Secularism: Where we are Heading?

Rory Shiner offers an overview of the past, present and future of Australian secularism


A Talk given by Rory Shiner at Geneva Push’s recent Multiply17 Conference 

My parents live in Albany on the South Coast of Western Australia. They don’t have Netflix, and so when we go there on holidays, we take the kids to the Ye Olde DVD Shoppe to collect a bundle of DVDs for the time away.

Every time I’m in that video shop I think the same thought: What are the staff meetings like here? I don’t mean the weekly staff meetings where they organise the shifts and tell people off for leaving their tea-bags in the staff kitchen sink. No, I mean the quarterly vision meeting; the meetings where the boss gathers all the staff together and they talk about the future. The Blue Sky meeting; the Big Hair Audacious Goal meeting. The Vision meeting. What’s that meeting like?

Boundless Optimism?

Maybe it’s optimistic. Maybe they’re all reading Good to Great, or Zero to One or The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Maybe they’re getting their game on. They’re thinking about alignment and culture. They’re getting the right people on the bus and communicating a preferred future. Maybe the stump speech is like: 

“Guys, it’s been a tough few years, but trust me. I have a feeling that any minute now, the market for rented DVDs is going to pick up again. If we get our goals lined up; if we get our team humming; If we dream the impossible dream, we’ll be in clover. Our best days are ahead, people!”

Misreading the data

Or it could be that something more tragic is happening. Maybe they’re optimistic and have plans for expansion because they are fundamentally misreading the data. 

Because here’s the potential irony of the DVD rental market in Albany. Ten years ago Albany had up to eight or nine DVD shops. Now, I think there are three. But you see: what does the graph for your business look like when there used to be nine DVD shops and now there’s three? The answer is that your figures could actually be going up. Even though fewer and fewer people are renting DVDs each year, if the shops are closing down at that rate, then—as the last place standing—things actually look good to you … for a while. 

You could image a situation where a boss is only looking at the data for their shop, not noticing that all the other stores are closing. All he sees is the bump in rentals each year, Ignorant of what’s causing them—and ignorant of the fact that the very thing that’s causing his growth is actually the very thing that will one day, almost certainly, lead to the death of his store too.

So maybe they’re irrationally optimistic, or maybe they’re tragically misreading the data:

Sober realism

But my guess is that things are pretty sober for at video–rental–shop vision meetings these days. I think most would know they are managing decline, and most have a plan for when the inevitable happens.

Which brings me to Christianity in Australia.

Christianity in Australia

What is the true situation of the churches of Australia? What’s the nature of the season, the time, the context in which we operate? Because, as Tim Adeney put it in the article from which I also got the DVD shop analogy:

“Every action in the present embeds a hypothesis about the future.” 

My question is: is our embedded hypothesis about the future as accurate as it could be? Just like Donald Trump, I’m worried about fake news. I’m worried that we (or at least I) might be misreading the moment: that I might be more pessimistic that I need to be; or more optimistic that I need to be; or that I’m getting false positives. I worry that, like the imaginary DVD guy, I’m crediting to our church growth which is actually decline. And I worry that I, in particular, will be susceptible to self-deception because I am naturally extremely optimistic. Most church planters are.

Exaggerating Secularisation

Here’s an interesting truth. Research shows that there are two types of people who are likely to exaggerate the rate of religious decline: secular historians and religious leaders. 

First, as Australian historian Stuart Piggin and others have argued, secular historians have radically underestimated the influence of Christianity in Australian history and Australian society. They have been radically, profoundly blind and deaf to the extraordinary impact of Christianity in Australian society. 

Second, as scholars such as Brewitt-Taylor and Hugh Chilton have observed, church leaders have often overstated and exaggerated the rate of religious decline. 

It’s the Baptists and Bootleggers problem. Who were the two groups that most wanted Prohibition in America? Baptist, who thought drinking was evil, and bootleggers, who saw it as an opportunity to make money.

So I want to start a conversation about our moment. I want to ask whether our hypothesis about the future is the best it can be, and what bearing it should have on our action in the present. I’m in the middle of this study at the moment. I hope to present sometime more final by the end of this year.

But for what it’s worth, here’s my interim report:

Our Moment: Secularisation

Our moment—the context in which you and I are evangelising our communities and planting our churches is a moment of secularisation. This is not a drill. This is not a rehearsal. It’s really happening.

Now, to say that might look like a classic moment of Captain Obvious, but I want us to pause there and say: That’s our moment. And it’s a particular moment.

