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Several articles address the historical human relationship to plants, not so much in terms of plant utility but more through changes in attitudes and beliefs, and therefore shifts in plant meaning. This article on plant lore introduces the world of animistic beliefs of prehistory, Natura, when humans as hunter-gatherers were a part of nature itself, existing within nature, essentially as they had evolved from it. As communities grew, human environments were more man-made, hierarchies developed, writing emerged, and culture began to dominate nature – so the narratives of belief changed.  Former animistic beliefs were now married to accounts of deities that populated spiritual but more human-like worlds, the deities, heroic sagas, and legends of Agraria. This system of belief reached its zenith in the rich recorded narrative of Greek mythology, outlined in a separate article for its insights into the changing human experience of plants. As cities expanded, the spirits of animism were lost, replaced by a polytheistic world of many gods, and eventually the monotheism of the Abrahamic religions.


Religious belief was, until recent times, by far the strongest influence on most peoples’ lives and behaviour.

Monotheismbelief in one god identified a single god and, through a sacred text, revealed god’s teachings on the Creation, human conduct, the spiritual world, life after death, and the future of humanity. Religion was the medium for social rites of passage, and it underpinned the education system.

Historical background

The unlikely adoption of Christianity began in the Middle East with Jesus of Nazareth, later revealed as the son of god. The teachings of Jesus were later compiled into a sacred text, the Bible which, like the Talmud of Judaism, recorded an oppressed and marginalized people on the fringes of a powerful empire. The early Old Testament describes Jewish nomadic tribes persecuted by the polytheistic Babylon, while the New Testament gives an account of similar people, now Christians, persecuted under Rome, their leader Jesus crucified for his beliefs. The Christian mission was continued by Jesus’s followers (disciples), the most influential being the apostle Paul, who was a Greek-educated orthodox Jew and one-time Roman soldier. Paul travelled widely delivering the Christian gospel, but was eventually arrested by the Roman authorities. The New Testament has fourteen epistles (letters) attributed to Paul, and it is the ideas discussed in these that have had a great influence on the West.

Initial Roman indifference to Christianity was followed by antagonism but took an unusual turn several centuries after Jesus’s death when Emperor Constantine I (c. 272–337 CE) adopted the new religion. With the Edict of Milan in 313 CE Christians were to be treated with respect, and by 325 CE Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman empire. In 330 CE Constantine created an eastern or Byzantine Roman Empire by transferring the capital from Rome to Byzantium (renamed Constantinople after himself). Constantine also instigated the provision of a doctrinal statement of correct belief or orthodoxy, the Nicene Creed, first written in 325 CE and amended in 381 CE. Though, by 476 CE, the western Roman Empire had fallen, the legacy of Christianity flourished, spreading through Europe (Christendom), not least of its legacy being the Christian calendar which dates the origin of Judaism to a covenant between god and Abraham in 1812 BCE, Christianity to the birth of Jesus in the year 0, and Islam to the prophet Mohammed’s teachings in the Quran beginning around 610 CE.

Christianity, like Judaism and Islam, was a semitic faith that claimed descent from the Judaism of ancient Israelites and worship of the God of Abraham.

Christianity and other monotheistic religions cleared away the complexities and confusion resulting from polytheism and animistic beliefs. Romans had, for example, absorbed the gods of conquered peoples into a vast pantheon deities.

Whenever religious belief encompasses a substantial part of the population then religion must become incorporated into the general system of public administration. In some societies religion is the single factor around which life revolves including codes of behaviour and systems of law which are regarded as extensions of religious doctrine.


Religion map

Map of the religions of the World
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons LilTeK21 Accessed 14 July 2017

Religion & politics

In the West the relationship between the Church and the State has been at the centre of historical social conflict. In Britain the religious upheavals the Reformation and Counter-Reformation suggested a cautious approach would dampen potential conflict. The French and American Revolutions were in part a reaction against absolute monarchy with the king perceived as ruling through divine right. With the uncertainties associated with revolution and the desire for social order, religious fervour was tempered. English maritime explorers in the Age of Enlightenment, for example, did not displayed the Catholic religious zeal of the earlier Spanish and Portuguese.

