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Are young Australians (mostly) Christians ?

December 16th, 2016

Regular readers will know that I’m not a great fan of analysis based on generations (Boomers, X, Millennials and so on). Most of what passes for insight on this topic consists of the repetition of unchanged cliches about the rigidity and hypocrisy of the old, the laziness and irresponsibility of the young, and so on, applied to whichever cohort happens to be old or young at the time.

But there are some genuine differences between cohorts, typically determine by the time they have entered adulthood. One of these is religion.

According to the 2011 Census, just under 52 per cent of Australians then aged between 15 and 34 (todays 20-39 year olds) declared a Christian religious affilation. Given that religious affiliation drops significantly in early adulthood, it’s safe to conclude that only a minority of 20-40 olds will have declared such an affiliation in the most recent Census (if it ever comes out). By contrast for those aged 55-74 (now 60-79), the 2011 proportion was 75 per cent, and that probably hasn’t changed much.

I was reminded of this by Peter Dutton’s attempt to refight the War on Christmas, prompted by a talkback radio caller whose grandchild‘s school eschewed traditional carols for a secular celebration (emphasis added). It’s noteworthy that the call did not come from the child’s parents, who might reasonably expect to have a say in the way their children’s school is run, but from one of their parents/parents-in-law, who should have no such expectation.

This is one issue where, based on age cohorts, parents and grandparents are likely to have difffent views. As we’ve seen, the age cohorts in which we find most grandparents are overwhelmingly Christian. But in an average school, parents will be about evenly divided between Christians and non-Christians. Assuming that Christians are over-represented among parents choosing explicitly Christian schools, that means that they must be in the minority among parents at state schools (the story doesn’t make it clear, but the natural inference is that the school in the talkback call was public).

Of course, many non-Christians are attached to the standard Christmas tradition, itself a mixture of pagan relics, Christianity and consumer capitalism. But not many would want to impose explicit Christian religiosity on parents and children of other religions or none.

So, the obvious policy question is: should non-parents (of the children in question) get to dictate school policy as Dutton seems to think? If so, does this go both ways? Would a future non-Christian majority (likely by the 2030s), be justified in imposing secularism on all schools, whatever the wishes of the parents and teachers?

  1. rog
    December 16th, 2016 at 15:31 | #1

    Given the current situation with refugees you would think Dutton would avoid situations where biblical comparisons of homeless migrants in need of shelter could be made.

    I’m thinking of those seeking refuge from political persecution e.g. Joseph, Moses and Jesus jnr.

    I don’t think Dutton does irony.

  2. December 16th, 2016 at 15:52 | #2

    I’m not sure if its universal, but there is one striking difference I observe between people around my age (~60) and those 40 years younger. The younger ones are far better behaved at university than the older ones were when I was there. They are much more polite, helpful and agreeable than we were.

    But strangely no one ever complains about this.

  3. Luke Elford
    December 16th, 2016 at 17:10 | #3

    According to the article, the Franz Ferdinand moment occurred at Kedron State School, a primary school.

    Here’s the percentage of Christians amongst attendees of government infant or primary schools, by age, from the 2011 census:

    4 years: 48.5%
    5 years: 48.9%
    6 years: 50.3%
    7 years: 51.7%
    8 years: 52.9%
    9 years: 53.7%
    10 years: 54.2%
    11 years: 55.1%
    12 years: 55.1%
    13 years: 52.0%
    14 years: 54.6%

    Project the movement of relevant cohorts as you’d like.

  4. John Quiggin
    December 16th, 2016 at 17:50 | #4

    @Luke Elford

    Can you give some more details on how you extracted this data. It’s v impressive

  5. wilful
    December 16th, 2016 at 21:03 | #5

    Victoria, far more progressive than the rest of the country, canned religious instruction in schools with nothing more than a huge sigh of relief. Turned out nobody really wanted it anyway.

  6. Luke Elford
    December 16th, 2016 at 21:29 | #6

    @John Quiggin

    I used TableBuilder Pro from the ABS website, specifically the ‘2011 Census – Counting Persons, Place of Usual Residence’ dataset.

