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Professor Simon Jackman talks religion and politics in company of Catholic professionals

Political science: Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge with Professor Simon Jackman at the Assembly for Catholic Professionals luncheon on September 19. Photos: Joe Higgins

NON-believers in Australia make up about 43 per cent of the population, according to a survey reported by Professor Simon Jackman at the Assembly of Catholic Professionals at Brisbane’s Hilton Hotel on September 19.

As this group is growing and in a country with mandatory voting, it brings political consequences.

Mr Jackman, who is the United States Studies Centre chief executive officer at the University of Sydney, discussed demographic comparisons between Australian and United States populations when it came to religiosity, political affiliation and on the topic of abortion.

His observations came from a survey USSC undertook, and did not draw on census data.

He said US Catholics were, as a group, further to the right of Australian Catholics on a left-right political axis.

“But there is one group more conservative than American Catholics and that’s American Protestants, who are way to the right of every group we identify in this set,” he said.

“Those two groups (Catholics and Protestants) in both countries are closer to one another on a left-right axis than people who profess not to have faith.”

Mr Jackman said people who did not profess a religious affiliation, or were atheist or agnostic, were quite similar to one another in the two countries.

While they didn’t make up a majority, this group in both countries were also the most populace group at 43 per cent and 33 per cent in Australia and the US respectively.

Mr Jackman said 43 per cent was “a little on the high-side” for an advanced industrial country but “totally in line with what you might see in a European country”. The US was an exception.

“United States, I used to say, is a first world economic power with the religiosity of Costa Rica,” he said.

“In terms, it used to be that you could barely crack single digits if you (didn’t) believe in God – they would 92 per cent say ‘yes’.”

That number had dropped.

Thinking hats: Edmond O’Donovan and Paul Shogren at the assembly.

Conventional wisdom tells us religion informs politics, but that is becoming less clear.

Mr Jackman said among Australian respondents he surveyed that about 58 per cent of all Australians said a woman should always be able to obtain an abortion.

That number was about 10 points lower among Catholics; 47 per cent of Catholics said a woman should always be able to obtain an abortion.

Among those of no religious affiliation or no belief in God, 74 per cent said a woman should always be able to obtain abortion.

Only seven per cent of Australian Catholic respondents said a woman should never be able to obtain an abortion.

That number was the same for Australian Protestants.

Among all Australians, the number was five per cent.

In the case of rape, incest or if the woman’s life was at risk, about 20 per cent of Catholics said the woman should be able to access an abortion. 

This number was up four points for Protestants.

Among all US populations surveyed, 42 per cent said a woman should always be able to obtain an abortion.

The talk was a sobering reminder of how wide the Church was both at home and abroad.

Mr Jackman himself was from a long line of Irish Catholics – particularly men named Thomas.

He named his son Thomas too. 

It was his great-aunt Julie, a Sister of Mercy, who taught him about his Irish Catholic heritage.

“She was a remarkable woman,” he said. 

“The reason I know as much as I do about my long Irish Catholic history is really her. 

“She took it upon herself to inform the rest of the family about those roots that reach right back to Ireland.”

There were also fond memories of her too.

“I remember those car trips fondly as a kid – the front seat would do the first half of the Hail Mary, the back seat would finish the Hail Mary,” he said.

“If it was a long trip we’d go for a whole decade.”

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