Is Australia losing its religion?

Michael Hogan, The University of Sydney

Tom Frame Losing My Religion: Unbelief in Australia, Sydney, UNSW Press, 2009 (337 pp). ISBN 9-78192141-019-2 (paperback) RRP $34.95.

Over the last ten years or so religion has been getting a fairly bad press in Australia. A large part of that has to be blamed on prominent churchmen (yes, men; churchwomen have much less to answer for here) who have turned a blind eye to abuses of the clergy against children and women, and who have promoted intolerant social attitudes on sexuality in general and gays in particular. However, perhaps more remarkable is that religion in general has been getting very extensive press coverage. Religion is news, as a flood of recent books suggests. About thirty years ago I wrote The Sectarian Strand (1987) trying to make an argument, difficult for that era, that commentators should take religion seriously as a factor in Australian history and politics. There would be no need for such an argument now.

In this latest book, Tom Frame suggests, correctly I think, that the impetus for the surge of interest in religion worldwide was the terrorist attack in New York now known simply as ‘9/11’. The scrutiny of religious fanaticism following that event has expanded to become a set of arguments about God, religion and churches. A number of authors have waged frontal attacks on God and religion that have put many religious people on the defensive. Richard Dawkins led the pack with his book The God Delusion (2006), while Christopher Hitchens contributed God is Not Great (2007). These books argue that belief in God is not merely against all reason and evidence, but is positively harmful to tolerance in society. Along with the flurry of anti-religion tracts by international authors like Sam Harris (2004), Daniel Dennett (2006), Anthony Grayling (2007), and Michael Onfray (2007), these books have spawned numerous television debates and dinner party arguments, as well as a set of rejoinders from defenders of God and religion. Meanwhile, just in Australia, the Howard Government (1996–2007) highlighted its religious credentials, while Kevin Rudd has not hidden his religious beliefs, prompting commentaries by Judith Brett (2003), Marion Maddox (2005), Amanda Lohrey (2006), John Warhurst (2007) and Anna Crabb (2009) along with journalistic contributions too numerous to mention.

This debate has revealed a central paradox that is likely to keep the arguments bubbling away. It comes from the mainstream secularist argument (based on Enlightenment ideas) that the more modern, economically developed and technological a society becomes, then the more religion will fade away. It is easy to marshal evidence to support the thesis from most European nations, as also from the Australian experience, but how does one deal with the United States, where the most modern, developed and technological society continues to be determinedly religious? Or can the argument be turned on its head—as we advance into the 21st century, are formerly materialistic societies like Australia facing a religious revival of hand-clapping religious enthusiasm from populist movements like Sydney’s Hillsong? And what of the increasing stridency of Christian fundamentalists trying to replace evolutionary theory in schools with ‘intelligent design’ explanations for biology?

Over the last ten years or so religion has been getting a fairly bad press in Australia.

This is the context for the book. It is not primarily a defence of God or religion, although Anglican Bishop Frame makes no secret of where he stands on those issues. Rather, true to its subtitle, the book is an attempt to understand the phenomenon of ‘unbelief in Australia’. Perhaps that should be in the plural—phenomena—because Frame takes pains to point out the variety of non-religious stances in Australia. There are atheists, agnostics, rationalists, secularists, deists, and a large minority of Australians who just don’t care very much either way even if they recognise a family religious tradition.

This would be a useful book for any university course on religion and politics or related subjects. There are very detailed chapters reviewing the history of debate about evolutionary theory (like most informed churchmen, Frame accepts evolution as the best biological explanation and sees no conflict with religious belief), critically examining the classic philosophical arguments for the existence of God (which Frame finds unconvincing on their own), tracing the responses of theologians to the challenges of science over time, and interpreting Census data about religion in Australia. The author is determined to cover the ground, even if the book of over 300 pages would be more readable at 200.

Frame’s central argument is about the nature of a secular society, and the relevance of the concept to Australia. He rejects the notion that Australia has to be considered as a Christian society, and is quite happy with a secular state, as long as that means that the state is neutral in the face of different kinds of belief and unbelief. His stance is firmly pluralist, insisting that diversity of belief and unbelief is positive, but demanding attention to the crucial pluralist virtue of tolerance for the ideas and values of others. With regard to unbelief he makes a distinction between most forms of unbelief (which do tolerate variety) and what he calls the ‘anti-theism’ of authors like Dawkins and Hitchens, who want to destroy belief in God and to put an end to religion. So he writes with some approval of Australian secularist broadcasters like Phillip Adams and Terry Lane, while he is much more critical of the Melbourne philosopher, Tamas Pataki (2007). In fact, he reserves his most caustic asides for Christian authors who have embraced the ‘God is dead’ movement, and who, like his fellow Episcopalian bishop, John Selby Spong (2008), preach a humanised and de-institutionalised Christianity.

Bishop Frame’s book is not primarily a defence of God or religion.

While the central theme of the book is belief or lack of belief in God, rather than the role of churches, any discussion of ‘losing my religion’ should pay greater attention to the parlous condition of the mainstream churches in Australia. In recent decades Census data have traced the declining proportion of adherents to all the mainstream Christian churches. Most churches have found that recruitment to the clergy has plummeted. Most churches have dwindling, and ageing, congregations. More Australians are now using secular, rather than religious, marriage and funeral celebrants. Governments occasionally listen to church leaders—whether on conservative issues like marriage or when more liberally supporting refugees—but only when it suits the policies of the government in question. Why have the mainstream Christian churches been in decline? Has it been primarily a decline of belief, in which case it should be central to Frame’s argument? Or is the explanation more directly related to institutional matters of the churches themselves? If churches are the custodians of belief, as has always been the argument of church leaders, then the two questions are intimately related.

