eclectic’ those who had two or more Woo beliefs. So the ‘believe in a life force’ people might qualify as humanists because they don’t have any other Woo in them- so they think maybe there’s some supernatural god up there- but he doesn’t do anything at all- Einstein or Spinoza’s god if you like.

    So it’s the kind of belief in the supernatural that doesn’t proscribe how you should live your life- no scriptures, no revelations at all. So they’re much less likely to oppose stem cell research or abortion or hate the gays than people with prescriptive religious beliefs.

  12. Stephen says

    OK, I know gloating is poor form, but for the figures for the Netherlands, see and scroll down to page 27 (actually numbered 13, but you can use Shift-Ctrl-N and 27).

    66% non-churched (i.e. atheists or people who are nominally Christian but really couldn’t give a toss anymore.)

  13. says

    There are so many issues wrapped up in these bald figures. Here in the UK, for instance, there was a survey last winter, in which people were asked whether or not they were religious. 63% said no. This included more than half of those who when asked their religion replied “Christian”. Yes, I know.

    I’m not an academic, and I don’t know how well this subject is understood in academic circles, but it seems to me that existing research should be collated, and data gaps should wherever possible be filled, to find out where people stand on religion across the globe – do they believe it’s true, do they think it’s a good thing, do they attend despite secret disbelief, whatever. This data could then be analysed to show which countries are the most godless (as I understand, we in northern Europe lead the field, but that could just be our chauvinism), and internationally how factors like education, political freedom, economic security and geographical mobility affect the result.

    If we intend to campaign for atheism politically, it would be useful to know the kind of society we need to be supporting to get there.

  14. says

    Our god-believers are 86 percent of American adults, a drop from 90 percent in 2004 and in 2001. Yet atheist/agnostic/non-faithed are only 9% of the overall population — but 14% of 23-41-year-olds and 19% of 18-22-year-olds. And contrary to popular wisdom, those numbers don’t appear to decline significantly as people age. They’ve held relatively constant over the past 15 years.

    More on my blog.

    Mostly it’s the young not buying into religion. But should we credit Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins or should we credit Stephen Baldwin and Rev. Ted Haggard?

  15. Rich says

    “…”Jedi” or “Jedi Knight” (after the fictitious quasi-religious order of Force-attuned knights in the Star Wars films)…”

    How is a fictitious religion from a movie any different from fictitious religions like Christianity, Islam or Scientology?

  16. MS says

    Who cares about the America’s Cup?
    Posted by: Shawn Wilkinson

    Tom Paxton has a very funny song called “The Day We Lost the Americas Cup,” which points out that yachting isn’t exactly an egalitarian sport (“Some of those dudes owned slaves…”). It’s on an album called “One Million Lawyers and Other Disasters,” which also includes the equally funny “Yuppies in the Sky,” as well as some more serious songs.

  17. Stephen says

    How is a fictitious religion from a movie any different from fictitious religions like Christianity, Islam or Scientology?

    Er … nothing fictitious about Christianity or Islam. They worship fictitious beings, but the religions are very real.

    Scientology however makes an interesting case for any discussion of what religion actually is.

  18. Brachychiton says

    Critters wot exist only in Australia and pretty much no-where else.

    Apart from the Americas, New Guinea and Wallacea …

  19. Athene says

    New Zealand also took the cup back off San Diego (and are currently desperately trying to get it back off the Swiss), and our godlessness rates are even better!

    “In 2006, 1,297,104 people (34.7 percent) stated that they had no religion, compared with 1,028,052 people (29.6 percent) in the 2001 Census.” from

    I for one am still in denial that Ray Comfort was born in the land of the long white cloud.

  20. Peter Kemp says

    Resistance to “Religun”was always strong down under–the much beloved Banjo Patterson wrote:

    “On the outer Barcoo where the churches are few,
    And men of religion are scanty,
    On a road never cross’d ‘cept by folk that are lost,
    One Michael Magee had a shanty.

    Now this Mike was the dad of a ten-year-old lad,
    Plump, healthy, and stoutly conditioned;
    He was strong as the best, but poor Mike had no rest
    For the youngster had never been christened,

    And his wife used to cry, “If the darlin’ should die
    Saint Peter would not recognise him.”
    But by luck he survived till a preacher arrived,
    Who agreed straightaway to baptise him.

    Now the artful young rogue, while they held their collogue,
    With his ear to the keyhole was listenin’,
    And he muttered in fright while his features turned white,
    “What the divil and all is this christenin’?”
    The rest of it here:

  21. says

    How gauche. Everyone knows you can’t start with Mornington Crescent. You could at least begin with something conventional, like Gloucester Road or Kew Gardens, you know.

    And NO, don’t you people start!

