Amid the decline of Christianity and growing atheism in Australia, some religions are growing faster than ever.
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Battling the winter chill, hundreds of worshipers gather outside Melbourne’s largest Hindu temple to celebrate the annual Chariot Festival, one of India’s biggest religious events.
Balasubramaniam Rangarajan, one of the organizers, is delighted with the participation – as president of the Shri Shiva Vishnu temple in Carrum Downs, he says he has witnessed a huge change over the past two decades.
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“When I came to Australia in 1998, there were very few [Hindu] temples,” he says.
“Now people come here from different parts of Victoria because it gives them the opportunity to visit one of the greatest temples.”
Hinduism is one of the fastest growing religions in Australia, according to the latest census data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).
It has increased by more than 55% in the last five years and is followed by 2.7% of the total population of Australia.
According to the ABS, more than 2.5 million people – about 10% of the population in 2021 – now claim to be affiliated with a minority religion.
This is an increase of 3.5% over the past 25 years.
Christianity, meanwhile, has fallen by more than 26% over the same period, although it remains the dominant religion.
Islam is the largest minority religion, accounting for 3.2% of the total population, followed by Hinduism and Buddhism (2.4%).
Sociology professor Dr Anna Halafoff says the growth of minority religions is largely due to migration.
“When it comes to so-called minority religions – Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism – the most important factor, historically as now, is certainly migration,” she says.
The growth of Hinduism follows the arrival of migrants from countries like India and Nepal.
“The temple is not just a spiritual place, it is a social network that gives new migrants the opportunity to interact with people from their own countries, backgrounds or traditions,” Rangarajan said.
“So we’re all in the same boat and encouraging them to be part of the wider multicultural society.”
Just north of the Hindu Temple, in the suburb of Springvale, is an area nicknamed “Nirvana Boulevard”.
Within a radius of 750 meters are three Buddhist temples, each belonging to a different Asian community: Chinese, Cambodian and Vietnamese.
The head monk of the Vietnamese temple, Thich Thien Tam, came to Australia as a refugee.
With help from the local community, he built the region’s first Vietnamese temple on an ancient burial site, which he says fits perfectly with the Buddhist spirit of turning ugliness into beauty.
“Just like a lotus flower is planted in the mud, smelly and dirty, and grows to stand in the sun, strong in the wind, with a beautiful fragrance,” he says.
“Here we stand on land that was once a dumping ground, where the Buddha can now bring charity, compassion, generosity and education.”
He says that while there are many Buddhist temples nearby, they all have a role to play in the community and work together to recognize major religious events like the Buddha’s birthday.
“The history of Buddhism in Australia goes back at least 170 years to the gold rush period of the 1850s when we had large numbers of Chinese immigrants who understood Chinese religion and philosophy,” explains Dr. Halafoff.
“It was often a mixture of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism.”
The introduction of the White Australia policy in 1901 saw numbers drop dramatically before starting to rise again.
“Since the abolition of the White Australia policy, and because of globalisation, large numbers of migrants continue to come from Asia, [so we’re seeing] quite a dramatic increase in the number of Buddhists in Australia.”
In the early 2000s, Buddhism was the country’s second largest religion behind Christianity.
Tu My Nguyen was a Buddhist nun for 16 years, only recently decided to become a laywoman again.
She came to Australia as an international student from Vietnam when she was a teenager and says following the religion helped her overcome initial language and study barriers.
“Everyone thinks the Buddhist temple is a peaceful place that they can visit if they have a problem, but I see it in a different way,” she says.
“It’s a place that we appreciate, because it is warm and welcoming, a place where we can find our inner peace at any time.”
After graduating as a teacher, Tu My helped set up an elementary school on the temple grounds in 2015.
“The children are beautiful. They always have a lot of positive energy, play and smile,” she says.
“They do a lot of damage, but they bring a lot of happiness. That’s why I started elementary school.”
She says it’s important to connect young people to their parents and grandparents through Buddhist practices and ways of thinking.
Next to the Vietnamese temple is the Cambodian Buddhist temple, known as Wat Khmer Melbourne.
Simon Long served as a monk at the temple for over a decade.
“I believe the way of Buddha will give you peace of mind. You can forget your worries or your death.”
With an influx of migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Bangladesh over the past five years, migration has contributed to Australia’s largest minority religion: Islam.
Almost 126,000 people who arrived in Australia between 2016 and 2021 were Muslim.
But the greatest contributor to the growth of Islam has come from Australian-born Muslims.
Rheme El-Hussein was born in Australia, but her parents were born in Lebanon and emigrated here in the 1990s.
“I’m always grateful to them for coming from the Middle East, a very war-torn and very difficult country to live in,” she says.
Now married and the mother of a daughter and another on the way, she wants more young people to better understand Islam.
“My main vision in life is to be able to teach people about Islam – Muslims are an integral part of the Australian community. There is no conflict between being a Muslim and being Australian,” she says .
Followers of Islam in Australia come from many parts of the world, including one of our closest neighbours, Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world.
Dr. Halafoff says it’s important to recognize the diversity within Islam and other religions.
“It’s something that you don’t usually talk about or learn about in school: the internal diversity in terms of religious denomination, but also of different cultural groups, because Islam is very present in Asia. “
Aileen Ma was born to a Muslim family in northwest China and came to Australia as an international student in 2003.
She is one of approximately 5,000 ethnic Chinese Muslims in Australia.
“People say, ‘Wow, are you Muslim and Chinese? You’re the first one I know,'” she said.
“That’s good, but it’s getting tiring to explain.”
She says Australia has much to be proud of.
“I am happy to see the Muslim community growing in Australia and to see so much cultural and religious diversity.”
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