For example, Frame makes almost no mention of the issue of child abuse that has so shattered the image of churches in many developed nations like Australia, Ireland, Canada and the United States. Yet, if anything has affected belief and unbelief over the last twenty years, surely it has been the stream of headlines about clergy misconduct. It is not just sexual abuse; physical abuse is also a closely related issue. As the Rudd Government offers an apology to the forgotten generations of children in orphanages and other institutions of state care (Rudd 2009), the spotlight is once again shone on the religious schools and hostels run by brothers, nuns and church organisations, along with those places run by the state itself, whose inhumanity needs to be acknowledged.

There is also the deep problem about the attitude of churches to sexuality that Frame effectively sidelines. He mentions David Marr’s attack on Australian religion (1999) which has that theme at its heart, but sees Marr as just another negative secular author. Of Australian churchmen, only Catholic bishop Geoffrey Robinson has confronted the issue head-on in his book Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church (2007), which takes the issue of child abuse as an opportunity to ask more general questions about church leadership on sexuality in general.

Frame is unhappy with all forms of fundamentalism.

Ask any Australian on the street about his or her attitude to religion, and these themes will be foremost. A recent survey (Bean 2005, p. 131) found that only 35 per cent of Australians had ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot of confidence’ in churches or religious institutions, compared with 82 per cent in the armed services. Sadly, and I say this as someone sympathetic to the role of churches in society, the abbreviated test of authentic belief for most churches has little to do with belief in God, but has come to be associated with adherence to repressive sexual values.

Frame’s greatest assets (other than some impressive scholarship) are his moderation and common sense. He is unhappy with all forms of fundamentalism—Christian, Muslim or anti-theist—and wants Christian leaders to get on with the job of proclaiming the values of Jesus to believers and unbelievers. The main fault of the book is related to these assets—the fairness of the commentary and the demands of its scholarship make it quite a difficult and dense read.

And, is Australia losing its religion? Most of the evidence suggests that Australians have never been particularly religious, although, in the past, sectarian rivalries have been important in politics and business. Frame typifies us as indifferent, or, in a curious use of the word, ‘disinterested’, suggesting that Australians suspend belief and accept both believers and unbelievers. Many claim to be vaguely ‘religious’, even while they have little contact with the churches. However, to be ‘religious’ in modern Australia can mean scarcely more than always following one’s star sign, or finding spiritual energy by climbing the Kokoda Track. Yet, neither is there any evidence of a religious revival in conventional terms—merely a redistribution of enthusiasm from the older churches to the newer sect-like organisations such as Hillsong. There are suggestions throughout the book that are never strongly developed, hinting that the crucial questions may not be about belief or unbelief, but rather about our feelings of what kind of community or communities we want to belong to.

REFERENCES

Bean, C. 2005, ‘Is there a crisis of trust in Australia?’ in Australian Social Attitudes: The First Report, eds S. Wilson, G. Meagher, R. Gibson, D. Denemark & M. Western, UNSW Press, Sydney.

Brett, J. 2003, Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class: From Alfred Deakin to John Howard, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne.

Crabb, A. 2009, ‘Invoking religion in Australian Politics’, Australian Journal of Political Science, vol. 44, no. 2, pp. 259–279.

Dawkins, R. 2006, The God Delusion, Bantam Books, London.

Dennett, D. 2006, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Viking, New York.

Grayling, A. 2007, Against All Gods: Six Polemics on Religion and an Essay on Kindness, Oberon, London.

Harris, S. 2004, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, W.W. Norton, New York.

Hitchens, C. 2007, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Hachette, London.

Hogan, M. 1987, The Sectarian Strand: Religion in Australian History, Penguin, Ringwood, Victoria.

Lohrey, A. 2006, ‘Voting for Jesus: Christianity and politics in Australia’, Quarterly Essay 22, pp. 1–79.

Maddox, M. 2005, God Under Howard: The Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW.

Marr, D. 2000, The High Price of Heaven, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW.

Onfray, M. 2007, The Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism and Islam, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

Pataki, T. 2007, Against Religion, Scribe, Melbourne.

Robinson, G. 2007, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus, John Garrett, Melbourne.

Rudd, K. 2009, Transcript of address at the apology to the Forgotten Australians and former child migrants, Great Hall, Parliament House, Canberra, 16 November [Online], Available: http://www.pm.gov.au/node/6321 [2009, Nov 18].

Spong, J.S. 2008, Jesus for the Non-Religious: Recovering the Divine at the Heart of the Human, Harper Collins, Pymble, NSW.

Warhurst, J. 2007, ‘Religion and politics in the Howard decade’, Australian Journal of Political Science, vol. 42, no. 1, pp. 19–32.

Michael Hogan taught for many years in the Department of Government, University of Sydney until his retirement in 1997. He remains an Honorary Associate in the Department. His recent books include Local Labor: A History of the Labor Party in Glebe, 1891–2003, (Federation Press, 2004) and four co-edited volumes of The Peoples’ Choice (Federation Press, 2001, 2007) on electoral politics in New South Wales.

View other articles by Michael Hogan: