Empty pews, 1967-2007

The Coalition has a stable advantage over Labor among churchgoers. But Pentecostals aside, is this a diminishing asset? The figure below shows that it is.

Sources: 1967-1979, Australian National Political Atttidues Survey; 1984-88 National Social Science Survey; 1990-2007 Australian Election Survey.

I’ve recorded the answers as given in the surveys, but I think the rise of ‘never’ attend actually occurred in the 1970s. The difficulty is the 1979 ANPA poll, which I suspect is a bit of a rogue survey. In addition to the ‘never’ response, it has a huge 25% ‘not applicable’ response, which matches the proportion in the previous question saying they have no religion. But this no religion response is much higher than the 1981 census or the 1984 NSSS, both of which have about 10% of the population without any religious affiliation. My estimate is that about 25% of the population never attended a religious service in the late 1970s, up from 16% in 1967.

The trend towards lower weekly religious attendance seems to have slowed to a near stall in the 1990s and 2000s, while the never attending group has continued to grow. They now outnumber regular attenders by more than three to one. These are the electoral realities of religion today, not a much smaller number of enthusiastic Pentecostals.

12 thoughts on “Empty pews, 1967-2007

  1. I had no idea that the decline in church attendance was so marked.

    Does it carry over into general attitudes? People might not attend church, but they might still have a quite conservative or even religious outlook on life, and attitude towards society.

    For example, I don’t attend mass anymore, but I suspect many people would label me a conservative (wrongly, I think, but it’s largely out of my hands).


  2. Jeremy – There does not seem to a lot of social science research on this point. In my political ID survey earlier in the year, about a third of people who identified as conservatives said they were atheists or agnostics. I would have thought in a purely doctrinal sense religion had a quite complex effect on politics – tending towards conservative parties on issues of personal morality, but towards left-wing parties on issues of income redistribution.


  3. For these surveys, the trends are useful but you can’t trust the levels. What people say they do and what they actually do are very different – as shown by US studies that compare such surveys with calculations from actual congregation numbers. Probably far fewer than 14% of the population now attend church weekly.


  4. DD – You could well be right. The National Church Life survey compared their estimates of attendance with the census and came up with a figure of around 9% (though they were measuring something slightly different; how many people were present each week, which would include some people who go less often than every week). On the other hand, the base populations are different: the census includes children and non-citizens, while the surveys I am citing above are primarily electoral behaviour surveys, so exclude children and non-citizens.


  5. I don’t want to be too pedantic about attendance levels – I am using it as a rough proxy for serious about religion, when some people go to church through social pressure or for socialising without being especially religious, while other people may feel quite religious but for various reasons not attend church very often.


  6. Around 9% or 10% of the general population being serious devotees of religion feels about right.
    It even feels right within the context of the Catholic Church (which is the only domination I know well enough to comment on).
    Amongst the Catholics I know, the “traditionalists” (i.e. those who prefer the 1962 Latin Mass) are perfectly well aware that they are a tiny minority within a minority, but even the plain “orthodox” (i.e. those who accept church teachings and attend Mass every Sunday) are conscious that they are still, even after Pope John Paul II, Archbishop Pell et al, fighting from a position of weakness within the Church.
    Being both orthodox and young is now a difficult thing to be, because it means you place a high value on being married, whilst simultaneously vastly reducing your pool of eligible marriage partners.


  7. Andrew, just a quick note on the attendance rate. A lot of churches have up to twice as many members as they do attendees on an average sunday. A lot of committed people only make it twice a month due to work/school/family (but they would almost certainly put themselves down as once a week, its not a conscious decision to be there less).

    Alanc, the issue of a diminished pool of eligible partners is an issue for lots of christian women. Gender ratio in the church may be 55:45, but by the age of 30 the ratio of singles is more like 25:15 or 20:10.


  8. Andrew,

    Enrollments in religious schools continue to rise faster than overall school enrollments. This is a more significant cultural trend than church attendance, a largely empty formal observance.


  9. Jack – I would have thought attending a church school was the empty formal observance in religious terms, given that church schools have many students with no religion or a religion other than the school’s religion (a constant feature of private schooling in Australia; church authorities complained about it in the 19th century). Religion is only one factor among many driving up private school enrolments.

