Exodus 101: Religious dogmatism

St Paul's Anglican Cathedral, Melbourne (Photo: Mitchell Luo)

No, I don’t mean Exodus 10:1, though ‘a plague of locusts on your house so that I might escape it’ could be relevant. I mean exodus = ‘to leave’, and 101 = ‘the most basic introductory unit of a subject stream as numbered at universities’. It’s a metaphor for “what are the basic reasons Australians are leaving religion in droves?”

I’ve discussed this subject in my research series Religiosity in Australia, penned as a Fellow of the Australian Rationalist Society. And this week, we were furnished with another example underpinning exodus 101, this time from the Anglican church.

Most Anglicans oppose VAD, don’t they?

In a piece for The Melbourne Anglican by writer Jenan Taylor, “Pro assisted dying Anglicans not in the majority”, religious dogmatism seems to be alive and well, despite plummeting numbers of Anglicans. Here are the first two sentences:

“Most Anglicans are against voluntary assisted dying despite a survey suggesting high levels of support among them, according to one Church leader.

Trinity College research professor the Reverend Canon Professor Dorothy Lee said there was always a diversity of opinion among Anglicans, but that most did not accept VAD.”

I was left astonished at this spectacular illustration of the Dunning Kruger effect: that often it is those with the least knowledge or skills in a subject who seem to have the greatest confidence in their opinions.

What’s the evidence?

For many years, repeated professional and scholarly social surveys have shown that around four in five Australian Anglicans are in favour of legalised voluntary assisted dying (VAD). I had a quick look through my records and found amongst recent studies that 79% of Anglicans supported VAD in 2016, according to the Australian National University-led Australian Election Study that year.

And VoteCompass, coordinated by scholars at the University of Melbourne alongside academics in Canada, in 2019 found 81% of Australian Anglicans favoured lawful VAD. It had a massive sample size of some 54,000 Anglicans. (Not 54,000 Australians: that was around 540,000, and in 2019 very close to 1 in 10 Australians said they were Anglican.)

And what was The Melbourne Anglican article reacting to? A just-published professional poll by The Australia Institute showing that in 2022, 82% of Anglicans support VAD. A result bang on the money relative to other recent high-quality research.

Research doesn’t always equal research

You will notice in the second sentence of the article, above, that Professor Dorothy Lee is introduced as “research professor” and her conclusion is that “most” Anglicans oppose VAD. Given this close juxtaposition, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the claim was based on something concrete.

It isn’t.

How could that be, if Lee is a “research professor”? Well, Prof. Lee’s CV doesn’t note that she’s a professor of sociology, or of quantitative social research. She’s a “research professor” of biblical narratives. The Gospels, to be particular.

I’m sure that Prof. Lee is indeed well versed in Biblical narratives, but this is no qualification for advancing a gratuitous opinion contrary to repeated high-quality research conducted by professionals and scholars with relevant expertise.

Ideological blinkers

Indeed, the article didn’t report any actual evidence to support Prof. Lee’s opinion. It’s just plonked on the page as though it’s authoritative. The only supporting material is ideological, for example that Anglicans are meant to pursue and support life at all times; that suffering can be alleviated, hypothetical slippery slopes, etc. The usual religious arguments.

Indeed, as I reveal in Part 2 of my Religiosity in Australia research series (that’s real sociological research based on robust, multiple high-quality survey data sources), the opinions of religious Australians about a range of social matters, including VAD and abortion, is quite at odds with – vastly more socially progressive than – their religious “masters”.

This is a key reason for Australians abandoning religion in droves: the laity find themselves liking dogmatic conservative stances from the pulpit less and less.

The exodus

Figure 1 shows the proportion of Australians who are Anglican, and their religious service attendance, by year. Notionals never attend services; Occasionals typically once or twice a year; Regulars monthly, and Devouts weekly or more often.

Figure 1: Proportion of Anglican Australians and their religiosity by year
Source: Australian Election Studies; Australian Bureau of Statistics. Note: The AES typically slightly over-samples Anglicans relative to Census data. Years in square brackets are the Census year, plotted against the closest AES year. Other Census points are plotted against the correct year.

Obvious is that the underlying base of Devouts has remained fairly stable over the years. But both Notionals and Occasionals have voted with their feet, and are no longer even willing to say that they’re “cultural” Anglicans. They’ve abandoned the church.

“Naughty” versus “real” Anglicans

Curiously, article author Ms Taylor asked my colleague and national coordinator of Christians Supporting Choice for Voluntary Assisted Dying, Mr Ian Wood, whether it was possible that the overall opinion of Anglicans was swayed by those who are not church-goers. Naturally, Mr Wood agreed it was a possibility.

But the very asking of the question raises a thorny issue for Ms Taylor and the Anglican church. It implies that Anglicans who don’t attend church are “lesser” Anglicans, or somehow misguided or “naughty” Anglicans. Not “real” Anglicans.

But if you say you represent Anglicans, who are you actually representing? More on that later.

Yes, opinions do vary

Prof. Dorothy Lee says there’s “a diversity of opinion among Anglicans”, while claiming most oppose VAD. So, let’s compare “naughty” with “real” Anglicans, using high-quality Australian Election Study 2019 data.

Figure 2 shows that hardly any Anglican Notionals oppose VAD (3%). Small minorities of Occasionals (13%) and Regulars (12%) also oppose VAD.

Figure 2: Attitudes of Australian Anglicans toward VAD, by religiosity
Source: Australian Election Study 2019

But even amongst Devouts (attend weekly or more often), a minority (41%) oppose VAD, and close to half (49%) think VAD should be lawful. Does this make half of Devout Anglicans “naughty” too?

To be sure, it’s important to point out that by the time the AES 2019 data set is drilled down to just Anglicans and their religiosity sub-groups, there is a somewhat higher degree of uncertainty in the exact percentages. Nevertheless, major differences are real and important.

And all of it is at odds with Prof. Lee’s contention that most Australian Anglicans (“real” or otherwise), oppose VAD.

Are the “masters” listening?

Despite this, religious “masters” within the Anglican church still strongly oppose lawful VAD with an active and hostile policy stance, recently re-confirmed.

It turns out that Prof. Lee is in fact one of those masters. She’s a member of the church’s Doctrine Commission.

And therein lies the rub. While some “masters” confidently opine that a policy consistent with their own personal view should prevail over the real views of most members, the members vote with their feet. They leave.

How is it that “masters” can be so profoundly disconnected from their flocks? It seems to suggest one or both of two things: firstly, that such folks only “hear” the views of those who agree, or secondly, that they fail to engender a communion in which people feel safe to express differences of opinion, including against “official” policy.

Good for the goose, good for the gander

If the Anglican church wants to “dismiss” the opinion of Notional Anglicans as not being “properly” Anglican, then it is equally valid for the government to reduce overall funding for Anglican schools, etc, by 42% from current levels. That’s the proportion of Anglicans who are Notionals in 2019 (Australian Election Study).

To bias the ‘measure’ of one’s base up or down purely on a desired ideological outcome is incoherent and invites derision. And unintended consequences.


By maintaining an actively hostile policy stance toward VAD, Australia’s Anglican church masters seem to suggest that their own opinions are more important than openly encouraging and seeking the real and diverse views of its congregation, and representing them.

Masters may argue that doctrinal purity is paramount. Society will counter-argue that the masters are representing fewer and fewer, recently becoming hardly any, real Australians.

Without doctrinal reform that in practice respects — not just cynically notes — a diversity of views, watch the exodus continue.

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