A picture of the religious beliefs of the Australian community

As part of the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes in 2009, 1,718 people across Australian communities were asked about their belief in some key religious concepts, including God, heaven, hell, life after death and religious miracles. Comparing these results against earlier surveys indicate that while belief in God has strongly declined, other religious beliefs have remained more stable.

In this fact sheet:

  • A quarter of Australians have no doubts about the existence of God
  • Almost half the population continues to believe in heaven and in life after death, and more people believe in heaven than in hell
  • What do people understand by concepts such as heaven and life after death?
  • The impact of church attendance on religious belief

A quarter of Australians have no doubts about the existence of God
In the past few decades there has been an overall decline in the proportion of Australians who claim to believe in God or some form of higher power, from around 95% in 1950 to 71% in 2009. This includes people who have doubts some of the time about the existence of God. From 1966 to 2009, the proportion who stated that they had no doubts about the existence of God halved to just 25% in 2009.

Figure 1: Belief in God in the Australian community in 2009

Graph:Belief in God in the Australian community

Source: 2009 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes

Unsurprisingly, figure 1 shows that levels of belief in God or in a higher power were high among Australians who identified as 'having a religion' which was Christian. With the exception of  those who identified their religion as 'Anglican', 90% or more of Christians assented to holding such belief. More variation was observed with regards to believing in God without having any doubts. A quarter of Anglicans held this belief, as compared with almost two thirds of respondents in the “other Christian” category, which includes Baptists, Pentecostals, Orthodox Christians, Baptists and Lutherans.

Almost half the population continues to believe in heaven and in life after death, and more people believe in heaven than in hell

Figure 2: Change in religious beliefs in the Australian community over time

Graph: Change in religious beliefs in the Australian community over time

Source: 2009 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, 1993 National Social Science Survey

Figure 3: Religious beliefs in the Australian community by denomination

Graph: Religious beliefs in the Australian community by denomination

Source: 2009 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes

Decline in belief in God isn’t matched by an equivalent decline in belief in heaven and in life after death. As shown in figure 2, in 1993, the proportion of people affirming a belief in heaven and in life after death was just over half. In 2009 these figures had declined by only several percent. Interestingly, in 2009, there were more distinct differences in endorsement of these two beliefs among two denominational groupings in particular as compared to the Australian population at large. As shown in figure 3, there was a large gap between professed belief in heaven and in life after death among Australians affiliated with the Uniting/Methodist/Presbyterian Churches and especially people affiliated in the “other Christian” category (which includes the all denominations with the exception of the three largest – Catholic, Anglican and Uniting/Methodist/Presbyterian).

In 2009, 29% of people said that they believed in hell, down a few percent from the proportion in 1993. In both years, around 50-60% more people affirmed a belief in heaven than in hell. Belief in heaven also outstripped belief in hell by a large amount across the four denominational groupings. Belief in religious miracles declined by a few percent, to 38% in 2009.

What do people understand by concepts such as heaven and life after death?
The patterns of results for religious beliefs, and the differences observed across denominational affiliations, begs the question: What do Australians understand by the concepts “life after death”, “heaven”, “religious miracles” and “hell” and how do these understandings vary across denominational and religious groups, including among the fifth of the population that claims no religion, and the growing minority of people who are affiliated with a non-Christian religion?

For example, is “life after death” understood to be the individual soul living on after the body is dead? Or the life that animates all people returning to some larger cosmic force? It is also possible that some people who affirm their belief in life after death may be referring to their experiences in this life – for example, new forms of human activity and organisation developing after old ones have declined, babies being born into a family and the elderly passing away, new plants sprouting in the garden after the ones from the previous season seeded and died. Likewise, do some people believe in a this-worldly heaven?

Further research on what is understood by these concepts is also critical to understand the significance of the changing face of religious belief over time, and why some beliefs persist while others decline more quickly.

The impact of religious service attendance
It is important to consider, in examining the denominational breakdowns reported in this factsheet, the effect of religious practice.  Some 17% of survey respondents reported that they attended religious services at least monthly (15% are at Christian worship services). The vast majority of people who identified as Christian did not attend church on a regular basis (only 27% reported that they attended church at least monthly), but this varied tremendously across denominations, ranging from 13% of Anglicans to 47% of people in the “other Christian” denominational grouping. The differential patterns of religious belief observed across the different denominations is consistent with the pattern of church attendance, with people from denominations with higher levels of attendance also reporting stronger beliefs.

Table 1: Religious service attendance

Denomination Proportion attending religious
services at least monthly
All Australians 17%
Catholic 33%
Anglican 13%
Uniting/Presbyterian 23%
Other Christian 47%

Source: 2009 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes

Data Source: The International Social Survey Program (ISSP) is an ongoing survey designed to monitor changes in society across a range of countries. In 2009 the ISSP was undertaken in Australia by the Australian National University via the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (AuSSA). The survey included a standard component on religion, as well as customised questions regarding religion and spirituality which were commissioned by a consortium that included NCLS Research. The sample comprised 1718 adults across Australia. Evans, A. (2009) [computer file], The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, Australian Social Science Data Archives, The Australian National University, Canberra.


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