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Religion in Australia

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Subject: Christianity in Australia, History of the Jews in Australia, Council of Australian Humanist Societies, John Parkes, Australian art
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Religion in Australia

Religion in Australia as declared in the census (2011)[1]

  Roman Catholic (25.3%)
  Anglican (17.1%)
  Other Christian (18.7%)
  Non-Christian (7.2%)
  No Religion (22.3%)
  Not stated or unclear (9.4%)

Religion in Australia is diverse. The Constitution of Australia of 1901 prohibits the Commonwealth government from establishing a church or interfering with the freedom of religion[note 1] but the country is predominantly; Christian with, in an optional question on the 2011 Census, 61.1% of the Australian population declaring some variety of Christianity. Historically the percentage has been far higher and the religious landscape of Australia is changing and diversifying.[1] Also in 2011, 22.3% of Australians stated "no religion", and a further 9.4% chose not to answer the question.[1] The remaining population is a diverse group which includes Buddhists (2.5%), Muslims (2.2%), Hindus (1.3%), and Jews (0.5%).[1]

Australia's Aboriginal people developed the animist spirituality of the Dreaming and some of the earliest evidence on earth for religious practices among humans has been found in the archaeological record of their ancestors. Torres Strait Islander religion bore similarities to broader Melanesian spirituality. While Aboriginal people in Northern Australia would have had some contact with Maccassans prior to the permanent arrival of Europeans, the general isolation of indigenous Australian religion ended with the arrival of the first British settlers in 1788, whereafter subsequent immigrants and their descendants have been predominantly Christian.

While the Church of England originally held a position of privilege in early colonial Australia, a legal framework guaranteeing religious equality began to evolve within a few short decades. From the earliest days of the colony there were Jews and other religious minorities. Events such as the 19th century Australian gold rushes brought adherents of the various Chinese religions; and the requirements of the pre-mechanised era of transport brought specialised workers from British India, such as the mainly Muslim "Afghan Cameleers".

While Australia has a strong tradition of secular government, religious organisations have played a significant role in public life. The St Vincent De Paul Society and Salvation Army receive widespread community support. New religious movements are also practised.


WR Thomas, A South Australian Corroboree, 1864, Art Gallery of South Australia.

Aboriginal religion

At the time of British settlement, the Indigenous Australians had their own religious traditions of the Dreaming (as Mircea Eliade put it) "There is a general belief among the [indigenous] Australians that the world, man, and the various animals and plants were created by certain Supernatural beings who afterwards disappeared, either ascending to the sky or entering the earth."[2] and ritual systems, with an emphasis on life transitions such as adulthood and death.[3]

Kolaia man wearing a headdress worn in a fire ceremony, Forrest River, Western Australia. Aboriginal Australian religious practices associated with the Dreaming have been practised for tens of thousands of years.
Richard Johnson, Anglican priest and chaplain to the First Fleet.
Phap Hoa Vietnamese Buddhist Temple, Adelaide, South Australia.
Pope Benedict XVI arriving at Barangaroo, Sydney for World Youth Day 2008.

Prior to European settlement in 1788 there was contact with Indigenous Australians from people of various faiths. These contacts were with explorers, fishermen and survivors of the numerous shipwrecks. There have been countless artifacts retrieved from these contacts.[4] The Aborigines of Northern Australia (Arnhem Land) retain stories, songs and paintings of trade and cultural interaction with boat-people from the north. These people are generally regarded as being from the east Indonesian archipelago. (See: Macassan contact with Australia.) There is some evidence of Islamic terms and concepts entering northern Aboriginal culture via this interaction.[5][6]

Centuries before European sailors reached Australia, Christian theologians already speculated whether this region, located on the opposite side of the Earth from Europe, had human inhabitants and, if so, whether the Antipodes descended from Adam and have been redeemed by Jesus. The prevailing point of view, expressed by St. Augustine of Hippo, was that "it is too absurd to say that some men might have set sail from this side and, traversing the immense expanse of ocean, have propagated there a race of human beings descended from that one first man."[7][8] A dissenting view, held by the Irish-Austrian St. Vergilius of Salzburg was "that beneath the earth there was another world and other men"; while not much is known about Vergilius' views, the Catholic Encyclopedia speculates that he was able to clear himself from accusations of heresy by explaining that the people of the hypothetical Australia were descended from Adam and redeemed by Christ.[9]

By the early 18th century, Christian leaders felt that the natives of the little-known Terra Australis Incognita and Hollandia Nova (still often thought as two distinct land masses) were in need of conversion to Christianity. In 1724, a young Jonathan Edwards wrote:

... And what is peculiarly glorious in it, is the gospelizing the new and before unknown world, that which is so remote, so unknown, where the devil had reigned quietly from the beginning of the world, which is larger – taking in America, Terra Australis Incognita, Hollandia Nova, ... – is far greater than the old world. I say, that this new world should all worship the God of Israel, whose worship was then confined to so narrow a land, is wonderful and glorious![10]


Christianity came to Australia with the first British settlers on the First Fleet.[11] Of the convicts and settlers most were Roman Catholics (largely Irish convicts) and Anglicans. There were at least 15 Jews in the First Fleet, 14 convicts and one "free" child.[12] Other groups were also represented, for example among the Tolpuddle Martyrs, were a number of Methodists. The First Fleet brought tensions to Australia fuelled by historical grievances between Roman Catholics and other Christians, tensions that would continue into the 20th century.[13]

The first chaplain, [15]

Though free settlers began to arrive in the late 18th century, it was the

In Western Australia the Anglican clergy saw themselves as pioneering a new society. Besides the usual religious roles of leading church building and public worship they took a major part in charity, education and public debate. They attempted to refashion it in their own ecclesiastical image based on English models.[16]

The Church of England was disestablished in the colony of New South Wales by the Church Act of 1836. Drafted by the reformist attorney-general John Plunkett, the act established legal equality for Anglicans, Catholics and Presbyterians and was later extended to Methodists.[17]

Freedom of Religion was enshrined in the Australian Constitution of 1901.

