The Challenge of Religious Diversity and Revitalisation to the Secularity of Australian Universities

Professor Gary D Bouma

Australian religion is changing, becoming more diverse and revitalised. These changes challenge the secularism of Australian universities by creating a context that demands that religion and the religious needs of a wider diversity of students and staff be taken seriously. Moreover, these changes will require universities to change more than just the plumbing and food services. There are challenges to the ways universities conduct their core business of teaching and research.

There are four major drivers of religious change at work today in Australia: increases in religious diversity, revitalisation of religion, the changing social location of religion, and a cultural shift from rational to experiential modes of authority. Each of these has an impact on the ways universities provide education and support services to students.

Increases in Religious Diversity

Post-war migration has brought Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus in sufficient numbers for significant communities of these religious groups to become well established in Australia. Meanwhile conversion has produced significant numbers of Pentecostals and followers of many spiritualities (Tacey 2003, Bouma 2006). Many Australians (18.5%) declare in the census that they have 'no religion', but this does not mean that they are atheists, but rather that they are either disinterested or uncommitted to any particular religious organisation (Hughes 2007). Current religious diversity in Australia is made clearer by the following data from the 2006 census.

Australia's Religious Diversity I
In 2006 National %  Sydney % Melbourne %
Catholics 25.8 29.1 28.3
Anglicans 18.5 17.9 12.1
No religion 18.5 14.1 20.0
Not stated 10.0 10.4 11.1
Uniting 5.7 3.4 4.0
Presbyterian 3.0 2.6/ 2.3
Orthodox 3.0 4.3 5.9


Catholics grew their market share from 1947 till 1996 and have tapered off since. The high water mark for Anglicans was 1921 (43%). Since the 1961 Anglicans, Uniting and Presbyterians have suffered declines that have left them no longer representative of the Australian population as they once were and seriously aged with more than 40% aged 55 and over. The decline of the 'Mainline' Protestants is largely due to the passing of the cultural and social significance of the British Empire/Commonwealth. These groups are no longer associated with the power and legitimacy of British overlords, culture or social expectations. Note that it is not appropriate to combine the 'not stated' category with any other, including 'no religion'. Many are just not telling.

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Australian Religious Diversity II

In Australia 2006 there were:

  • More Buddhists (2.1%) than Baptists (1.6%)
  • More Muslims (1.7%) than Lutherans (1.3%)
  • More Hindus (0.7%) than Jews (0.4%)
  • More Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists (0.3%) than Churches of Christ or Sikhs (0.1%)
  • 4 times as many witches as Quakers
  • A few atheists (31,000) but they are growing (by 29% since 2001)

There are significant regional variations in religious diversity. The differences between Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide provide an example of why it is important to examine local data when developing social policy. In Sydney, there are more Muslims (3.9%) and more Buddhists (3.7%) than Uniting (3.4). In Melbourne the following is the descending order of religious groups by size: Orthodox > Uniting > Buddhist > Muslim > Presbyterian > Hindu > Pentecostal. In Adelaide the descending order is: Uniting > Orthodox > Lutheran > Buddhist > Baptist > Pentecostal > Presbyterian > Muslim > Hindus = Jehovah's Witnesses.

These increases in religious diversity have lead some to worry about Australia's social cohesion. Will the centre hold when there is so much diversity and when major denominations of the past shrink to being much less significant? Social cohesion refers to the capacity of a society to so coordinate its resources as to produce what it needs to sustain and reproduce itself. However, Australia is and has been one of the most socially cohesive societies in the world. For example, there were no riots in Australia following the publication of the Danish 'cartoons'. Several well managed protests were held in complete cooperation with civic and police officials. Moreover, this great land has been multicultural and multifaith for well over 40,000 years. A brief period of seeming monoculturality in the 1920s is an aberrant blip on an otherwise long history of diversity. Australia is not held together by religious, or ethnic similarity, but by interdependence and dense overlapping networks of communication.

The major issue facing those who devise and implement social policy related to religion and spirituality is coping with a shift from British Christendom to religious plurality. The former Anglican hegemony, along with 'Empire Religion' is passing away having been in steady decline since 1921 resulting in the loss of a social and cultural 'normal' as the dominance of English Protestants in Australia wanes. The rise of Pentecostals, Spiritualities, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and others has resulted in religious diversity being the new normal.

