Australia is a country, with a high degree of religious freedom and religious diversity. Although the state and religious groups are maintained as separate entities, religious institutions continue to play a large role in Australian society. For example, many primary and secondary schools, hospitals, aged-care facilities and charity organisations are owned and funded by religious organisations.
Christianity is currently the most dominant religion in Australia, introduced by British settlers at . There has always been a degree of religious diversity in Australia. However, it was not until the abolition of the (in the 1970s) that non-European communities were able to significantly establish themselves and grow in numbers. Since then, the country has seen growing diversity of non-Christian religions as well.
On a general cultural level, Australians tend to avoid overt displays of religiosity. There is not a common public religious rhetoric (such as ‘God bless America’ or ‘God save the Queen’) that correlates Australian national identity with Christianity. Indeed, it is more common for people to avoid explicitly stating their religious beliefs in the workplace to maintain a distinction between their private and public life. Conversations about religion are usually welcome in private settings and among familiar people. However, public promotion or defensiveness of one’s religious views (including ) is typically unappreciated.
The 2021 census recorded over 100 different religious affiliations in Australia. Approximately 52.1% identified as Christian, constituting the largest religious category. The Catholic Church (20.0%) and Anglican Church (9.8%) were the two largest Christian denominations identified. Meanwhile, of the population who identified with a religion other than Christianity, Islam (3.2%) and Hinduism (2.7%) were the largest, followed by Buddhism (including Theravada and Mahayana traditions) (2.4%), Sikhism (0.8%) and Judaism (0.4%). The fastest-growing religious affiliation in Australia is ‘no religion’, with 38.9% of the population nominating this category in the 2021 census. This constitutes multiple subcategories such as , agnostic, and other spiritual beliefs (such as New Age). The following summaries provide an overview of the historical development and contemporary major religious communities in chronological order of their introduction to Australia.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Worldviews
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have held a range of spiritual beliefs and practices for thousands of years. There is not one single Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander religion or spirituality. Traditional beliefs and practices vary significantly across different regions and groups. However, they generally share a common holistic worldview that emphasises the reciprocal relationship and interconnectedness between people, landforms, animals and other elements of natural landscapes. The natural world is understood to be energised by spirits that are equal to one another, thus reflecting a deep respect for the land. This holistic understanding underpins all areas of life in a way that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait people believe confirms their Indigenous identity.
Another major element of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander worldviews are the stories of the universe’s origins, which occurred during the ‘Dreamtime’. Such narratives recall various human and animal ancestors whose actions and interactions shaped the physical and social world. Dreamtime heroes are associated with spaces and places. Therefore, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups often share an intimate connection with Dreamtime heroes local to their ancestral lands.
The deep connection to the land and the events of the Dreamtime means families and inherit totems (a kind of spiritual emblem). Such totems may be a natural object, plant or animal. They define the roles and responsibilities of people and their relationships between each other and the land. A person is allocated various totems at birth relating to place and . From here, one learns particular songs, dances and ceremonies associated with the totems and participates in helping sustain and care for the lands.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditional beliefs and practices have been profoundly impacted by and introduction of Christianity (both past and present). In the 2021 census, only 0.03% Australians identified as practicing an ‘Australian Aboriginal traditional religion’, with approximately 1.4% of people who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander also identifying their religion as ‘Australian Aboriginal traditional religion’. However, this figure is unlikely to represent the exact number of people sharing Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander worldviews for various reasons.
Christianity in Australia
Christianity was introduced to Australia by the first British settlers in the late 18th century. The Church of England (also known as the Anglican Church) began operating immediately and held a religious monopoly over the country. Eventually, other Christian denominations emerged, particularly the Catholic Church. British and Irish immigrants and religious clergy played a major role in developing churches, schools and orphanages around the country in the early twentieth century.
Christian denominations were once historically correlated with one’s in Australia. In particular, the Catholic Church was often associated with the Irish population while Protestant denominations (mainly the Anglican Church and Presbyterian Church) were associated with the British. During this time, one’s religious and identification played a major role in determining one’s education and opportunities in life.