    A couple of years ago I wrote this post on whether religious schools help make people religious.


  10. M, interesting ratio. It was in fact the dilemma of some single late-twenty-something female friends that prompted my observation.
    And apropos the “empty formal observance” of religious schools, one of the said friends is, as it happens, a Catholic teacher who works for what she considers to be one of the best (as in most faithful) Primary School Principals in the Melbourne Archdiocese, yet who is constantly frustrated in her work by the general lack of interest in the Catholic religion amongst her colleagues, amongst the parents, and amongst the children.
    One anecdote I can offer about the continuing growth in private school enrolments in recent years. It comes from a Russian immigrant – an IT professional working in a major bank. When she arrived in Australia, she naturally looked around to see how things worked and how to get on in her new home, and was struck by two things – the way the government was regularly bad-mouthing and haranguing the govt teaching profession, and the way it was throwing money at the private schools. She concluded that going with a private school for her own children, despite the extra personal expense involved, was clearly the prudent course of action.


  11. Andrew Norton @ September 18th, 2009 13:18 says

    Jack – I would have thought attending a church school was the empty formal observance in religious terms, given that church schools have many students with no religion or a religion other than the school’s religion (a constant feature of private schooling in Australia; church authorities complained about it in the 19th century). Religion is only one factor among many driving up private school enrolments.


    There is no “empty formal observance” in religious schools at $30,000 pa school fees. Going to church on Sundays is, by contrast, a fairly small allocation of resources.

    As social scientists we are obliged to study revealed preferences, particularly when such preferences are revealed by substantial resource allocations. ie material money and mental time.

    You are correct in your minor premises about the liberalisation of Christian schools. Its true that many non-Christians attend Christian schools. And Christian schools are much more liberal now than they were in “the good old days”.

    But you are missing a major premise – the massive increase in material and mental commitments to Christian schools over the past generation. Therefore your conclusion – that Christianity is of declining moral importance in social behaviour – is false.

    Basically Christian education is now more prized, particularly by the high-status or higher-status aspiring, because people have less children now and there are more temptations in general culture. One point six children per household does not leave a wide margin for error.

    So parents sacrifice more by sending their children to Christian schools to prevent their sons from becoming dope-dealers and their daughters from becoming pole-dancers.

    There is now a much larger material commitment to Christianity than in days of yore. The fact is that people pay good money to send their kids to religious schools nowadays. They didnt in the past, no matter how supposedly intense the religious beliefs of Sunday mass attending observers were.

    There is also a much larger mental commitment to Christianity than in days gone of yore. Multitudes more children are now daily exposed to Christian educational practice and indoctrinated in a wishy-washy form of Christian values.

    This is bound to have an effect on their personalities, as it is intended to do so. As one sees from the constant refrain from fee-paying parents that they want their children to have “more discipline” and “traditional moral values”.

    That is what Christianity is all about when stripped of its theological baggage. (which few people cared about even to begin with) And that is what we have now got much more of now.

    At least for higher status-seeking parents who dont want to risk having their one egg in the basket broken by sleazy corruption of public life. Thats “liberalism” has now degenerated into: “hooking up” in the personal eg King Street and “ripping off” in the professional eg Wall Street.


  12. Jack – I think you are right that greater attendance at Christian schools will expose more kids to at least some Christian doctrine. Whether it will make them more Christian is another matter – some of the statistics in my link at comment 9 suggest otherwise. What I think is mainly going on is that due to unfortunate aspects of the education market there is low provision of private formally secular education. This has left church schools in a position to bundle things kids generally don’t want such as religious instruction (I went to a religious school, and we did not want it) and most parents only mildy want or tolerate with things they do want, such as discipline and higher-quality secular education.

    Alan – While the migrant perspective is interesting, I don’t think the shift to private schools has much to do with the statements of ministers. As I have remarked on more than one occasion, there is not much evidence that people take the word of politicians on subjects on which they are likely to have personal knowledge. Consistent with this, the market share growth of private schools under the allegedly anti-government school was consistent with the long-term average.


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