(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone; written in 2008)
Australians are free to choose their religion and indeed whether they have one at all. Under the Australian Constitution, which was put in place at the time of federation in 1901, the nation is not permitted to have a state religion. Many religious groups exist in Australia. These include Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and traditional religions of indigenous Australians, among others.
There are a large number of Christian denominations in Australia. The main ones are the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church. At the time of the last Australian census in 2006, a total of 5.1 million people stated their religion was Catholic. This represents about 26 per cent of the Australian population. A further 3.7 million people or 19 per cent of the population were Anglican. Other Christian groups include the Uniting Church, Presbyterian and Reformed, Orthodox, Baptist, Lutheran, and Pentecostal.
William Ullathorne, vicar-general in the colony of New South Wales in the 1830s convinced Pope Gregory XVI to establish a Catholic church in Australia. Until about twenty years ago, the Catholic Church was Australia’s second largest church after the Anglican Church, but has grown at a faster rate. Part of the reason is that Australia’s immigration policy now extends to many European and Asian countries with a predominantly Catholic population. The Catholic Church in Australia has 32 dioceses grouped into seven archdioceses. Each diocese is headed by a bishop, while each archdiocese has an archbishop. The church has about 3,000 priests, and a further 9,000 males and females in Catholic orders, or those who dedicate their life to the church. Australia’s three members of the College of Cardinals are George Pell, Edward Clancy, and Edward Cassidy. Only about 15 per cent of Catholics attend church on a regular basis, according to the National Church Life Survey of 2001. This was down from about 18 per cent in 1996.
The Anglican Church is Australia’s oldest church. Richard Johnston was chaplain on the First Fleet, which arrived in Australia in 1788. This church was the only recognised religion in Australia in early colonial times. Its first bishop was William Broughton in 1836. A separate diocese was created in Tasmania in 1842. The mainland diocese was divided into four dioceses of Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, and Newcastle in 1847. Over the next eighty years, the number of dioceses rose to 25. Since 1962, the Anglican Church of Australia has been independent of the English church, although it was still called the Church of England until 1981. Its present 23 dioceses are grouped into five provinces. The church’s current primate and archbishop is Phillip Aspinall.
Australia’s third largest church is the Uniting Church, with 1.1 million followers. It was formed in 1977 through an amalgamation of the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational churches. About ten per cent of these people attend church regularly. This church is non-hierarchical and has no bishops. It is run by various councils or committees. Many Australians still regard themselves as Presbyterian, evidenced by the 2006 census count of 600,000 adherents.
Orthodox Christians belong to a number of separate churches, including the Eastern Orthodox Church with its Greek background, Eastern Christianity, and Oriental Orthodoxy. Over 500,000 Australians follow these faiths.
The Baptist Church was established in Australia in the 1830s. The Baptist Union started in 1926. Seven state unions operate independently with the national body as an advisory council. The union had 61,000 members and 868 churched in 2007. The 2006 census identified over 300,000 followers, with over a third going to church weekly.
The Lutheran and Pentecostal churches have about 250,000 and 220,000 supporters in Australia respectively.
Strong growth in various non-Christian religions has occurred in recent decades. Again, this is due to immigration policies that welcome migrants from countries where these religions are predominant.
Australia has over 400,000 Buddhists or two per cent of the population. The first Buddhists came to Australia during the gold rush era in the mid nineteenth century from China, attracted by the prospect of finding gold. More buddhists soon came to Australia to work in the sugar cane industry, the pearling industry, and as acrobats and jugglers. Numbers declined in the early twentieth century due to the White Australia policy, although they have increased sharply more recently. The number of followers doubled between 1996 and 2006, with many coming from India, Sri Lanka, and south-east Asian countries. Australia has the southern hemisphere’s largest Buddhist temple, the Nan Tien Temple, in Wollongong, south of Sydney.
The 2006 census counted 340,000 Muslims in Australia. Several thousand Muslims came to Australia from Afghanistan and other countries as camel drives in desert areas in the nineteenth century. They helped open up the land. When the White Australia policy was abandoned in the 1970s, large numbers of Muslims came from Lebanon, Turkey, and other Middle Eastern countries, as well as from Albania, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Somalia. The Australian Islamic College in Perth has 2,000 students. There are Muslim communities across Australia, including various suburbs in Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth, plus in regional areas such as Shepparton and Cobram in Victoria, and Katanning in Western Australia.
About 150,000 Hindus live in Australia. Hindus came to Australia from India in the nineteenth century to work in the sugar and cotton industries. Many of them stayed and worked as camel drivers, merchants, and travelling salesmen in outlying communities. These days, many work as doctors, engineers, and computer programmers. Most of them live in Sydney and Melbourne. They are noted for living in harmony with the rest of the population.
Australia’s 90,000 Jews are mainly of Eastern European origin, including refugees and survivors of the Holocaust, but also from South Africa, New Zealand, and Russia. Their numbers are thought to be more than what is officially recorded, as a proportion are thought to not want to state their religion on the census form. Estimates of the Jewish population in Australia are as high as 120,000. They have been prominent in business, and in science, literature, and art.
Traditional indigenous Australian religions are now practised by only about 5,000 people. These religions go back before the arrival of Europeans in Australia, and are based on the Dreamtime. This relates to a creation in ancient times and its link all the way to the present day. Aboriginal people have a number of dream spirits. The main one is the Rainbow Serpent, and also the Yowie and the Bunyip. Their religions are linked strongly to the land.
Australia has developed from a society in which only one religion was allowed to a society of tolerance and diversity with a large number of religious groups. Followers interact with those of other groups and everyone generally lives in harmony with each other.