By 1901 apart from the indigenous population, and the descendants of gold rush migrants – Australian society was predominantly Anglo-Celtic, with 40% of the population being Anglican, 23% Catholic, 34% other Christian and about 1% professing non-Christian religions. There was a Lutheran population of German descent in South Australia.

Pre 1901

Before 1901 a few Muslims arrived. Some Muslim sailors and prisoners came to Australia on the convict ships. Afghans cameleers settled in Australia from the 1860s onwards, a number of them being Sikh. From the 1870s Malay divers were recruited (with most subsequently repatriated). Islam was not a significant minority in this period.

Immigration restrictions

In 1901, the government passed an act limiting immigration to those of European descent in what came to be known as the White Australia Policy. By effectively limiting the immigration of practitioners of different faiths, this policy ensured that Christianity remained the religion of the overwhelming majority of Australians for the foreseeable future and, indeed, to the present day. The first census in 1911 showed 96% identified themselves as Christian.[18] The tensions that came with the First Fleet continued into the 1960s: job vacancy advertisements sometimes included the stipulation that "Catholics Need Not Apply".[11] Nevertheless, Australia elected its first Catholic prime minister, James Scullin, in 1929 and Sir Isaac Isaacs, a Jew, was appointed governor-general in 1930.[19][20]

Post 1970

Further waves of migration and the gradual repeal of the White Australia Policy, helped to reshape the profile of Australia's religious affiliations over subsequent decades. The impact of migration from Europe in the aftermath of World War II led to increases in affiliates of the Orthodox churches, the establishment of Reformed bodies, growth in the number of Catholics (largely from Italian migration) and Jews (Holocaust survivors) and the creation of ethnic parishes among many other denominations. More recently (post-1970s), immigration from South-East Asia and the Middle East has expanded Buddhist and Muslim numbers considerably and increased the ethnic diversity of existing Christian denominations.

As has been the trend throughout the world since the 11 September attacks, there has been an increasingly strained relationship between the adherents of Islam and the wider community. Attempts have been made to bridge inter-faith differences. However, the influence of the identity politics as a whole is not to be discounted in this respects; reflected in the conflicting and ambiguous interpretation of the 2005 race riots in Cronulla, near Sydney.

Religious places of worship have made their mark on Australia. Churches or chapels have been constructed in most towns, with many fine cathedrals built in the colonies during the 19th century. Synagogues, mosques and temples are also a feature of most Australian cities. The oldest mosque in Australia was built in 1888. Australia also has one of the larger Buddhist temples in the Southern Hemisphere.

Constitutional status

The Australian constitution consists of several documents, including the Statute of Westminster and the Australia Act of 1986, but there is only one reference to religion in the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia, signed into law in 1900. Notably, the constitution does not include a Bill Of Rights and, as a result, Australia's fundamental law has been criticized for its lack of explicit protection for several rights and freedoms. However, Section 116 of the 1900 Act to constitute the Commonwealth of Australia (Australian Constitution) provides that:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

Technically, this article does not affect the states' authority to legislate on religion, nor would it block federal legislation on religion aside from that establishing an official religion of Australia. In practice, though, the government respects these rights and contributes to the generally free practice of religion.

In 1983, the High Court of Australia defined religion as a complex of beliefs and practices which point to a set of values and an understanding of the meaning of existence. The ABS 2001 Census Dictionary defines "No Religion" as a category of religion which has subcategories such as agnosticism, atheism, Humanism and rationalism.

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) is able to inquire into allegations of discrimination on religious grounds.

HREOC's 1998[21] addressing the human right to freedom of religion and belief in Australia against article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights stated that despite the legal protections that apply in different jurisdictions, many Australians suffer discrimination on the basis of religious belief or non-belief, including members of both mainstream and non-mainstream religions, and those of no religious persuasion.

Many non-Christian adherents have complained to HREOC that the dominance of traditional Christianity in civic life has the potential to marginalise large numbers of Australian citizens. An example of an HREOC response to such views is the IsmaU project,[22] which examines possible prejudice against Muslims in Australia since the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US, and the Bali bombings.


Major religious affiliations in Australia by census year[1][note 2]
People who identify as Christian as a percentage of the total population in Australia divided geographically by statistical local area, as of the 2011 census

A question on religion has been asked in every census taken in Australia, with the voluntary nature of this question having been specifically stated since 1933. In 1971, the instruction "if no religion, write none" was introduced. This saw a sevenfold increase from the previous census year in the percentage of Australians stating they had no religion. Since 1971, this percentage has progressively increased to 22.3% in 2011.[1]

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2006 Census Dictionary statement on religious affiliation states the purpose for gathering such information:

Data on religious affiliation are used for such purposes as planning educational facilities, aged persons' care and other social services provided by religion-based organisations; the location of church buildings; the assigning of chaplains to hospitals, prisons, armed services and universities; the allocation of time on public radio and other media; and sociological research.