    University staff and students can apply for free access:

    http://www.abs.gov.au/websitedbs/D3310114.nsf/home/How+to+Apply+for+Microdata

  7. rog
    December 17th, 2016 at 03:10 | #7

    Responding to submissions the 2016 census was restructured to move “no religion” to top if the answers to the Q on religious affiliation. Elsewhere “no religion” has had the greatest response.

  8. totaram
    December 17th, 2016 at 11:47 | #8

    @John Brookes
    Oh, dear. I’ll make up for that and complain. Why can’t the Uni students of today be a bit more “robust” in their behaviour, as in the old days? Are they all wimps?

  9. totaram
    December 17th, 2016 at 11:53 | #9

    Regarding all this “political correctness” against Christmas carols and other traditions, who would complain about them? It can’t be Muslims, because they consider Jesus a prophet, so is it the atheists, agnostics and non-believers, or is it the non-Abrahamic religions, like Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists etc.?

    Since I don’t follow the shock-jocks, or similar commentary, this is a genuine question.

  10. GrueBleen
    December 17th, 2016 at 16:44 | #10

    @totaram

    Some Muslims consider Jesus (or Isa ibn Maryam if you prefer) the Messiah (and the only person so designated in the Qu’ran, apparently) and occasionally as The Word (aka the Word of God). But even so, he isn’t God (Part III) as Christians supposedly believe (unless you’re an Arian).

    So any attempt to impose ‘divinity’ on Jesus is deeply heretical in Islam – he was just this guy, you know ? And “he” wasn’t born on 25 December of the modern Gregorian calendar anyway.

    So of course all this “Christmas” nonsense is offensive to anybody with even a basic education in comparative religion – as even the Puritans knew very well.

  11. derrida derider
    December 17th, 2016 at 17:04 | #11

    @GrueBleen
    Well yes, Tiberias’ census was naturally in the (northern) summer, whereas Xmas was set at the winter solstice (because Constantine wasn’t game to deprive the plebs of their Saturnalia so just invented a Christian festival at the same time). Puritans, in fact, often objected to Christmas as being a pagan festival. Can’t have people enjoying themselves, after all.

  12. GrueBleen
    December 18th, 2016 at 00:51 | #12

    @derrida derider

    I defer to your knowledge of the period, however my main reason for asserting that Iesus Christos wasn’t born on 25 December Gregorian was that Iesus Christos was never born at all (ie there being no credible historical evidence for “his” existence).

    Saturnalia, though, runs from 17th to 23rd December and Christ’s Mass is 25th December. I’ve occasionally wondered if the clear separation was intentional and if so, of what. My admittedly vague recall is that Saturnalia was originally a single day (the ‘winter solstice’) but that the festival was extended as a Roman morale booster after the disaster of Cannae.

    Hard to say about Puritans, I find: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”. But I think they had their moments, warts and all.

  13. Peter T
    December 18th, 2016 at 20:08 | #13

    @GrueBleen

    There’s credible evidence that Jesus existed, in as much as the evidence is as credible as that for anyone else at the time mentioned in various texts. Some early Christian texts were written no more than 30 years after Jesus death, by people who knew people who knew Jesus (eg Paul’s letters discuss his relationships with Barnabas and Jesus’ brother James). He also gets a mention in Tacitus and probably Josephus – both near contemporary. Serious scholars don’t doubt he existed – as a minor preacher with an idiosyncratic view on divorce.

  14. John Quiggin
    December 19th, 2016 at 07:40 | #14

    @Peter T

    I think that’s right although, IIRC, the Josephus reference has been doctored by a pious Christian editor to affirm Jesus’ divinity.

  15. GrueBleen
    December 19th, 2016 at 08:54 | #15

    @Peter T

    My recall of Josephus is similar to ProfQ’s: he didn’t know Jesus, had never met Jesus and the passage in his writing is strongly suspected of having been hacked.

    What credence can be given to a very brief mention in Tacitus (less than one page) written circa 116 CE I’ll leave average common sense to sort out.

    As to “the folks who knew folks who knew” Jesus and who wrote around 30 years after his “death”, well I think I can happily declare that as non credible. But I would enjoy the references if you’ll post them – I’d like to know who those people supposedly are.

    As to Paul (aka Saul) how did he know that “James” was Jesus’ brother ? Had he met the family, perhaps ? Been introduced to Maryam and Josephus maybe ? Did he ever get to meet the unnamed sisters of Jesus perhaps ?