  22. Brian says

    Bugger, My wife and I put down Pastafarianism in the census. I did Jedi in the one before. I’m probably being counted as a religious believer.
    Apart from the Americas, New Guinea and Wallacea …
    There are some common marsupials between New Guinea and Oz (Echidna, tree kangaroo, etc), but I doubt you’ll find a mob of Eastern Greys or Mountain pigmy possums anywhere else but here. Unless of couse you’re suggesting after leaving the ark, and swimming back to OZ, they evolved into macropods and tiny cute possums. Sort of defeats the ark then doesn’t it?

  23. says

    Regardless of the problems with the categories, regardless of the fact that it’s probably a vast underestimate since “I must be Catholic ‘cos me dad woz” people are being counted as Christian, regardless of every other issue with the survey – I don’t care ’cause I live in ADELAIDE, relatively sunny capital of South Australia and…

    …we win the Australian Godlessness Cup!

    Yay! I knew there was a reason I liked this tiny little city.

  24. Dale says

    Lee, you may win the godlessness cup, but the capital of the NT was named after Darwin, so I think that should give them some bragging rights…

  25. Kenny Gee says

    The funny part of Lee Harrison post is that Adelaide is called the city of Churches. Hell they must be empty! PZ if you ever want to come to Australia and see our giant cuttlefish I live in Whyalla about 10km from the main breeding site so look me up. It’s quite amazing to swim through ten of thousands of giant cuttlefish.

  26. grasshopper says

    How gauche. Everyone knows you can’t start with Mornington Crescent. You could at least begin with something conventional, like Gloucester Road or Kew Gardens, you know.


  27. Gun Of Sod says

    It was New Zealand that took the Americas Cup, and we are about to do it again.
    I think you’ll find that Religious believers in New Zealand are also lower than both of your countries, including an Agnostic Prime Minister and Governor General.

    We here in NZ are getting tired of you Canadians confusing us with Australians. Please research correctly.

  28. Praxiteles says

    My dear, dear Gun of Sod,

    In 1983 Australia II defeated Liberty in the 7th race to end the United States’ hundred and umpty-sumfin’-year dominance of the competition.

    Thereafter it has been shared around a bit, but here (in Oz) it has lost the mystique that it once had. Good on the Kiwis for giving the Swiss a bloody nose, though.

    (And what is it with the Swiss? Switzerland and blue-water racing aren’t two concepts that readily meld, are they?)


  29. Gun Of Sod says

    Of course you’re all completely correct (thanx Prax). I will attempt to follow my own advice, before going off ‘half cocked’ in the future.
    When it comes doewn to it, so many of the crews and backers of the America Cup are from so many places, it’s silly to get nationalistic about it all.

    We still have an Agnostic Prime Minister, and several openly Atheist MP’s though. Anyone know if this might be a first?

  30. Angie says

    Bob Hawke, prime minister of Australia between 1983-1991, was agnostic/atheist…depends on the account. D’oh, Australia did it first again!

  31. Praxiteles says

    Godlessness pissing contests aside… ;-)

    I am completely delighted to note that the info from the 2006 census shows that almost a quarter of Tashoovians are no-religion.

    I must admit to a bit of suprise at that, especially since we have our very own mini bible belt (bible strap?) in the north of the state. I thought that we would have had a higher religiosity that the Australian average, but in fact it’s lower.



  32. says

    New Zealand destroyed any possible non-millionaire interest in the America’s Cup in 1988 with their stupid catamaran shenanigans.

    Talk about bringing a bazooka to a knife fight…

  33. says

    New Zealand destroyed any possible non-millionaire interest in the America’s Cup in 1988 with their stupid catamaran shenanigans.

    Talk about bringing a bazooka to a knife fight…

    Well we talked alot about Dennis and his crew bringing a catamaran to a single hull yacht race at the time.

    But suggesting “shenanigans” on our part is about as clever as suggesting we were “asking for it” when the French blew up the Rainbow Warrior.

  34. says

    By the way look closely at the CENSUS result. In addition to the NO RELIGION there are a substantial number of non-responses (or not adequately described – PASTAFARIANS? or just NOT BLOODY LIKELY).

  35. says

    Bob Hawke, prime minister of Australia between 1983-1991, was agnostic/atheist…depends on the account. D’oh, Australia did it first again!

    And the guy he took over from in the labour party and was later Governor General (for American’s the figurehead head of state) was an avowed athiest.

  36. says

    In 1996 Hayden was recognised as the Australian Humanist of the Year by the Council of Australian Humanist Societies.

  37. says


    The guy ultimately responsible for the mismatch was Michael Fay of New Zealand.

    “While openly discussing a conventional 12-Metre challenge, Fay secretly commissioned the design and had commenced construction of a large sloop. Then, when he felt he had an insurmountable time lead on the defender, Fay issued a challenge specifying his type of boat and a time period too short for the defender to reasonably develop a boat of the same type.The San Diego Yacht Club refused, and then tried to reason with Fay. This was to no avail.”

    Michael Fay’s 1988 campaign was shameful kiwi cowardice.