The census question about religion is optional, and asks "What is the person's religion?", giving respondents a choice of nine religions, "Other" and "No religion".[23] At the 2011 census 9.4% of people declined to answer, or they did not give a response adequate for interpretation.[1] The religious views of those people are not known, so it is not proper to group them together with people who state that they have no religion – instead, all the census figures about religion should be treated with corresponding confidence levels.

The 2011 census identified that 61.1% of Australians classify themselves Christian: 25.3% identifying themselves as Catholic and 17.1% as Anglican. Another 7.2% of Australians identify themselves as followers of non-Christian religions. The second-largest classification was the 22.3% who categorised themselves as having "No religion";[1] this is most evident amongst younger people, with 29% of people aged 18–34 choosing that option (it was 12% in 1976).[24]

As in many Western countries, the level of active participation in church worship is much lower than this; weekly attendance at church services is about 1.5 million, about 7.5% of the population.[25]

According to the time series data released with the 2011 census, the fastest growing religious classifications over the ten years between 2001 and 2011 were:

  • No religion – up from 15.2% to 22.1%
  • Buddhism – up from 1.9% to 2.4%
  • Islam – up from 1.5% to 2.2%
  • Hinduism – up from 0.5% to 1.3%

Meanwhile, the greatest decreases were in the major Christian denominations; all Christian denominations combined decreased from 67% to 61%.[26]

Religious Affiliation in Australia (1986, 1996, 2006, 2011)[1][27]
Affiliation 1986 ('000) 1986 % 1996 ('000) 1996 % 2006 ('000) 2006 % 2011 ('000) 2011 %
10 Anglican 3,723.4 23.9 3,903.3 22.0 3,718.3 18.7 3,680.0 17.1
10 Baptist 196.8 1.3 295.2 1.7 316.7 1.6 352.5 1.6
10 Catholic Catholic 4,064.4 26.1 4,799.0 27.0 5,126.9 25.8 5,439.2 25.3
10 Churches of Christ 88.5 0.6 75.0 0.4 54.8 0.3
10 Jehovah's Witnesses 66.5 0.4 83.4 0.5 80.9 0.4
10 Latter Day Saints 35.5 0.2 45.2 0.3 53.1 0.3
10 Lutheran 208.3 1.3 250.0 1.4 251.1 1.3 251.9 1.2
10 Eastern Orthodox 427.4 2.7 497.3 2.8 544.3 2.7 563.1 2.6
10 Pentecostal 107.0 0.7 174.6 1.0 219.6 1.1 238.0 1.1
10 Presbyterian and Reformed Churches 560.0 3.6 675.5 3.8 596.7 3.0 599.5 2.8
10 Salvation Army 77.8 0.5 74.1 0.4 64.2 0.3
10 Seventh-day Adventist 48.0 0.3 52.7 0.3 55.3 0.3
10 Uniting Church 1,182.3 7.6 1,334.9 7.5 1,135.4 5.7 1,065.8 5.0
12 Other Christian 596.0 3.8 322.7 1.8 468.6 2.4 960.7 4.5
15 Christian total 11,381.9 73.0 12,582.9 70.9 12,685.9 63.9 13,150.6 61.1
20 Buddhism 80.4 0.5 199.8 1.1 418.8 2.1 529.0 2.5
20 Hinduism 21.5 0.1 67.3 0.4 148.1 0.7 275.5 1.3
20 Islam 109.5 0.7 200.9 1.1 340.4 1.7 476.3 2.2
20 Judaism 69.1 0.4 79.8 0.4 88.8 0.4 97.3 0.5
20 Jedi No stats 58.0 0.3 65.0 0.3
20 Other non-Christian 35.7 0.2 68.6 0.4 109.0 0.5 168.2 0.8
25 Non-Christian total 316.2 2.0 616.4 3.5 1,105.1 5.6 1,546.3 7.2
30 No religion 1,977.5 12.7 2,948.9 16.6 3,706.5 18.7 4,796.8 22.3
40 Not stated/Inadequately described 1,926.6 12.3 1,604.8 9.0 2,357.8 11.9 2,014.0 9.4
30 No religion/Not stated total 3,904.1 25.0 4,553.7 25.7 6,064.3 30.5 6,810.8 31.7
Total 15,602.1 100.0 17,753.0 100.0 19,855.3 100.0 21,507.7 100.0

Note : Due to rounding, figures may not add up to the totals shown.

Indigenous Australian traditions

Illustration of an Aboriginal Corroboree ceremony by William Barak c.1898.

Prior to British settlement in Australia, the animist beliefs of Australia's indigenous people had been practised for millennia. In the case of mainland Aboriginal Australians, their spirituality is known as the Dreaming and it places a heavy emphasis on belonging to the land. The collection of stories which it contains shaped Aboriginal law and customs. Aboriginal art, story and dance continue to draw on these spiritual traditions. In the case of the Torres Strait Islanders who inhabit the islands between Australia and New Guinea, spirituality and customs reflected their Melanesian origins and dependence on the sea.[28]

Indigenous Australians have a complex oral tradition and spiritual values based upon reverence for the land and a belief in the Dreaming. The Dreaming is at once the ancient time of creation and the present day reality of Dreaming. There were a great many different groups, each with their own individual culture, belief structure, and language. These cultures overlapped to a greater or lesser extent, and evolved over time. The Rainbow Serpent is a major dream spirit for Aboriginal people across Australia. The Yowie and Bunyip are other well known dream spirits. At the time of the British settlement, traditional religions were animist and also tended to have elements of ancestor worship.

