‘No Religion’ is Australia’s second largest religious group – and it has a profound effect on our laws

The latest census results are out and the number of Australians who selected “no religion” rose again to 38.9%, from 30.1% in 2016.

This makes it the second largest “religious group” after Christians, who make up 43.9% of the population, up from 52.1% in 2016.

Australia is often described as a secular country and this continued movement of religion towards ‘religionlessness’ is one of the ways this is manifesting.

The numbers are interesting but, as a legal scholar, I’m more interested in what they mean in practice and how this ongoing shift in Australia’s religious demographics is reflected in our laws.

Changes in Australia’s religious demographics are reflected in our laws.
Image AAP/Lukas Coch

Read more: Why Australia needs a religious discrimination law

Marriage equality, euthanasia and abortion

Perhaps the most obvious example is marriage equality.

I started teaching law and religion at the University of Western Australia just over ten years ago. At the time, we were teaching students the arguments for and against same-sex marriage. However, this was a purely theoretical concept.

Certainly, the campaign for same-sex marriage was already advanced. But the repeated refusals at the time of politicians such as John Howard, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd alike consider legalizing same-sex marriage felt like marriage equality was still decades away. At the time of the 2016 census, marriage equality was still theoretical.

How quickly things change.

In the five years between the 2016 census and the 2021 census, Australia has seen a monumental shift in what could broadly be considered moral laws.

In December 2017, the definition of marriage was officially changed to be the union of two people voluntarily contracted for life, regardless of gender.

The definition of marriage was officially changed to be the union of two people voluntarily contracted for life, regardless of gender, in December 2017.
Image AAP/Joe Castro

But marriage equality is just the tip of the iceberg. Euthanasia and abortion laws were also reformed in the five years between censuses.

Victoria, WA and Tasmania have all passed laws to legalize euthanasia. Queensland and New South Wales have also passed similar laws since the 2021 census.

Abortion has been decriminalized in all states, with South Australia, New South Wales, the Northern Territory and Queensland all having reformed their laws.

Read more: What if you want to access medical assistance in dying but your nursing home won’t allow it?

An ongoing debate on freedom of religion

Given this legal shift from what are sometimes referred to as “traditional moral laws,” it may seem odd that, alongside this, there has also been an ongoing debate about freedom of religion.

The debate has been fiercest, and most painful, regarding discrimination by religious schools.

On the one hand, some religious schools argue that they must be able to retain their unique religious identity, especially when this is out of step with mainstream beliefs.

Read more: Australians are more millennial, multilingual and less religious: what the census reveals

On the other hand, LGBTQ+ groups in particular claim that discrimination is harmful and no longer acceptable in modern Australia.

It is tempting to argue that, given the number of Australians who have no religion, religious belief should give way to secularism.

However, it is important to remember that a large part of the population still identifies with a religion.

It is also important to note that Australia’s religious diversity is increasing.

As I noted in 2017:

In the battle for supremacy between nuns and Christianity, we must also be aware of minority faiths which in 2016 made up 8.2% of Australia’s population. For emerging small religious groups, whose beliefs and practices may not be well understood in Australia, there is always a real risk that political decisions will affect their religious beliefs and practices unintentionally or as a result of misunderstanding.

It is therefore more important than ever to have a vigorous and respectful debate on religious freedom and the place of religion in secular Australia.

Part of the answer may lie in a balanced religious discrimination law. It will also reside in respectful conversations about law reform. This must include those of minority denominations, those of majority Christian denomination and those of no denomination.

Read more: Abortion is no longer a crime in Australia. So why is it still so difficult to access it?