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Wednesday 20 June 2012 5:40PM (view full episode)

The results of the 2011 census were out on Thursday (21 June) and they showed big changes in Australia’s religious landscape. One question is intriguing the experts: What impact has recent immigration had on religious diversity? In the past five years, there’s been a huge increase in the number of immigrants coming from India, for example, and that’s almost certain to mean a big jump in the number of Australians identifying as Hindu. Andrew Jakubowicz muses with Andrew West about the possible direction the day before the results are released.

Professor Andrew Jakubowicz, a demographer and sociologist from the University of Technology, Sydney, has been crunching some numbers ahead of the census release and predicts three big changes in religious observance.

Andrew West: Now, the results of the 2011 census are out tomorrow, and they’re likely to show big changes in Australia’s religious landscape. One question is intriguing the experts: what impact has recent immigration had on religious diversity? In the past five years there’s been a huge increase in the number of immigrants coming from India, for example, and that’s almost certain to mean a big jump in the number of Australians identifying as Hindu. Professor Andrew Jakubowicz is a demographer and sociologist from the University of Technology Sydney. He’s been crunching some numbers ahead of tomorrow’s census release. He predicts three big changes in religious observance.

Andrew Jakubowicz: It’s going to show three things. Firstly it’s going to show that a higher proportion of the population are saying they have no religion, secondly it’s going to show that particular groups of religious identification are growing, and thirdly it’s going to show that some parts of the Australian religious landscape are actually declining.

Andrew West: Now, you’ve studied the particular intersection between immigration and religion, and you’ve given it very close consideration. How is immigration likely to affect the religious observance figures that show up?

Andrew Jakubowicz: Well, firstly I think what we’re going to see is that the non-Christian religions are going to be significantly greater than they have been in the past; that the rate of growth over the last decade and a half of non-Christian religions has been really quite astronomical, from admittedly a very, very small base. That’s going to be clearly there. We’re going to see, in some areas, non-Christian religions for the first time having a majority of their population Australian born rather than based…simply being immigrant, and I think in other areas we’re going to see some of the larger non-Christian religions getting very well established. As well, of course, there are significant contributions to the Christian communities of immigrants; some of the African communities, for instance, are very strongly Christian, some of the refugee groups from places like Iraq, India and so on are…or Pakistan, are going to be Christian. There are going to be significant claims from the new Chinese population for inclusion in the Christian communities.

Andrew West: We’ll break those down in a minute. When you look at the big non-Christian faith groups, which ones are likely to have risen and risen dramatically when the results come out?

Andrew Jakubowicz: Well, the three big ones are Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, and we’re going to see some quite dramatic changes.

Andrew West: Well, on Islam, for example?

Andrew Jakubowicz: Islam in 2006 had around 340,000 adherents of whom about 40 per cent were Australian born. It looks like they’ll probably be somewhere between 450,000 and 500,000 Muslims in Australia as a result of last year’s census, and probably for the first time 50 per cent or more of those will be Australian born.

Andrew West: Is that because Muslim families tend to be larger?

Andrew Jakubowicz: It’s not simply the family size, it’s also the age structure of the Muslim population. Most of the Muslims who arrive in Australia as immigrants are coming as young adults, so their family formation years are immediately in front of them, and yes it is the case they tend to have larger families or in some…particular ethnic groups they’ll have larger families, and by now also Islam’s been here so long that we’re now into the second, third generation; people whose grandparents were immigrants are now having children.

Andrew West: So as a percentage of the population, do we know roughly what it will be?

Andrew Jakubowicz: It will be somewhere about two and a half per cent, I would say, somewhere around that sort of figure, maybe higher than that even.

Andrew West: Let’s look at Hinduism, for example. There’s been a big rise in the number of people coming from the Indian subcontinent. How is that likely to affect the numbers of Hindus?

Andrew Jakubowicz: Well, we know for instance that the Indian-born population in Australia has increased by well over 100 per cent over the last five years. I mean, it’s really quite a huge increase. That being the case, I think it’s likely that we’ll be seeing somewhere in the vicinity of a quarter of a million Hindus, maybe more, identified in the next census. That makes them about a bit over one per cent of the population.

Andrew West: And the other major group you mentioned were Buddhists. What are the figures going to show there?