According to the 2001 census, 5,244 persons or less than 0.03 percent of respondents reported practising Aboriginal traditional religions. Aboriginal beliefs and spirituality, even among those Aborigines who identify themselves as members of a traditional organised religion, are intrinsically linked to the land generally and to certain sites of significance in particular. The 1996 census reported that almost 72 percent of Aborigines practised some form of Christianity and 16 percent listed no religion. The 2001 census contained no comparable updated data.[29]

Since British settlement

Statue of Christian pastor, Aboriginal activist and former Governor of South Australia, Sir Douglas Nicholls


In the Torres Strait Islands, the Coming of the Light Festival marks the day the Christian missionaries first arrived on the islands on 1 July 1871 and introduced Christianity to the region. This is a significant festival for Torres Strait Islanders, who are predominantly Christian. Religious and cultural ceremonies are held across Torres Strait and mainland Australia.[33]

Prominent Aboriginal activist Noel Pearson, himself raised at a Lutheran mission in Cape York, has written that missions throughout Australia's colonial history "provided a haven from the hell of life on the Australian frontier while at the same time facilitating colonisation".[34] Prominent Aboriginal Christians have included Pastor David Unaipon, the first Aboriginal author; Pastor Sir Douglas Nicholls, athlete, activist and former Governor of South Australia; Mum (Shirl) Smith, a celebrated Redfern community worker who, assisted by the Sisters of Charity, work to assist Aborigines.;[35] and former Senator Aden Ridgeway, the first Chairman of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry.[35] In recent times, Christians such as Fr Ted Kennedy of Redfern,[36] Jesuit human rights lawyer Fr Frank Brennan [37] and the Josephite Sisters have been prominent in working for Aboriginal rights and improvements to standards of living.[38]


Bahá'í Faith

Bahá'í House of Worship, Sydney.

The Bahá'í Faith in Australia has a long history and a growing visible presence in the country since 1922. A Bahá'í House of Worship exists in Sydney, dedicated on 17 September 1961 and opened to the public after four years of construction. The 1996 Australian Census lists Bahá'í membership at just under 9000.[39] The 2001 second edition of A Practical Reference to Religious Diversity for Operational Police and Emergency Services added the Bahá'í Faith in its coverage of religions in Australia and noted that the community had grown to over 11,000.[39] The Association of Religion Data Archives (relying on World Christian Encyclopedia) estimated some 17,700 Bahá'ís in 2005.[40]


Since the arrival of the first Christian settlers on the First Fleet of British ships in 1788, Christianity has grown to be the major religion in Australia. Consequently, the Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter are public holidays, the skylines of Australian cities and towns are marked by church and cathedral spires, and the Christian churches have played an integral role in the development of education, health and welfare services in Australia.

The churches with the largest number of members are the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church of Australia and the Uniting Church in Australia, Pentecostal churches are also present with megachurches being found in most states (for example, Hillsong Church and Paradise Community Church). The National Council of Churches in Australia is the main Christian ecumenical body.

St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney in the 1900s. The Christian Churches have played an integral role in the development and provision of welfare services in Australia.
Mary MacKillop became the first Australian to be canonised as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church in 2010.
Catholic primary school at Broken Hill. Australia has an extensive network of Christian schools and around 20% of children attend Catholic schools.

For much of Australian history, the Church of England in Australia, now known as the Anglican Church of Australia, was the largest religious affiliation, however multicultural immigration has contributed to a decline in its relative position, with the Roman Catholic Church benefiting from the opening of post-war Australia to multicultural immigration and becoming the largest group. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia and other congregations associated with non-British cultures have also expanded.

In his welcoming address to the Roman Catholic First Fleet chaplain Richard Johnson was credited as "the physician both of soul and body" during the famine of 1790, and was charged with general supervision of schools.[14]

Today, the Roman Catholic education system is the second biggest sector after government schools, with more than 650,000 students (and around 21 per cent of all secondary school enrolments). The Anglican Church educates around 105,000 students and the Uniting Church has around 48 schools.[42] Smaller denominations, including the Lutheran Church also have a number of schools in Australia. There are two Roman Catholic Universities in Australia, Australian Catholic University opened in 1991 following the amalgamation of four Catholic tertiary institutions in eastern Australia and the University of Notre Dame Australia which is based in Perth.

[42] Christian charities such as the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, the Salvation Army, Anglicare, and Youth Off the Streets receive considerable national support. Religious orders founded many of Australia's hospitals, such as St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney, which was opened as a free hospital in 1857 by the Sisters of Charity and is now Australia's largest not-for-profit health provider and has trained prominent Australian surgeons such as Victor Chang.[43]

Notable Australian Christians have included: Mary MacKillop – educator, founder of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart and the first Australian to be recognised as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church;[44] David Unaipon – an Aboriginal writer, inventor and Christian preacher currently featured on the Australian $50 note;[45] Archbishop Daniel Mannix of Melbourne – a controversial voice against Conscription during World War I and against British policy in Ireland;[46] the Reverend John Flynn – founder of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, currently featured on the Australian $20 note;[47] and Sir Douglas Nicholls – Aboriginal rights activist, athlete, pastor and former Governor of South Australia.[48]

National Council of Churches in Australia.[50]