In the Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo says to Gandalf, “I wish it need not have happened in my time…” 

Gandalf answers that “we don’t get to choose our times; all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

And it so happens, brothers and sisters, that this is our time. We were born now. We get secularisation.

This is not always (if fact, it has hardly ever) been the case. The early church worked its life out in the context of paganism. The Reformation dealt with a lot of things, but secularisation wasn’t one of them. In times of revival such as in New England, the church had to deal with revival and with the problems of revival. Navigating faithfulness as the churches increase has its own challenges. But, it’s not our challenge at this moment in the West. We don’t get to choose our time, we simply have to decide what to do with the time that is given us.

And the time that is given us is a time of secularisation. 

Australia and Secularisation

Which brings me to Australia.

This is an interim report. I want to do my very best to avoid Factoids and Fake News. What can we say about our context here?  Six things I think:

1. It’s real

If you look at the actual data. If you look at the relevant indices: attendance at church, the role of religion in public life, personal belief and so on: There is no question. Ours is a secular and secularising age.

In 1901, something like 95% of Australians claimed a Christian religious affiliation, and a majority participated in church more that at Christmas and Easter.

Today from the 2011 census, 61% identify as Christian. 15% go to church regularly and 7% are actively involved.

And as best we can see: that sort of decline is continuing into our moment. The McCrindle 2017 Faith and Belief survey has that 61% figure down to 59%, so a possible 2% drop since 2011. 

The trend is not toward the New Age. Or Islam. Or any alternative religion: It is toward secular, non-religious life. Ours is a secular age.

2. It’s complicated.

That drop is beyond dispute. But the numbers and the trends are more complicated than they might first appear. Church attendance has gone down and personal belief has gone down.

But religion in politics went up the last decade. Mention of God and church and faith in the Howard-Rudd era was surprisingly high. Enrolments in religious schools have also gone up in recent decades. These are both trends worth noting. I’m not sure what they mean, but they mean something. 

And importantly for our thinking, the dropping away has not been linear. It’s not the case that things have been gently dropping away since 1901. On the contrary, the movement from 1901 to 1960 was barely perceptible. For a time it actually went briefly in the other direction: the post-war period, from the early 1950s to 1963 was actually a time of significant growth for the Christian churches in Australia. The Billy Graham Crusade in 1959 was, I believe, less a cause of religious revival, and more a symptom of it.

In all sorts of ways the post-war period to 1963 was a very propitious time for Christianity in general, and evangelical Christianity in particular. If we were having this conversation in 1959 or 1961, we might be planning for a decade of growth, rather than bracing for further decline. 

And so, I don’t think our moment is a long, slow process begun with the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species and ending with the last Christian turning out the lights in the last church in another century. 

No, our moment, to an eerie degree, begins in 1963. That’s the moment.

3. It’s pan-national

Third thing: This trend is pan-national. In following these sorts of trends, we are in step, more or less, with nations like the UK, Canada and NZ. 

The UK, Canada and NZ—we’ve been kind of ahead of them on some things, behind them on others, but more or less we’ve followed the same patterns.

Why is that important?

Answer: Because you can’t explain a universal with a particular.

You can’t explain a wide change with reference to local conditions. Think back to that DVD shop in Albany. It’s no good to say: “Well, Albany’s really dropped the ball. But if we can really work through the local community with a DVD promotion campaign, we could turn this around.”

No: DVD rentals in Albany are a part of something much bigger than what’s happening in Albany.

You can't explain a universal with a particular. 

In the 1970s and early 1980s in Australia, people were beginning to see these effects of secularisation. As they did, they began to ask “Why is this happening here?”

Some began to argue that the problem was that Christianity had failed to indigenise as genuinely Australian. It remained a potted plant that did not take root in Australian soil. In response, many began to put significant energy into presenting Christianity in an Australia Accent. Australian prayers and and Psalms were published, Aussie versions of Bible stories and parables were sold through the ABC shops and people thought deeply about what a genuine Australian Christianity should look like.

Now—as a project that may well be a worthwhile thing. But it simply can’t be the answer to the challenge of secularisation. Why? Because you can’t explain a universal with a particular. Whatever it is that is causing secularisation here is also causing it in Canada, the UK and New Zealand.

And, importantly, the pattern has been different in the United States of America. And radically, radically different in the majority world, where Christianity expansion has been the story of the century.

4, It’s deep 

Our secularising age is deeply embedded in some of the structures of the way we think and the way we approach the world. As Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor argues in his seminal work, A Secular Age, even the way we believe is different now.