Andrew Jakubowicz: Well, Buddhism’s always been a slightly peculiar religion in Australia because there are a lot of non-Asian Australians who identify as Buddhists, and when asked in the census what religion they are, they put down Buddhism whether or not they’re formally practising, but for the most part we’re looking at people partly from India, mainly from places like Thailand; we’re looking at people from other parts of Indochina and of course from China itself. It’s likely, I think, that we’ll be looking at a Buddhist population probably of over 600,000. That would make them also a bit over three per cent of the population. Right, so these together, you know, we’re seeing quite a transformation, if you like, in the faith landscape of Australia. These are no longer minorities (by ‘minorities’ in the sense that we thought of them as marginal in the past). What we’re now looking at are groups that are large enough and concentrated enough to make a significant impact on the whole way in which we think about religious practice.

Andrew West: So cumulatively, the census data is likely to show the non-Christian population heading close to eight, nine per cent?

Andrew Jakubowicz: I would say easily that sort of figure is now non-Christian, and that means that, obviously the Christian population is going down. One of the impacts, for instance, with Chinese immigration is actually to increase the number of people who report no religion, because coming out of a communist society many of them have no faith base at all, even though in Australia their practices are rather different perhaps.

Andrew West: And yet, Andrew, as you well know from your fieldwork, a lot of Christian congregations are swelling with Chinese parishioners. So how does that match up?

Andrew Jakubowicz: Well, I think it also depends which Chinese we’re talking about. People from Hong Kong are much more likely…the new generation’s much more likely to be Christian; some of the Taiwanese are likely to be Christian, the PRC immigrants, possibly…

Andrew West: Mainland China.

Andrew Jakubowicz: Mainland China, sorry, mainland Chinese, possibly less likely, but then they encounter Australian proselytising religions, particularly the Pentecostalists, who have particularly identified those communities, but there’s also a long tradition say in the Baptist Church and in the Anglican Communion and so on, through missionary links and so on to the Chinese communities. So there’s a bit of that, but I would think the overarching impact of the big Chinese increase will not be seen particularly in the Christian churches, though particular Christian churches may suddenly discover, or have been discovering, that their congregations are in fact being transformed by Chinese arrivals, particularly in cities like Sydney.

Andrew West: Yes, we’ve talked about this a lot before…Uniting Church, a relatively small church but its parishes being bolstered by Koreans and Pacific Islanders, for example.

Andrew Jakubowicz: That’s right, and I think the Uniting Church is in fact flipping back now, not flipping back consciously, but it’s now sort of drawing the benefit of its okl missionary base, when the Methodists and Presbyterians went wandering around all over the South Pacific, the seeds that were sown many decades ago are now coming home to roost.

Andrew West: Even though the way that it might seem as a big change, of course faith in Australia has been multicultural for a very long time, as you well know. For 60, 70 years we’ve had one of the largest Greek Orthodox populations. What is, though, basically different about this? I mean, why is this almost revolutionary?

Andrew Jakubowicz: Well, you asked me the question specifically about non-Christian, and I think that’s what’s changing; there’s a non-Christian dimension, which raises the point, you know, if we’re looking at sort of eight or nine per cent of the population not being Christian, there then becomes an issue about how the rhetoric of Australian morality, for instance, is affected. If Australian politicians like the former prime minister John Howard talk about, you know, Judeo-Christian moralities, what do you do when a significant part of the Australian middle class is neither Christian nor Jewish, but quite attached to conservative political choices, for instance? So I think there’s some interesting…going to be some interesting questions about the way in which the rhetoric of the nation is framed over the next decade or so as these sorts of things change.

The other thing I think which is going to be fascinating is to see what happens to the alliances on social issues that are going to emerge with these very, very important non-Christian communities. For instance, opposition to gay marriage, issues around abortion, questions about divorce and so on—[on] many of these issues conservative Jews, conservative Muslims, conservative Christians line up together, and we’ve already seen some of those alliances starting to be voiced around the question of gay marriage.

Andrew West: Professor Andrew Jakubowicz of the University of Technology Sydney on what the census data is likely to reveal about the impact of immigration on religion in Australia. There’s an extended interview with Andrew on our homepage at the RN website, and this is the Religion and Ethics Report with me, Andrew West.