One of the most visible signs of the historical importance of Christianity to Australia is the prominence of churches in most Australian towns and cities. Among Australia's oldest are Ebenezer Chapel, and the Anglican St Matthew's, Windsor, St Luke's, Liverpool, St Peter's, Campbelltown and St James Church, Sydney, built between 1819 and 1824 by Governor Macquarie's architect, Francis Greenway.[51] St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney was built to a design by William Wardell from a foundation stone laid in 1868, the spires of the cathedral were not finally added until the year 2000. Wardell also worked on the design of St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne – among the finest examples of ecclesiastical architecture in Australia.[52] The Anglican St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne in the iconic hub of the city opposite Flinders Street Station. Adelaide is known as the "City of Churches", but churches extend far into the Australian Outback, as at the historic Lutheran Mission Chapel at Hermannsburg, Northern Territory. Along with community attitudes to religion, church architecture changed significantly during the 20th century. Urban churches, such as the Wayside Chapel (1964) in Sydney, differed markedly from traditional ecclesiastical designs. In the later 20th century, distinctly Australian approaches were applied at places such as Jambaroo Benedictine Abbey, where natural materials were chosen to "harmonise with the local environment" and the chapel sanctuary is of glass overlooking rainforest.[53] Similar design principles were applied at Thredbo Ecumenical Chapel built in the Snowy Mountains in 1996.[54]

The Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter are national public holidays in Australia. Christmas, which recalls the birth of Jesus Christ, is celebrated on 25 December during the Australian summer (although on 7 January by some Eastern Orthodox)and is an important cultural festival even for many non-religious Australians. The European traditions of Christmas trees, roast dinners, carols and gift giving are all continued in Australia, but they might be conducted between visits to the beach, and Santa Claus is said in song to be drawn on his sleigh by six white boomer kangaroos.[55]
Australian Christian bodies

Here are some Christian denominations with Australian articles:


Grave of Afghan camel driver Zeriph Khan (1871–1903) at Bourke Cemetery, New South Wales Australia. Muslims from British India formed some of Australia's earliest Islamic communities.
Auburn Gallipoli Mosque was built in the classical Ottoman style by Sydney's Turkish Muslim community.
Rugby League player Hazem El Masri, is a member of Australia's large Lebanese-Australian Muslim community.

The first contacts that Islam had with Australia was when Muslim fishermen native to Makassar, which is today a part of Indonesia, visited North-Western Australia long before British settlement in 1788. This contact of South East Asian ethnic groups of Islamic faith can be identified from the graves they dug for their comrades who died on the journey, being that they face Mecca (in Arabia), in accordance with Islamic regulations concerning burial, as well as evidence from Aboriginal cave paintings and religious ceremonies which depict and incorporate the adoption of Makassan canoe designs and words.[56][57]

In later history, throughout the 19th century following British settlement, other Muslims came to Australia including the Muslim 'Afghan' cameleers, who used their camels to transport goods and people through the otherwise unnavigable desert and pioneered a network of camel tracks that later became roads across the Outback. Australia’s first mosque was built for them at Marree, South Australia in 1861.[42] Between the 1860s and 1920s around 2000 cameleers were brought from Afghanistan and the north west of British India (now Pakistan) and perhaps 100 families remained in Australia. Other outback mosques were established at places like Coolgardie, Cloncurry, and Broken Hill – and more permanent mosques in Adelaide, Perth and later Brisbane. A legacy of this pioneer era is the presence of wild camels in Outback and the oldest Islamic structure in the southern hemisphere, at Central Adelaide Mosque. Nonetheless, despite their significant role in Australia prior to the establishment of rail and road networks, the formulation of the White Australia policy at the time of Federation made immigration difficult for the 'Afghans' and their memory slowly faded during the 20th century, until a revival of interest began in the 1980s.[58]

In the early 20th century, most Muslims could not legally immigrate to Australia because of the White Australia policy which restricted immigration to Europeans or those of European descent, very few of whom were Muslim. However, European Muslims from Albania and Bosnia did arrive in numbers especially in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1947, out of 7,579,358 Australian inhabitants, there were 2,704 or 0.04% Muslims.

Successive Australian governments dismantled the White Australia Policy in the Post-WW2 period. From the 1970s onwards, under the leadership of Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser, Australia began to pursue multiculturalism.[59] Australia in the later 20th century became a refuge for many Muslims fleeing conflicts including those in Lebanon, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan.[60] General immigration, combined with religious conversion to Islam by Christians and other Australians, as well as Australia's participation in UN refugee efforts has increased the overall Muslim population. Around 36% of Muslims are Australian born. Overseas born Muslims come from a great variety of nations and ethnic groups – with large Lebanese and Turkish communities.

Following the 11 September attacks, associations drawn between the political ideology of Osama Bin Laden and the religion of Islam have stirred debate in some quarters in Australia regarding Islam's relationship with the wider community – with some advocating greater emphasis on assimilation, and others supporting renewed commitment to diversity. The deaths of Australians in bombings by militant Islamic fundamentalists in New York in 2001, Bali in 2002–5 and London in 2005; as well as the sending of Australian troops to East Timor in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003; the arrest of bomb plotters in Australia; and concerns about certain cultural practices such as the wearing of the Burkha have all contributed to a degree of tension in recent times[61][62] A series of comments by a senior Sydney cleric, Sheikh Taj El-Din Hilaly also stirred controversy, particularly his remarks regarding "female modesty" following an incident of gang rape in Sydney[63][64] Australians were among the targets of Islamic Fundamentalists in the Bali bombings in Indonesia and attack on Australian Embassy in Jakarta and the South East Asian militant group Jemaah Islamiyah has been of particular concern to Australians.[65]

The Australian government's mandatory detention processing system for asylum seekers became increasingly controversial after the 11 September attacks. A significant proportion of recent Asylum seekers arriving by boat have been Muslims fleeing the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Some Islamic leaders and social commentators claim that Islam has suffered from unfair stereotyping[66][67][68] Violence and intimidation was directed against Muslims and people of Middle Eastern appearance during southern Sydney's Cronulla riots in 2005.