But there were new religious stirrings in early 18th century Britain. Natural theology and ‘Deism’ maintained that science was revealing the order of the world that had been placed there by God. Design eident in nature and God-given reason were sufficient to demonstrate God’s presence without the need for revelation, miracles, and a literal interpretation of the gospels. God, it was thought, revealed Himself through the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature. Enlightenment thinking had opened up the possibility that humanity could improve and progress rather than being permanently mired in original sin. For many people these new ideas undermined traditional religious belief. In addition there was a gathering perception that the Industrial Revolution had produced a moral decline in the cities with increased drunkenness and gambling, not to mention an indifference to social injustices like poverty and its associated social problems. A key figure in the new movement was anti-slavery advocate William Wilberforce. It was an Evangelical Revival that involved all religious denominations and strata of society.[2]

All-in-all though, for Australia, George III was a devout Christian and since religion and civilization were still inseparable, strict religious observance was the path to moral improvement for the convicts, and missionaries were the way forward for the Aboriginal population.

There was resistance. Religion was seen as a means of subjugation by imposing order and therefore it often met with passive resistance, one sign of this being the desperation of those put in charge of religious affairs. Richard Johnson, a Wesleyan Anglican, was the only clergyman in early Sydney. He arrived with the First Fleet giving his first sermon to marines and convicts in the open air on Sunday 3 February 1788 baptising a child on one of the ships the same day. But his 12 years at Sydney were not happy as he consoled those about to be hanged and performed the occasional marriage while most couples preferred to forego the marriage ceremony. He proved a good farmer at Canterbury Vale, his wife caring for an Aboriginal woman their own daughter being christened with an Aboriginal name. Partly at his own expense he built a thatched church that would hold a congregation of 600 people but attendance was small and vandals burned it down after four years.(Blainey, 2015, pp. 361-362) In 1789 Johnson wrote in his diary … they seem to grow more and more abandoned … one sold his Bible for a glass of liquor; others tear them up for waste paper; – this discourages me greatly[3] Macarthur is on record as stating that the only use of religion was for political purposes.[4] Macquarie supported religion as a means of maintaining social decorum and was, himself, a Mason which was most populatr among the military although Lodges had been refused in NSW in 1796 and 1803 while being accepted on Norfolk Island in 1800.[5]

Most of the early governors were Anglicans although Charles La Trobe was an evangelical Moravian, the Church of England being the official church even if it was not well established. For several decades it was funded by the British government.

In the first few decades of the colony challenges came in dealing with religious pluralism and the separation of church and state. As Protestant offshoots (‘Dissenters’) emerged and gained support there was debate about what constituted the Established Church and which therefore could claim state assistance and support. In 1836 the Church Act was initiated by Governor Burke as a state provision to subsidise clerical salaries and Church construction, as well as land grants for both Churches and schools. Though applying initially to only Anglican, Catholic and Presbyterian Churches it was soon available to other denominations as well.

Sectarian religion in a new country

Much of the religious dialogue in Australian history relates to Catholics and Protestants.
Catholic/Protestant differences were evident from first settlement as about a tenth of the convicts were Catholic, the Irish convicts, many transported for political rebellion. They were forced to attend the Church of England services and their children to adopt the Anglican faith. Catholicism remained a point of social animosity and suspicion, reflecting tensions between the English and Irish back home. Only in 1819 were two Irish priests appointed and paid by the British government supported by Governor Macquarie who donated 20 guineas towards a catholic church in Sydney and laying its foundation stone, also supporting Wesleyans and their first church at Parramatta.(Blainey, 2015, p. 363)

The splitting of Protestants from Catholics, the Protestant Reformation, had begun in 1517 when German monk Martin Luther (who famously nailed his objections, the ‘ninety-five theses’, to a church door), French theologian John Calvin and others ‘protested’ the doctrines, formal church procedures, and ecclesiastical structure of the Roman Catholic Church. The outcome of this dissention was that Europe became religiously divided on more or less geographic lines. Northern Europe became Protestant (with the exception of Ireland, the Netherlands and a few regions of Britain), southern Europe remained Catholic, and central Europe became the site of religious wars that persisted for over 100 years, ending with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.