    Nonetheless, I’m happy to admit that there may have been a “minor preacher with an idiosyncratic view on divorce” called Jesus – it was a moderately common name at the time. But any such person isn’t Iesus Christos, isn’t “the son of God” and isn’t the composite myth that appears in the Jewish, and later, bible stories. Besides, anybody who went around calling himself, or being called “Christos” (the “annointed”) wouldn’t have had to wait to be executed by Pontius Pilate – the Pharisees (amongst others) would have seen him off right smartly.

    But Jesus is probably no less historically credible than Muhammad or Siddhartha Gautama, I guess, both being about as fictional as Iesus Christos.

  16. J-D
    December 19th, 2016 at 09:40 | #16

    Peter T :
    @GrueBleen
    There’s credible evidence that Jesus existed, in as much as the evidence is as credible as that for anyone else at the time mentioned in various texts. …

    Not as credible, no. There are many historical figures from the same period who are much more reliably and extensively attested.

    Not that it matters, since nothing of importance hinges on whether there really was such a person.

  17. totaram
    December 19th, 2016 at 20:40 | #17

    But has anyone complained about Christmas carols or celebrations as offensive (be they Christian puritans or whatever)? There was only one carol and then they sang wish you a happy holiday instead of a Merry Christmas and someone was offended? So, what was the fuss about? NOT singing more carols? But it wasn’t a Christian school was it? Does this school celebrate events of other religions? I wonder. On second thoughts, this Dutton fellow is completely incomprehensible as a human being.

  18. J-D
    December 19th, 2016 at 21:05 | #18

    totaram :
    … On second thoughts, this Dutton fellow is completely incomprehensible as a human being.

    Do you think, really? Dishonesty is common among humans and often easy to understand.

  19. GrueBleen
    December 20th, 2016 at 01:22 | #19

    @totaram

    then they sang wish you a happy holiday instead of a Merry Christmas

    Nah, mate, it was ‘Jingle Bell Rock’, still the best of all Xmas carols.

  20. Ikonoclast
    December 20th, 2016 at 06:07 | #20

    @John Brookes

    Although I can only add my anecdotal data, I agree.

  21. Ikonoclast
    December 20th, 2016 at 06:21 | #21

    @Luke Elford

    That data raises a few questions. In what sense is a person a Christian? In what sense is a 4 year old (or a 5 or a 6) a Christian? It seems, at that age, to be the case of a parent claiming their child is a Christian. Doctrinally, they would have some support. The performance of the baptism rite “makes” a Christian according to doctrine. But most people of an empirical bent would doubt that sprinkling water made “magic” by incantations changes the makeup of an infant.

    Of course, we could go on to wonder in what sense Peter Dutton is a Christian. His is the worst sort of claimed Christianity: a pretence to piety to attract conservative votes while suffering the little children to live on concentration camp island.

  22. GrueBleen
    December 20th, 2016 at 09:19 | #22

    @J-D

    nothing of importance hinges on whether there really was such a person.

    There you go again, saying the things I should have said.

  23. GrueBleen
    December 20th, 2016 at 09:33 | #23

    @Ikonoclast

    In what sense is a 4 year old (or a 5 or a 6) a Christian?

    The old distinction between reality and formality, perhaps. But I reckon that 4yo and 5 and 6 yo kids can, and do, claim to be Christian with about as much understanding of what that means as the adults that surround them.

    I used to find it highly amusing that the Catholic Church, in particular, made a fetish of not allowing hoi polloi to read the bible which of course was printed in Latin so that only the ‘educated’ priesthood could read it and thus interpret Christianity (it’s why the Roman Church executed William Tyndale – can’t have vernacular versions of Holy Stuff).

    On the other hand, Islam almost makes a fetish of reading, and even memorising, the Qu’ran and it doesn’t seem to make any difference at all.

  24. Luke Elford
    December 20th, 2016 at 12:15 | #24

    @Ikonoclast

    “It seems, at that age, to be the case of a parent claiming their child is a Christian.”

    Indeed, the census data are very much an indication of their parents’ beliefs and preferences regarding indoctrination, which are of course the focus of Professor Quiggin’s arguments.

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