In 2005, the Howard Government established the Muslim Community Reference Group to advise on Muslim community issues for one year, chaired by Ameer Ali.[69] Inter-faith dialogues were also established by Christian and Muslim groups such as The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils and the National Council of Churches in Australia.[70] Australia and Indonesia co-operated closely following the Bali-bombings, not only in law-enforcement but in improving education and cross-cultural understanding, leading to a marked improvement in relations.[71] After a series of controversies, Sheikh Taj El-Din Hilaly retired as Grand mufti of Australia in 2007 and was replaced by Fehmi Naji El-Imam AM.[64]

Today, over 370,000 people in Australia identify as Muslim. with diverse communities concentrated mainly in Sydney and Melbourne. Since the 1970s Islamic schools have been established as well as more than 100 mosques and prayer centres.[42] Many notable Muslim places of worship are to be found in Australian cities, including the Central Adelaide Mosque, which was constructed during the 1880s; and Sydney's Classical Ottoman style Auburn Gallipoli Mosque, which was largely funded by the Turkish community and the name of which recalls the shared heritage of the foundation of modern Turkey and the story of the ANZACs.[72] Notable Australian Muslims include boxer Anthony Mundine; community worker and rugby league star Hazem El Masri; cricketer Usman Khawaja and academic Waleed Aly. In 2013, Labor MP Ed Husic became Australia's first Muslim member of Cabinet, briefly serving as Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister and for Broadband in the short lived Second Rudd Government.[73]


The Great Synagogue, Sydney.
Sir Isaac Isaacs was the first Australian born Governor General of Australia and was the first Jewish vice-regal representative in the British Empire.

At least eight Jewish convicts are believed to have been transported to Sydney aboard the First Fleet in 1788, when the first British settlement was established on the continent. An estimated 110,000 Jews currently live in Australia,[74] the majority being Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern European descent, with many being refugees and Holocaust survivors who arrived during and after World War II.

The Jewish population has increased slightly in recent times[75] due to immigration from South Africa and the former Soviet Union. The largest Jewish community in Australia is in Melbourne, with about 60,000, followed by Sydney with about 45,000 members. Smaller communities are dispersed among the other state capitals.

Following the conclusion of the British colonial period, Jews have enjoyed formal equality before the law in Australia and have not been subject to civil disabilities or other forms of state-sponsored anti-Semitism which exclude them from full participation in public life.

Sydney's gothic design Great Synagogue, consecrated in 1878, is a notable place of Jewish worship in Australia. Notable Australian Jews have included the Sir John Monash, the notable World War I general who opened the Maccabean Hall in Sydney in 1923 to commemorate Jews who fought and died in the First World War and who is currently featured on the Australian $100 note;[76] and Sir Isaac Isaacs who became the first Australian born governor general in 1930.[20] Sir Zelman Cowen also served as Governor-General, between 1977 and 1982. The Sydney Jewish Museum opened in 1992 to commemorate the Holocaust "challenge visitors' perceptions of democracy, morality, social justice and human rights".[77]

Until the 1930s, all synagogues in Australia were nominally Orthodox, with most acknowledging leadership of the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom. To this day the vast majority of synagogues in Australia are Orthodox. However, there is a wide range of Orthodox congregations, including Mizrachi, Chabad and Adass Israel congregations. There are also Sephardi congregations.

There had been short-lived efforts to establish Reform congregations as early as the 1890s. However, under the leadership of Ada Phillips, a sustained liberal congregation, Temple Beth Israel, was established in Melbourne. Subsequently another synagogue linked to the United States Reform Movement, Temple Emanuel, was established in Sydney. Following these two congregations, a number of other Liberal synagogues have been founded in other cities.[78]

Since 1992 Conservative (Masorti) services have been held as an alternative service usually in the Neuweg, the smaller second synagogue within Temple Emanuel, Woollahra, Sydney. In 1999, Kehilat Nitzan, Melbourne's first Conservative (Masorti) congregation was established, with foundation president John Rosenberg. The congregation appointed its first rabbi, Ehud Bandel in 2006. In 2010 Beit Knesset Shalom became Brisbane's first Conservative (Masorti) synagogue.

In 2010, the first humanistic Jewish congregation, known as Kehilat Kolenu, was established in Melbourne with links to the cultural Jewish youth movement Habonim Drorm. In 2011, a similar congregation established in Sydney, known as Ayelet HaShachar. The services are loosely based on the Humanistic Jewish movement in the United States and the musical-prayer group Nava Tehila in Israel.

Indian religions


Nan Tien Temple, Wollongong.

Although the first definite cases of Buddhist settlement in Australia were in 1848, there has been speculation from some anthropologists that there may have been contact some hundreds of years earlier. Buddhists began arriving in Australia in significant numbers during the goldrush of the 1850s, with an influx of Chinese miners. However, the population remained low until the 1960s. Buddhism is now one of the fastest growing religions in Australia. Immigration from Asia has contributed to this, but some people of non-Asian origin have also converted. The three main traditions of Buddhism – Theravada, East Asian and Tibetan – are now represented in Australia.[42]

According to the Australian census in 2006, Buddhism is the largest non-Christian religion in Australia, with 418,000 adherents, or 2.1% of the total population. It was also the fastest growing religion in terms of percentage, having increased its number of adherents by 109.6% since 1996.