This new normal raises issues such as: How to incorporate and include many religions? How to accommodate a wider range of legitimate religious needs? How to deal with competition and conflict among religious groups? These issues are not only confronting Federal, State and local governments, but also Universities. Both students and staff are no longer likely to be well served by the narrow range of chaplains that might have sufficed in the 1970s or 1980s. The Church of England is no longer the 'default' religion, able to provide 'civic' ceremonies and services that serve the whole community. Anglicans are a specific sub-group, now well less than 20% of the population. In a university context this means that 'Mainline' Protestant chaplains are no longer able to meet the religious needs of all students and staff, or to use their services as the basis for civic ceremonies, expressing community grief, or joy as they once were able to do.

Revitalisation of Religion

In addition to and partially as a result of increases in religious diversity there has been a global revitalisation of religion. Religion is back on the agenda having re-entered the public space (Thomas 2005). Australian political leaders meet with religious leaders. Australian's are engaging in a values debate and seeking the values foundations of public policy issues. The print and electronic media are full of references to religion, television and cinema offering address religious, spiritual and 'other-worldly' themes and books on religion sell well. Atheists and secularists are on the defensive. Religious resurgence is happening everywhere - Asia, Africa, South America, Russia. In some places it follows the removal of repressive secularist regimes as in the former Yugoslavia, Russia, and China. Religious practice and spirituality are taking new forms, challenging old. There is also religious resurgence in Australia, except among Anglicans, Mainstream Protestants, and Catholics.

While not predicted in the latter part of the 20th century religious revitalisation can now be seen to be part of an historical cyclic pattern of the ebb and flow of religious life. Revitalisation is partly a product of increased diversity. When most Australians were British Protestants, the only religious difference that made a difference was protestant / catholic. That religious difference ceased to be interesting after the 1960s. However, with the rise of religious diversity, religious identity has once again become interesting. Some wear theirs openly challenging others to reflect on their own position. As Muslims and others work to secure the ability to practice their religion and educate their children in a faith friendly environment religious issues return to the public domain and can no longer be seen as merely private, hobby-like activities of the spiritually inclined.

Religious revitalisation is also occurring because of the failure of secular humanism to deliver on its promises. It has not produced happiness, an end to oppression, strong and sustainable motivations to work for social justice, high levels of volunteering. The oppressive secularism of several 20th century totalitarian regimes continues to undermine its credibility.

Religious revitalisation challenges the normalcy of secularism. The late 20th century saw the rise of secularism which is best seen as another committed view point, an anti-religious view-point, that seeks to drive religion out of the public domain and to depict it as an activity of the intellectually marginal, mildly disabled, or socially depressed (Somerville 2006). Religious revitalisation says no to secularism demanding that it be seen as the ideology that it is, pointing out clearly that it is not neutral, or objective, but a highly particular perspective with its own agendas, ambitions and biases.

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Changing Social Location of Religion

Religion moved from the centre to the margins from 1947 to 1975 as it became increasingly suburbanised and reduced to congregations as opposed to denominational structures in engagement with government and other organisations. Religious bases for social policy were articulated in the 1950s by the Democratic Labor Party and others. The anti-war demonstrations of the Vietnam era were strongly motivated by religious leaders and religious voices. However, these voices exited that era stripped of their distinctively religious references. The social justice movement and those who took a compassionate approach to social policy emerged speaking in secular voices by the time of the 1980s. Indeed bishops were arguing that it was necessary to do so to be heard in secular Australia.

However, evangelical and Pentecostal Christians are no longer quiescent, Catholic politicians and government ministers make clear the religious bases of their policies, while Muslim voices join in the press for values and a recognition of the role of religion. However, the loss of vertically integrated denominational structures along with significant internal diversity in each of these groups will continue to undermine their impact. In a sense, religion is now 'out of control' of both the state and religious organizations.

Major cultural shift in Authority Style

There are three primary bases of authority - tradition, reason, experience. The 16th Century Reformers and later republican revolutionaries appealed to reason to unseat the 'traditional' authority of monarchs and bishops. The last few centuries have been characterised by the ascendancy of reason as a basis of authority. However, since at least the 1950s a major cultural transition from reason and rationality to experience has become increasingly evident. This is having an impact on universities as well as religious groups. Among religious groups the effects are seen in the rise of Pentecostal forms of worship and religious expression.

