Where do people turn?

Australians' experience of faith, spirituality and prayer

At times of challenge and crisis, people often turn to deeper questions of meaning and some draw on spiritual reserves and resources. During this time of COVID-19 it is expected that many Australians are now drawing on these resources, while others have changed their level of spirituality and faith.

In this article we look at the spiritual reserves that Australians had in a pre-pandemic world. We learn from the November 2019 ACS that Australians are moderately religious or spiritual in ‘normal’ times. Here we unpack Australian spirituality in more detail.

How important is faith or spirituality in making life's decisions?

More than four in 10 Australians consider religious faith or spirituality to be important in shaping their life's decisions (18% very important, 27% important). Some 31% consider it to be not important. When explored by age, the young and the old are most likely to place importance on religious faith and spirituality in decision making. Those who are 18-34 and 65 and older are the age groups placing most importance on religious faith and spirituality as they make decisions about career, relationships, lifestyle. Those who are in the 35-64 age groups do not seem as likely to shape big life decisions by their faith and spirituality.

Do Australians experience or believe in mystical or supernatural events?

The mystical and supernatural are part of the experience or belief of most Australians. Some 37% of Australians have had a mystical or supernatural experience or know someone who has. Whilst a further 30% believe it could occur, 23% think such experiences do not occur. Women are more likely than men to have had a mystical or supernatural experience; and a majority of those who do not identify with a religion have had a mystical or supernatural experience, know someone who has, or think it is possible. Regardless of religious identification, a majority of Australians still believe in the reality of mystical and supernatural events – even if they have not experienced it themselves.

Prayer or meditation is a regular practice for around a third of Australians.

Around a third of Australians pray or mediate at least once a week (32%), while almost half do so occasionally (47%). Some 35% never pray or meditate. Of those who pray or meditate, women are more frequent in their private religious practices than men and the frequency of the practice increases with the level of formal education. When explored by education there is the greatest frequency of prayer/meditation by those with a university qualification, the number of those who do so several times a day being double that of those with only a school level qualification.

Faith and prayer during the pandemic and 'normal times'

For a considerable number of Australians faith and spirituality are important matters. A majority of Australians have spiritual resources they have not only developed and facilitated pre-2020 but can draw upon during the uncertainty of present times. The importance of faith and spirituality to so many is reflected in the number of responses that affirmed the impact on life decisions, experiences of the supernatural and practices of meditation and prayer.

The salience of faith or spirituality in making life’s decisions appears to be most present in the younger and older age groups. The trend in the older generation may be related to an upbringing more connected with church though the trend in younger generations to consider faith and spirituality as formative in life decisions remains open for discussion. A solid foundation on which to base these decisions will be seen as even more imperative in this situation of instability and as people of all age groups make even more life decisions during this pandemic.

The supernatural is on the minds of many Australians. Mystical and supernatural experiences occur as much with non-Christians and Christians. Many also profess to the belief in the reality of these occurrences even without having experienced them themselves. This indicates both a receptiveness to such experiences and prevalence of such experiences despite the ever so material and tangible nature of society.

Prayer and meditation is a practice that a majority of Australians undertake, though the frequency varies. When looking at according to gender, patterns are observed which seem to highlight the relational nature of women – they are more frequent in the private religious practice of prayer and meditation. In terms of the education level of those who pray and meditate regularly, it could be that discipline attained through higher levels of study carries over to the regularity and persistence in prayer and meditation. Though men and people with only school level qualifications pray and meditate the least, it would be interesting to see how this is changing at a time when people seem to need it most.


Churches should remain aware of spiritual trends

We would encourage churches to remain aware of the spiritual profile of Australians as they connect with their communities in interfaith dialogue. Many people who take faith and spirituality seriously - as shown in decision making, experiences and prayer and meditation – are not found in the pews of church and may not come to these physical pews anytime soon. The emphasis need not be in getting these people into the pews but equipping those in the pews to keep going out and making known about the God in whom their faith and spirituality is grounded. Knowing that there is already a foundation of moderate faith and spirituality for Australians in ‘normal’ circumstances promotes a need for churches in these abnormal circumstances to continue connecting in different media and physical spaces.


Most Australians believe in spiritual experiences

The mystical and supernatural are part of the experience or belief of most Australians

Read more
Hannah Weickhardt, Kathy Jacka, Ruth Powell
Data Sources:

Powell, R. Sterland, S. and Pepper, M. (2019). 2019 Australian Community Survey [Data file]. Sydney: NCLS Research. 

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