In a recent talk given at a clergy workshop on Thursday 28 September, Dr Michael Casey, Director of the PM Glynn Institute, reflected on the results of their 2022 survey on hope, trust and belonging in Australian society. Although the survey covered a range of questions, including the impact of COVID-19, general flourishing and people’s perception of where Australia is going, Dr Casey focussed on the responses regarding religious affiliation, which he said showed some ‘surprising’ results.

The PM Glynn Institute Survey included a sample of 3,000 people, randomly selected and nationally representative in respect to age, gender and location.

‘We live in a very noisy society,’ Dr Casey said. ‘There’s lots of noise, lots of distractions in our world, and sometimes it’s helpful to try to look under the surface and just see where things are for people.’

While the results of the 2021 Australian Census indicated a significant decline in religious affiliation, a comparison of the PM Glynn Institute’s surveys from 2018 and 2022 suggests there may actually be more ‘stability’ in religious attachment than previously thought, he said.

This is mainly because the institute asked different questions about religion. While the National Census asked a general question about people’s religion, Dr Casey said they calibrated their own question to ask what religion the respondents identified with or followed.

While the Census indicated a drop in religious affiliation from 60.3 per cent in 2016 to 53.9 per cent in 2021, the survey showed less decline. In 2018, only 50 per cent identified with or followed a religious faith, and in 2022 it dropped only to 49 per cent.

If the dataset is expanded to include those who hold some kind of religious or spiritual beliefs, there is actually a 1 per cent increase, from 60 to 61 per cent.

What this might reveal, Dr Casey said, is that religion is ‘stronger and more enduring than one might think’.

It’s a reason for proceeding with a bit more confidence in our work. A lot of the public narrative, of course, is around relentless, inevitable decline of religion, and society becoming more liberal. In fact, as you might expect, it’s even more complicated.

The institute’s survey also showed interesting changes in the frequencies of prayer among individuals, with fewer people in 2022 saying they never prayed in comparison with 2018. For the most part, in fact, frequency in prayer tended to increase.

When it came to the scale of human flourishing, applying the 10-point Harvard Flourishing Measure, they discovered that the average flourishing rates for the general population sat at 6.7 out of 10. Practising religion helped the flourishing rates: religious people sat at an average of 7.3, while those who practised the Catholic faith recorded the highest rates of all, at 7.7.

Although the heart of the Catholic faith is a response to truth propositions, Dr Casey said, these results suggest ‘a strong positive relationship between active religious faith and wellbeing and flourishing.’

He said the results should also give priests and pastors more confidence in how they talk about the role of religion in people’s lives.

‘This is not about denying the problems in religious communities,’ he explained. ‘It’s about perhaps being a bit more confident about talking about religion, the help that it gives, especially in an age like ours,’ which is characterised by ‘loneliness and anxiety and fragmentation’.

Significantly, in this regard, the lowest rates of flourishing were recorded by those in the age range 18–24, sitting at 6.2.

In fact, the 18–24 cohort represented some of the most interesting shifts and fluctuations in religious affiliation. While those who professed religious belief dropped from 45 to 35 per cent between 2018 and 2022, those who identified with some kind of spiritual belief rose by 5 per cent. There was no increase or decrease in those who identified as atheist.

The percentage of 18–24-year-olds identifying as Catholic, however, did fall by 8 per cent.

Dr Casey said that while the PM Glynn surveys reaffirmed the challenges already known when it comes to religion in Australian society, there are reasons for ‘encouragement’ and ‘a bit more confidence’. When more specific questions are asked, a greater stability in religious or spiritual affiliation among most age cohorts is revealed, with religion playing a strong role in measures of flourishing, suggesting the reality is more nuanced than narratives of decline let on.

Over the coming months, a series of papers will be published by the PM Glynn Institute exploring in greater detail the findings of their 2022 survey. Further information on the general results can be found in the Key Findings, which can be downloaded below.