Though Christianity was a shared faith of profound social importance it contained within it major social divisions based along denominational lines. The major branches of the faith in Australia, as in Britain, were: Roman Catholic, Anglican (Church of England), Pentecostal and Protestant (a category that sometimes encompasses Anglicanism).

Roman Catholicism was based around the central authority of the Pope and Vatican in Rome but there was no similar authority for Protestantism which was divided, but of much less social consequence, into doctrinal sects, perhaps the best known being the Adventists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Evangelicals, Lutherans, Methodists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Reformed Church, and Unitarians (the method of categorizing these varies).

Religious sectarian groups have been associated with certain geographic regions of Australia: Prussian Lutherans in the Barossa Valley of South Australia and parts of Queensland; Methodists in South Australia; Presbyterian, Congregationalist and Baptist churches at Sevenhill, in the newly established colony of South Australia in 1848; Austrian Jesuits founding missions and schools.

Eventually the ideal of a Christian civilization promoted through a union of Church and State was abandoned in the face of ever more demands from Dissenters, Catholics, the Jewish community and concerns about religious freedom and individual rights. State support for religion was abolished in 1863.

State schools

Australian religious affiliation over time
ABS 1266.0 – Australian Standard Classification of Religious Groups, 2016

Apart from the curriculum of reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography there was dissent over the brand of religion that was to oversee this process as true wisdom was seen to emanate from religious teachings and the bible. Early convict cynicism was overcome and towards the mid nineteenth century both schools and churches were an integral part of urban and rural community.

In 1880 state aid for church schools was withdrawn, a move that was strongly resisted by the Catholic Church which invested heavily in what amounted to an alternative education system, which included not only schools but convents and charitable institutions, the teachers being mostly nuns, priests and other members of the church. Also from the 1880s there was the Salvation Army (‘Salvos’) founded in 1865 as a support for the poor of London’s East End slums. Nowadays church schools range from elite expensive schools (Wesley, Scotch, Xavier, Melbourne Grammar, Presbyterian Ladies College etc.) to small low-fee schools. In a 2006, after government schools the Catholic system included 650,000 students (21% secondary school enrolments) and at primary, secondary and tertiary levels (the Australian Catholic University opened in 1991); Anglican schools 105,000 children (145 schools),Uniting Church about 48 schools, Seventh-day Adventist Church 48 schools.[1]


Migration patterns following the demise of the White Australia Policy after World War II further altered the religious mix including growth in the number of Catholics (largely from Italian migration) and Jews (Holocaust survivors). After the 1970s immigrants from South-East Asia and the Middle East have included Buddhists and Muslims. In the 1970s, the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches in Australia combined to form the Uniting Church renowned for its welfare programs and in the 1986 Census for the first time Anglicanism was supplanted by Catholicism as the majority denomination religion.

In 2011 61% of Australians marked themselves as Christian (25% Roman Catholic, 17% Anglican, 5% Uniting Church).

Plant commentary & sustainability analysis

Religion has been a key driving force in peoples’ lives even though this may be only as an undercurrent to the social affairs of many individuals. Religion was the medium for social rites of passage and, above all, it underpinned the education system.

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Sectarian religion in Australia

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Media Gallery

Spread of Buddhism

Costas Melas – 2020 – 4:21

World Religions Ranking – Population Growth by Religion (1800-2100)

Global Stats – 2019 – 6:14

Christianity in Europe (30-2019)

Costas Melas – 2019 – 8:28

The Spread of Christianity: Part 1 (30-1000)

Ollie Bye – 2016 – 4:32

Animated map shows how Christianity spread around the world

Business Insider – 2015 – 1:51


First published on the internet – 1 March 2019


Map of the religions of the World
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Religion map
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