The Nan Tien Temple, or "Southern Paradise Temple", in Wollongong, New South Wales, began construction in the early 1990s, adopting the Chinese palace building style and is now the largest Buddhist temple in the Southern Hemisphere.[79] The temple follows the Venerable Master Hsing Yun of the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist order.


Rajagopuram of the Sri Venkateswara Temple, Helensburgh, New South Wales

Hinduism is a religious minority in Australia of about 275,535 adherents according to the 2011 census.[80] In the 19th century, Hindus first came to Australia to work on cotton and sugar plantations. Many who remained worked in small business, as camel drivers, merchants and hawkers, selling goods between small rural communities. Their population increased dramatically from the 1960s and 1970s and more than doubled between the 1996 and 2006 censusus to around 148,000 people. Most were migrants from countries such as Fiji, India, Sri Lanka and South Africa. At present many Hindus are well-educated professionals in fields such as medicine, engineering, commerce and information technology. Among Australia's best-known Hindus is the singer Kamahl. There are around 34 Hindu temples in Australia.[42] Sri Mandir Temple in multicultural Auburn, Sydney was the first Hindu temple in Australia. It was established in 1977 to meet the needs of the growing Hindu community.[81]


Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurudwara (Temple), Glenwood, New South Wales

The 2011 Australian Census shows about 72,000 followers of the Sikh faith in Australia.[82] Sikhs have been in Australia since the 1830s, initially coming to work as labourers in the cane fields and as cameleers, known as Ghans. Around the start of the 20th century, a number of them were working as hawkers, opening up stores. After World War I, Sikhs in Australia were given rights far greater than other Asians and made use of them by emigrating to Australia and working as labourers. As the decades passed they formed a sizable community in Woolgoolga, where the first Gurdwara, named the First Sikh Temple, was built. Following the end of the White Australia Policy there has been a great increase in the number of Sikhs from a number of countries including India, Malaysia, Fiji, the United Kingdom and Canada.


Alexandrian Wiccans and Gardnerian Wiccans arrived in Australia from England and the United States around the late 1960s.[83]

In the 2011 census, 32,083 Australians identified their religion as a Pagan religion including 8,413 people who identified their religion as Wicca or Witchcraft.[84]



Australia is one of the least religious nations in the developed world, with religion not described as a central part in many people's lives.[85] This view is prominent among Australia's youth, who were ranked as the least religious worldwide in a 2008 survey conducted by The Christian Science Monitor.[86] In the 2011 census, the ABS categorised 4,796,800 Australians (22.3%) as having "No Religion", up from 3,706,500 (18.7%) in 2006.[1] This category includes agnosticism, atheism, Humanism, rationalism, "No Religion, nfd" (nfd=no further definition) and people who are unaffiliated with any particular religion.


While people with no religion are more than 22% of the Australian population,[87] the Australian Bureau of Statistics does not provide information in the annual "1301.0 – Year Book Australia" on religious affiliation as to how many people fall into each sub-category.[88] Data on religious affiliation is only collected by the ABS at the five yearly population census. Atheist interests in Australia are represented nationally by the Atheist Foundation of Australia. Humanist interests in Australia are represented nationally by the Council of Australian Humanist Societies. Rationalist interests in Australia are represented nationally by the Rationalist Society of Australia.

The Global Atheist Convention, a prominent atheist event, has been held in Melbourne.


The 2006 census[89] shows 53 listed groups down to 5000 members (most of them Christian denominations, many of them national versions like Greek, Serbian Orthodox and Assyrian Orthodox. Of the smaller religions, Pagan Religions 29328, Bahá'í at 12,000, Humanism about 7000. Between 1000 and 5000, other than small Christian denominations, are the following religions – Taoist, Druse, Satanism, Zoroastrian, Rationalism, Creativity, Theosophy, Jainism. There are also adherents of Tenrikyo, Shinto, Unitarian Universalism, Eckankar, Cao Dai, Rastafarianism, Pantheism, Scientology and Raelianism.[90][91]

In general, non-Christian religions and those with no religion, have been growing in proportion to the overall population.[92] With fewer classifications, data from 1996 and 2001 showed Aboriginal religion decreasing from 7000 to 5000 while Bahá'í grew from just under 9000 to over 11,000 and the rest of the "Other" category growing from about 69,000 to about 92,000.[39]