Universities often function as temples of rationality with professors as the high priests and vice-chancellors as archbishops in the service of reason. This view often overlooks the fact that science is grounded in experience - the use of tangible, countable evidence to test arguments. Moreover, the humanities are not just about reason and rationality, but also aesthetics, ethics, justice. Struggles over the place of religion in universities are often between secular rationalists who decry religion as irrational and detrimental to clear thinking.

Many argue that universities are secular places. The problem is the meaning of 'secular'. Secularism contends that the 'secular' is a religion-absent zone. But there are other views. For example, a more current notion of secularity recognises that religion is now comparatively free of the control of the state and of those organisations that once contained it - churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples. As spiritualities thrive and religious ideas and commitments become evident in many places the elimination of religion from public discourse and university life becomes increasingly difficult. Where no one ideology is dominant, or privileged - another way of describing a secular space - why should secularism, itself an ideology, a committed perspective, be allowed to dictate to others. The present situation requires critical thought.

In this context universities should be open to the widest diversity of voices, views, experiences biased neither toward religious nor non-, or anti-religious viewpoints. However, many universities have been quite comfortable in unexamined secularism, accepting the received wisdom of 19th century anti-religious secularism and not turning the critical gaze upon themselves (Sommerville 2006). A genuinely secular university will be free to enable the expression and appreciation of viewpoints. It will also take care in critique, examining the presuppositions of all critical viewpoints.

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Rising to the Challenge

Once the challenges posed by the rise in religious diversity and the revitalisation of religion are engaged it becomes clear that taking the religious diversity of staff and students seriously requires at least providing the necessary infrastructure - prayer rooms, respected space for religious and spiritual activities, chaplaincy, halal and kosher food, tolerance of religious dress and some respect for the impact of periods of fasting. Most universities are well on their way to addressing these issues. One of the first buildings built in the early 1960s on the original campus of Monash University was a multi-faith religious centre. It has since been re-plumbed several time to accommodate increasing numbers of Muslims students and staff. Prayer facilities are available on each campus and a diversity of chaplains is available. However, some universities seem not yet to have caught on.

At a deeper level, universities need to turn their well honed critical gaze inward at their core business (Sommerville 2006). Is religion respected, seen as a topic for research, and taught about as a complexly - positive and negative - force in history? Is history taught from a European perspective, or do other cultures and societies get a look in? If a Muslim student attends history of philosophy lectures will the indebtedness of the West to Islam be made clear? Is Islamic banking taught, so that MBAs will have some clue about how a major section of the globe's economy operates? Is Islamic law taught so that its workings are understood and demystified?

Many universities, in fact, do offer subjects in these areas. There is a federally funded Islamic Studies program that is being put together to address the need for systematic education about Islam and Muslim societies. Monash University does have a program in Islamic Banking, The Centre for Muslim Minority and Islamic Policy Studies, The Centre for Studies in Religion and Theology, a Centre for Jewish Civilisation. Sydney's University of Technology offers courses in Islamic Law. Griffith University has a Multi-Faith Centre and LaTrobe a Centre for Dialogue both of which combine research, teaching and community engagement. While many other examples could be noted, many others hide their heads in the sands of secularism.

The great challenge is for universities to confront the institutionalised anti-religious bias of a secularist culture that is taken as normal in many. The challenges to secularist biases are being taken seriously as the origins of this ideology become clearer and are re-visited with the critical gaze needed to deconstruct this aspect of university life (Sommerville 2006, Stark 2003). Far from killing discussion or muzzling debate, the elimination of a secularist bias, as with the removal of any bias, opens debate, enlivens discussion and revitalises university life.


Berger, Peter (ed) 1999. The Desecularisation of the world: Resurgent religion and world politics. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Bouma, Gary 2006. Australian Soul: Religion and Spirituality in the Twenty-first Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hughes, Philip 2007 'What do the 2007 Census Figures About Religion Mean?' Pointers, Volume 17, Number 3, pp. 1-6.

Sommerville, C. John 2006. The Decline of the Secular University. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stark, Rodney 2003. For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-hunts, and the End of Slavery. Princeton; Princeton University Press.

Tacey, David 2003. The Spirituality Revolution: the emergence of contemporary spirituality. Sydney: HarperCollins.

Thomas, Scott 2005 The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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