Fewer Toowoomba residents identify as religious according to 2021 census results

Pastor Bill Whyte has been answering God’s call for over 20 years in Christ-centered Toowoomba, South Queensland.

The ultra-conservative city has long been considered the heart of Australia’s “Bible Belt”, but the latest census results show the city is ignoring that title as fewer people identify as religious.

The census result came as no surprise to Mr Whyte, who has served as a minister in Queensland and South Australia.

Toowoomba pastor Bill Whyte says he was not surprised by the 2021 census results.(Southern Queensland ABCs: David Chen)

Census results

Toowoomba has a long history with religion, ranging from early settlements when priests led services on farms to the town’s association with fundamentalist Christian movements.

The 2021 census shows that Catholicism remains the dominant religion in the region. The number of faithful remains relatively stable, with 20% declaring that they belong to the Catholic Church compared to 20.7% in 2016.

But like the rest of Australia, people in Toowoomba are now less and less likely to worship a God. Over 54,000 people, or 31.7%, said they had no religion in the last census.

This is almost 10% more than in 2016.

Cultural change underway

Marcus Harmes, a religious researcher at the University of Southern Queensland, said for a city long dominated by its conservative politics and churches, the census showed big changes were afoot.

“It has always been Catholic first, followed by Anglican, with many other churches below that,” Prof Harmes said.

“Adelaide claims to be the city of churches, but I think [Toowoomba] could probably take a close second there.

An old church with a cross on the roof and arched windows
St James’s Anglican Church in Toowoomba.(By: ABC Belinda Sanders)

Professor Harmes said he believed people were more honest on their census forms, which played a part in the result but also represented a cultural shift.

“Our population is becoming more diverse…people from diverse backgrounds now live in the city,” he said.

Generational change in attitudes

Prof Harmes said the results also reflected changes taking place at national level.

“We have a change in attitude that I think is partly generational,” he said.

“Many churches may, for example, have views on marriage equality that may be out of step with young people.

Catholic Bishop Robert McGuckin said the number of worshipers had remained stable due to an influx of migrants from countries such as the Philippines.

“They are more involved in the outward practice of their faith,” he said.

An old man seated.  He wears a priest's collar and a black suit jacket.
Bishop Robert McGuckin says there has been a shift in the demographics of Catholics in Toowoomba.(Southern Queensland ABCs: David Chen)

Census data showed the Filipino community to be one of the major ethnic communities in Toowoomba, comprising 0.9% of the population.

Bishop McGuckin said the results showed the Catholic Church needed to continue to welcome more people.

But he thought the census didn’t necessarily reflect people’s spirituality.

“Just because they weren’t in church, [it doesn’t] mean they didn’t have a truly Christian attitude,” he said.

Further investigation is needed

The rate of change surrounding religion shocked University of Queensland demographer Elin Charles-Edwards.

Dr Charles-Edwards said census data did not explain what was behind the change, but it was likely a combination of people deciding not to follow a religion and an influx of migrants who did not worship a god.

“I think it deserves further investigation…the headline numbers are really obscuring something that could be some kind of fundamental shift,” she said.

Inside an empty church
The number of people identifying as Christian has dropped, the 2021 census reveals.(Unsplash: Debby Hudson)

Prof Harmes said the census was a cold, hard look at the changing face of Australian society.

“I don’t think anywhere in Australia will now claim (to be the heart of the Bible Belt) because our census figures are this microcosm of a wider trend of declining Christianity,” he said.

“But if (religion) gives meaning to your life, if it’s important to you, I don’t think these numbers will change that at all.”

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