See also


  1. ^ Section 116 states "The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth."
  2. ^ Prior to 1971, people describing themselves as more than 50% Aboriginal were excluded from counts of the population. In the 1933 Census the public was specifically informed there was no legal obligation to answer the question on religion. 'Not stated' responses jumped at this point. In 1971, the instruction 'If no religion, write none' was introduced to the Census.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "Cultural diversity in Australia". 2071.0 – Reflecting a Nation: Stories from the 2011 Census, 2012–2013. Australian Bureau of Statistics. 21 June 2012. Retrieved 2012-06-27. 
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  3. ^ Berndt, R. M., Australian Aboriginal Religion, E. J. Brill, Leiden, 1974 ISBN 90-04-03861-2, pp. 4–5.
  4. ^ """Aboriginal painting "Coming of the Macassan traders. Retrieved 2013-07-10. 
  5. ^ Article about Islam in Australia from Connecticut College
  6. ^ A History of Islam in Australia from
  7. ^ Saint Augustine, De Civitate Dei, xvi, 9. Quoted from Catholic Encyclopedia: Antipodes.
  8. ^ ABC Boyer Lectures, 2004. Lecture 1: Antipodes
  9. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia: Antipodes. There is also an article on JSTOR: John Carey, "Ireland and the Antipodes: The Heterodoxy of Virgil of Salzburg". Speculum, Vol. 64, No. 1 (January 1989), pp. 1–10
  10. ^ Jonathan Edwards, Sermons and Discourses 1720–1723, ed. Wilson H. Kimnach, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 10 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), p.279. Quoted from
  11. ^ a b "Marrying Out — Part One: Not in Front of the Altar". Hindsight.  
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  18. ^ "Fast facts – James Scullin – Fast facts – Australia's Prime Ministers". Retrieved 2012-02-20. 
  19. ^ a b Cowen, Zelman. "Biography – Sir Isaac Alfred Isaacs – Australian Dictionary of Biography". Retrieved 2012-02-20. 
  20. ^ "Article 18 Freedom of religion and belief". Retrieved 2013-07-10. 
  21. ^ Executive Summary: Isma – Listen
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  23. ^ "Young Adults Then and Now". Australian Bureau of Statistics. 8 August 2013. Retrieved 6 November 2014. 
  24. ^ NCLS releases latest estimates of church attendance, National Church Life Survey, Media release, 28 February 2004.
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  60. ^ Muslim Australians.
  61. ^ Tedmanson, Sophie (15 February 2010). "Australias jihad attack plotters jailed for up to 28 years". The Times (London). 
  62. ^ Muslim leader blames women for sex attacks.
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  64. ^ "Profile: Jemaah Islamiah". BBC News. 10 March 2010. 
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Further reading

  • Berndt, R. M., Australian Aboriginal Religion, E. J. Brill, Leiden, 1974 ISBN 90-04-03861-2
  • Bouma, Gary, ed. Many Religions All Australian: Religious Settlement, Identity and Cultural Diversity. Melbourne: Christian Research Association, 1997. ISBN 1-875223-14-2
  • Carey, Hilary M. Believing in Australia. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1992. ISBN 1-86373-950-5
  • Eliade, M., Australian Religions: An Introduction, Oxford University Press, London, 1973 ISBN 0-8014-0729-X
  • Hilliard, David. "Popular Religion in Australia in the 1950s: A Study of Adelaide and Brisbane." Journal of religious history 15.2 (1988): 219–235.
  • Hilliard, David. "The religious crisis of the 1960s: the experience of the Australian churches." Journal of religious history 21.2 (1997): 209–227.
  • Hunt, A. D "For God, King, and country": A study of the attitudes of the Methodist and Catholic press in South Australia (1979)
  • Jupp, James, ed., The Encyclopedia of Religion in Australia, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-521-86407-7
  • Lovat, Terence New Studies in Religion. Social Science Press pg 148 (2002)
  • O'Brien, Anne. God's Willing Workers: Women and Religion in Australia (University of New South Wales Press, 2005)
  • O'Brien, Anne. "Historical overview spirituality and work Sydney women, 1920–1960." Australian Historical Studies 33.120 (2002): 373–388.
  • Thompson, Roger C. Religion in Australia: A history (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994), a standard scholarly survey


  • B. Kaye, ed., Anglicanism in Australia: a History (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2002)
  • T. Frame, A Church for the Nation: a History of the Anglican Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 2000).
  • D. Hilliard, Godliness and Good Order: A History of the Anglican Church in South Australia (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 1986)
  • S. Judd and K. J. Cable, Sydney Anglicans: A History of the Diocese (Sydney: Anglican Information Office, 1987)
  • B. Porter, ed., Melbourne Anglicans: The Diocese of Melbourne 1847–1978 (Melbourne: Mitre Books, 1997


  • Campion, Edmund. Rockchoppers: Growing Up Catholic in Australia (1983)
  • Dixon, Robert E. The Catholics in Australia (1996)
  • Hamilton, Celia. "Irish-Catholics of New South Wales and the Labor Party, 1890–1910," Historical Studies: Australia & New Zealand (1958) 8(31): 254–267
  • Laffin, Josephine. "'Sailing in Stormy Waters': Archbishop Matthew Beovich and the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide in the 1960s." Journal of Religious History 34.3 (2010): 289–311.
  • McGrath, Sophie. "Women Religious in the History of Australia 1888–1950: a Case Study – the Sisters of Mercy Parramatta," Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society (1995) 81(2): 195–212
  • Murtagh, James G. Australia: The Catholic Chapter (1959)
  • O'Donoghue, Thomas A. Upholding the Faith: The Process of Education in Catholic Schools in Australia, 1922–1965 (2001)
  • O'Farrell, Patrick. The Irish in Australia: 1798 to the Present Day (3rd ed. Cork University Press, 2001)

Other Protestants

  • Brauer, Alfred. Under the Southern Cross: History of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Australia (Lutheran Publishing House, 1985)
  • Ellis, Julie-Ann. "'Cross-Firing over the Gulf': The Rift between Methodism and the Labour Movement in South Australia in the 1890s." Labour History (1993): 89–102. in JSTOR
  • Hardgrave, Donlad W. For Such a Time: A History of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of Australia (1988)
  • Harrison, John. Baptism of Fire: The first ten years of the Uniting Church in Australia (1986)
  • Hunt, Arnold Dudley. This Side of Heaven: A History of Methodism in South Australia (Lutheran Publishing House, 1985)

External links

  • Australian Standard Classification of Religious Groups (ASCRG), 1266.0, 1996
  • 1996 Census Dictionary – Religion category
  • 2001 Census Dictionary – Religion category
  • Year Book Australia, 2006. Religious Affiliation section

External links

  • International Religious Freedom ReportAustralia in USA Department of State
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