Christian Communities in Australia
The Christian population remains the largest in Australia, yet it has steadily declined over the past century (from 96.9% in 1921 to 43.9% in 2021). Today, most Australian Christians are affiliated with either the Catholic Church (20.0%) or the Anglican Church (9.8%). Other denominations include the Uniting Church (2.6%), Eastern (2.1%), Presbyterian and Reformed (1.6%), Baptist (1.4%), Pentecostal (1.0%) and Lutheran (0.6%). One can find many elements of Christianity in Australian society, from the diverse churches dotted throughout the country to the many Christian funded or established social services, such as hospitals, aged-care facilities, schools and charities.
The social and class association with Christian denominations is no longer prevalent. However, it is common to find and national churches that continue to act as a cultural hub for many of Australia’s diverse cultural communities. For example, one can find Eastern churches that also act as a cultural meeting place for Greek, Russian and Serbian communities, or churches for Egyptian Coptic, Armenian and Ethiopian communities. There are also Wesleyan Methodist churches associated with Pacific Island nations such as Samoa and Tonga.
Judaism in Australia
The Jewish community was the first non-Christian ethno-religious group to arrive in Australia during the period. Most of the first Jewish migrants were English speakers from Britain and Ireland rather than Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe. The diversity of Australia’s Jewish population grew during the early twentieth century as Jews from different European countries (such as Germany and Poland) and some parts of the Middle East (mainly Egypt and former Palestine) began migrating to Australia. Meanwhile, the WWII period and the following decades saw a tripling of the Jewish community in Australia from 23,000 in 1933 to 61,000 in 1961.
Jewish Communities in Australia
Though the Australian Jewry is very young compared to the course of Jewish history, it is home to a vibrant and diverse community. Approximately 91,000 people identified as religiously Jewish in the 2021 census (0.4% of the population). However, this figure may be an underestimation of the total Jewish population due to ambiguities around ‘Jewish’ as a religious or identity marker. Some may also fear declaring their Jewish identity due to collective memories of the Holocaust (known as Shoah).1 It is not uncommon for Jewish families in Australia to have extended family members living in other parts of the world due to the longlasting effects of WWII and the Holocaust.
According to the 2021 census, nearly all of Australia’s Jewish community reside in Victoria (46.4%) and New South Wales (41.0%). However, one can find synagogues from different streams of Judaism throughout Australia’s major cities, smaller cities and some country areas. Jewish settlement and communities tend to be concentrated, with synagogues often acting as community hubs that help to connect local and visiting Jews. It is also common for Jewish schools, kosher food stores, aged-care facilities and other commercial and community-oriented services to be found nearby, fostering a greater sense of community and support.
Islam in Australia
Evidence shows various Muslim groups arrived in Australia in small numbers over numerous centuries before the 1800s. However, the first Muslims who settled in Australia in large numbers arrived in the 1860s as cameleers from South Asia. This early Muslim community was compromised of men with numerous cultural and linguistic backgrounds from Afghanistan and former British India (contemporary Pakistan and regions of India) - collectively referred to as ‘Afghans’ or ‘Ghans’. Despite long journeys and the harsh conditions of the Australian outback, the Muslim cameleers were able to maintain their religious practices. However, the population dwindled by the 1930s due to the first generation passing on or returning to their homelands, and the introduction of the .
Muslims of various and nationalities migrated later over the early to mid 20th century. For instance, the 1920s and 1930s saw small numbers of Malay and Indonesian Muslims come as indentured labourers for the pearling industry. During the post-WWII, Muslims from Europe (namely Albanians and former Yugoslavia) entered. The late 1960s and 1970s was marked by Turkish and Lebanese migrants along with small numbers of young professional Muslim couples from Egypt, Pakistan, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia.
Muslim Communities in Australia
Australia’s contemporary Muslim population reflects its diverse linguistic and migrant history. Many of Australia’s mosques were originally established along ethno-linguistic lines, such as Turkish, Lebanese and Egyptian communities. However, a generational shift has seen ethno-linguistic differentiations deemphasised among second generation Muslims and Anglo-Australian Muslim converts. Australian mosques are often very , acting as cultural and social hubs for various migrant communities and providing a sense of universal connection to the Muslim world. In addition to mosques, other services and organisations help meet the needs of Australia’s Muslim population. Some examples include Islamic primary and secondary schools, and the various halal butchers and restaurants in most metropolitan areas.
