Home Latest News Fewer Toowoomba residents identify as religious, according to 2021 census results

Fewer Toowoomba residents identify as religious, according to 2021 census results

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

The ultra-conservative city has long been considered the heart of Australia’s ‘Bible Belt’, but the latest census results show the city is shedding that title as fewer people consider themselves religious.

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

An elderly man with brown hair standing on a sidewalk with the street visible behind him
Toowoomba pastor Bill Whyte says he is not surprised by the results of the 2021 census.ABC South Queensland: David Chen

census results

Toowoomba has a long history with religion, stretching from its early settlement when priests held services in farms to the town’s association with Christian fundamentalist movements.

The 2021 census shows that Catholicism remains the dominant religion in the region. The number of believers remains relatively stable: 20 percent say they belong to the Catholic Church, compared to 20.7 percent in 2016.

But as in the rest of Australia, Toowoomba residents are now less and less likely to worship a God. At the last census, more than 54,000 people, or 31.7 percent, said they had no religion.

That was almost 10 percent more than in 2016.

Cultural change on the way

Religion researcher Marcus Harmes of the University of South Queensland said that for a city long dominated by conservative politics and churches, the census showed big changes were underway.

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

“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 Anglican Church in Toowoomba.By: ABC Belinda Sanders

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

“Our population is diversifying…the city now has people from a whole range of backgrounds living in it,” he said.

Generational shift in attitudes

Professor Harmes said the results also reflect changes happening at the national level.

“We have a shift in attitudes that I think is partly generations,” he said.

“For example, many churches have views on marriage equality that may not suit younger people.

Catholic Bishop Robert McGuckin said the number of believers had stabilized 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 elderly man is sitting. He wears a priestly collar and a black suit jacket.
Bishop Robert McGuckin says there has been a change in the demographics of Catholics in Toowoomba.ABC South Queensland: David Chen

Census data showed that the Philippine community was one of the major ethnic communities in Toowoomba, accounting for 0.9 percent of the population.

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

But he believed that the census did not necessarily reflect people’s spirituality.

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

Further research needed

The speed at which religion is changing has shocked University of Queensland demographer Elin Charles-Edwards.

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

“I think it warrants further investigation … the headlines are really obscuring something that could be a fundamental shift,” she said.

Inside an empty church
The number of people identifying as Christian has fallen, according to the 2021 census.Unsplash: Debby Hudson

Professor Harmes said the census was a cold, hard look at how Australian society evolved.

“I don’t think anywhere in Australia will now lay claim to (being the heart of the Bible Belt) because our census figures are that microcosm of a broader trend of shrinking 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.”

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