Imagine someone in the 1517 and someone in 2017. They are both Christians, both believe the Apostles’ Creed. Taylor says, even though the content is the same, the way you believe those things in 2017 is very different to the way you would have believed them in 1517.

We believe within the cross-pressure of unbelief. And we believe with the option of unbelief ever present. That is in a sense to believe differently. Secularisation is deep. If affects everything, even our belief.

5. It’s also shallow 

Some accounts of secularisation have emphasised the deep roots of the phenomenon. They take us back through the history of western thought to the nineteenth century, or to the Enlightenment, or to the unintended consequences of the Reformation, or even, as Pope Benedict and John Milbank have both argued, to William of Ockham in the 1300s.

This work of tracing the intellectual origins of secularisation is important. But I don’t want to miss just how sudden, fast, and therefore potentially shallow secularisation has been.

Social historians such as Callum Brown have demonstrated that secularisation as we experience it happened dramatically and rather suddenly in the early 1960s. Brown and others point to social factors such the Pill, new patterns of women working, and the use of cars as precipitating a very sudden change. 

The changes of the post-war period were, on the whole, more rapid than we sometimes imagine. Think of the Beatles. Consider their career—from the guys in suits, smiling and singing “I want to hold your hand” to the guys in Kaftans saying “Why don’t we do it in the road?” How long did that take? “I wanna hold your hand” sounds so innocent and 1950s; “Why don’t we do it in the road” sounds decadent and mid-1970s.


But course—the Beatles did all that between 1963–1969. They only just make it into 1970s.

Things change quickly.

And so it could be that we underestimate how shallow secularisation has been.

As Christians, we agonise over why people have left the churches. But sociologists will ask the question: “Hey, what if don’t just say ‘churches’? What if we map all voluntary organisations onto this question?” And guess what? Almost all voluntary organisations begin to decline at the same time and at the same rate as the churches.

Maybe there is something about our post-sixties society that mean any activity not sponsored by the Market or the State is on hard times? If (and it’s a real ’if’)—if the causes of secularisation were indeed fast, and to do with changes in the society as much as changes in thought, then maybe there’s another big change just around the corner.

Or maybe we just lived through one? I’ve tried to keep away from speculation as much as possible here. As I said at the start, I want to get beyond the factoids to the facts; beyond the hunches and intuitions of a local pastor to what we actual know and don’t know. But if I may be allowed one guess—I wonder if, in 20 or 30 year’s time, we will look back to somewhere between 2014-2016 as a time when, like 1963, something changed. I feel like on all sorts of fronts and in all sorts of ways, the way Christianity and the wider western culture relate to each other has shifted in some fundamental way. 


Well, as I say, this is an interim report. I’ve set myself this research project, to try and come to grips as best I can with the shape and causes of our secular moment. These have been my thoughts and discoveries so far on the journey.

It’s a work-in-progress, and it’s short on answers. Perhaps some will emerge? Who knows?

But let me end with this: Whatever sense we make of secularisation, secularism is a story about how the world is. It has its myths, its icons and its contingencies.


It’s brilliantly captured in this campaign around the time of the 2011 Census. Then, the Census has a category for “No Religion.” The reason behind the campaign was perfectly reasonable—the best data is accurate data, and no one is helped by people saying what they don’t mean. 

But the language "not religious anymore" is more that a Public Service Announcement; it’s a story. It’s like the Trump campaign slogan "Make American Great Again". The genius is in the word "again". Without it, the slogan would be lame, vanilla, unremarkable. Or even offensive. "Are you saying it’s not great?"

But add the word "again" and suddenly you’re cooking with gas. There’s a story: America was great. Now it’s not. But we can win it back. 

The brilliance of the 2011 campaign was the word "anymore". It captures a narrative. It speaks of a story in which the West used to be religious, but now we are not. Well, most people are not. You’re not religious anymore are you?

Secularism has succeed in presenting itself as a sort of default option. A secular society is what our society will look like when all the religion is vacuumed up out of it. 

And that’s not true. Whatever else secularism is, it’s not just the absence of religion. It’s it’s own thing. It is a way of being in the word shaped by history, grounded in its own particular metaphysics, and energised by its own origin stories and its own eschatology. If we buy into its own story as the "no religion" option—just us minus the crazy, we will be relegated to nostalgic purveyor of antique religious bric-a-brac. 

The truth is we have a better story. A deeper story. A story with better metaphysics, richer origins and a better, more hopeful eschatology. And we need to learn to tell that story as an alternative, not a supplement, to secularism’s story.

Photos: Paul Saltzman (body); Bidgee, wikimedia (head)