Religious by Default

Can replacing two words in a sentence decrease religion by a third? In Australia the answer could be “yes.”

A quick background: in Australia religious education (read Christian education) is offered in government primary schools.  This is called Special Religious Education (SRE). For half an hour each week, a volunteer Christian turns up to schools to teach pre-teens Christianity.

My lovely wife sent me an article on religious education in Australia. It included the following:

Prior to August 2011, the SRI enrolment forms used by schools were “opt-out”, meaning parents had to fill in the form or their child would automatically end up being taught religion, enrolled by default.

In the past two years, however, the forms became “opt-in”, meaning parents have to make a conscious choice to enrol their child in religious education. This simple change had a massive impact on the popularity of SRI. Namely, far fewer kids are enrolled.

Emerald Primary School principal Mark Carver said before the form was changed, perhaps 75 per cent of students in a class of 24 would receive instruction.

"Last year that was dropping close to 50 per cent," Mr Carver said. "And once it gets below that, it becomes a difficult thing in terms of supervision."

Yes, you read that right. The default option on a school form changes parent’s decision to have their child religiously educated. So I whilst we don’t have the actual figures from the government, if this principal’s finding can be generalised it would mean a drop from 75% to 50% of primary school aged children learning Christianity. Since the form in the Victoria, an Australian State, was changed to opt-in in 2011 there has been a dramatic drop in the number of schools and children receiving education in government schools:

I haven’t seen the form surely the would have been something like this:

[  ] I would like to opt my child out of religious education.

Now it would have changed to something like this:

[  ] I would like to opt my child into of religious education.

Two words changed to one and suddenly the want of Australian parents to have their kids taught Christianity has a significant drop. The motivations of the parents are not so clear. It might be that parents don’t want their kids to be the odd one out. It might be that parents just don’t see the box. We really don’t know. 

But the psychological principle that leads to this change is well documented. It’s called the default effect.  This is when a default option is offered which the user will be given if they do not make an active choice for another option. The most famous example is the huge difference in the rates of organ donors between countries with an ‘opt in’ system as compared with those that have ‘presumed conscent’ when people don’t tick the opt out box:


We’ve ruminated before that the design the Australia census question on religion reads as if it’s ‘religious by default’. Whilst all the logical evidence suggests that the Australia Government should have changed this question because it’s biased by design, we don’t have the proof that it changed choice.

Whilst a change in the choice to have your children religiously educated isn’t evidence that the census question needs to be changed, it does show that changing the default option effects the behaviour of Australians when considering religion. And in this case the outcome isn’t diffuse and distant. It directly effects your child. 

But does this actually matter? So what if Australian kids lean some stories about a dude who came back from the dead? From my personal experience it does matter. My family is not religious. I know that this education caused me to believe in a Christian god, and everything associated, as fact for years. When I was about 10 I even asked my friend James, who’s dad was a baptist pastor, to give me a bible. I kept that bible until I was 16.

I also remember Jewish kid in our class was opted out by his parents. He was sent to a chair outside the principals office for the half hour that was usually ‘the naughty kids chair’. I honestly felt like he as being punished for not being Christian and that Judaism was somehow different an weird. 

Whilst I came out the other side of this education with no religious beliefs I don’t believe this is always the case. I think it plays a strong part the prevailing view that Australia remains a christian country.  On a personal level my good friend Matt calls himself ‘culturally Catholic’ and selected catholic on the census. Nothing I’ve ever seen him do shows any attachment to the religion and I know he doesn’t believe.

This is a lesson for those progressive Australians who want a move a way from religion. Rather than focus on the logical arguments, focus on some key decision points. If we move those away from being religious by default much of religion will just evolve away.

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