Today, those who identify as Muslim make up 3.2% of Australia’s population. The majority of Australia’s Muslims are Sunni, followed by Shi’a. Australia is also home to a number of followers from various Sufi orders, such as the Shadhili, Mevlevi, Naqshbandi and Nimatullahi. Some Australian Muslims may prefer see their Muslim identity as a cultural identification while others are non-denominational.
Hinduism in Australia
Hinduism was brought to Australia during the nineteenth century by small groups of Hindus who worked as farm hands, hawkers, and cameleers alongside Muslims and Sikhs. Many Hindus were itinerant and returned to the Indian subcontinent. In 1911, there were less than 1000 ‘Hindoos’ recorded in Australia (0.01% of the population). The following decades marked by two world wars and the introduction of the saw a decline in Hindus migrating to Australia.
The Hindu community grew significantly during the 1970s. An assortment of various spiritual figures such as gurus, yogis, and swamis began introducing different expressions of Hinduism in Australia. For example, various guru movements became popular, such as Transcendental Meditation, and the Ramakrishna Mission. In the following decade, there was a wave of refugees and political migrants of Indian descent from Fiji, Sri Lanka and African nations. This greatly contributed to the growth of Australia’s Hindu population, and by 1986, the census recorded 21,500 people identifying as Hindu, 0.26% of the population.
Hindu Communities in Australia
Today, Hinduism is the fastest growing religion in Australia, up from 0.7% in 2006 to 2.7% in 2021. Much of this growth is attributed to migration, with about half (51.0%) of those who were born in India and 44.9% of those born in Fiji identifying as Hindu. There are various small community groups comprised of overseas-born and Australia-born followers who meet regularly for meditation and chanting. Auspicious events such as Holi and Diwali are often celebrated in homes, temples or at cultural events. Such celebrations usually consist of puja, preparing various foods and sweets, chanting and music. The influences of various Hindu spiritual movements can be seen today, from inner-city ashrams to the popularity of various kinds of yoga.
Buddhism in Australia
Buddhism has been present in Australia since the period. The first known Buddhists arrived as itinerant workers from Asia (such as China) during the Gold Rush. This was followed by a second wave some decades later due to Buddhism’s popularity in the United States and the Theosophical Society. During the 1970s, a large wave of Buddhist migrants came in the 1970s from Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, and Malaysia. There was also a large influx of refugees in the mid-1970s from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Simultaneously, Buddhist teachers from Europe and the United States brought forms of Buddhism that are less intertwined with various Asian cultural practices.
Buddhist Communities in Australia
Buddhism is the third largest religious group in Australia, with 2.4% of the population identifying with the religion in the 2021 census. Australia’s Buddhist community continues to be very ethnically and linguistically diverse. Many of Australia’s Buddhists have heritage in Buddhist countries. For example, the majority of those born in Cambodia (74.6%), Laos (71.1%) and Thailand (71.1%) and just under half of those born in Sri Lanka (45.3%) and Vietnam (44.7%) identify as Buddhist. However, there are also Anglo-Australian Buddhists as well as those who have migrated from other English-speaking Western countries.
The Buddhist community is also diverse in terms of practices. While some are part of schools and sects that have survived centuries, others are part of newly emerged schools. The presence of the major branches of Buddhism (such as Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana) can be found throughout Australia. For example, there are various meditation centres for different schools, such as from the Zen tradition, in Australia’s major cities. Nonetheless, Buddhists from all traditions come together during May to commemorate Vesak and celebrate the life and teachings of the Buddha.
Sikhism in Australia
The introduction and growth of the Sikh community in Australia is closely linked to the larger pattern of South Asian migration. Many Sikhs arrived as cameleers in the 1860s, referred to as ‘Afghans’ at the time. At its core, Sikhism is a faith that emphasises equality across all factions of society (especially gender and caste). Sikhism was founded in the Punjab region by Guru Nanak (1469-1539), who was succeeded by nine gurus (‘teachers’) over the span of nearly 240 years. The final leader, Guru Gobind Singh, declared the sacred Sikh scriptures, known as the Guru Granth Sahib, as the final and eternal guru of the Sikh community.
Sikh Community in Australia
According to the 2021 census, 210,400 people identified as Sikh (0.8% of the population). The influence and presence of the Sikh community can be seen throughout Australia. For example, Sikh temples known as gurdwaras can be found in various parts of Australia. These places of worship act as a sites for congregational prayer and social activities, such as sharing in communal meals (langar).
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