BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
LOSING MY RELIGION: Unbelief in Australia, by Tom Frame
, February 6, 2010
The atheism of distraction
LOSING MY RELIGION:
Unbelief in Australia
by Tom Frame
(Sydney: UNSW Press)
Paperback: 352 pages
Rec. price: $34.95
Reviewed by Bill James
Tom Frame, an Anglican, is a former bishop to the Australian Defence Force, and is currently professor of theology at Charles Sturt University.
His personal theology comes across as conventional and orthodox - not identifiably high, evangelical, liberal, or wishy-washy and nominal.
There are a number of books on Australia dealing with religion in general, Christianity in general, and more specific themes such as Roman Catholicism and evangelicalism. Frame's book is their mirror image.
Today, broadly speaking, about 64 per cent of Australians profess Christianity (although only about 10 per cent attend church regularly), 5 per cent belong to other religions, and about 30 per cent fall into the categories of no religion (19 per cent) or decline to answer (11 per cent).
Frame is concerned to describe and analyse the rise and fall of Christianity in Australian history - or rather, conversely, the fall and rise of unbelief - in order to explain these current statistics.
Christianity did not get off to a very auspicious start in the 1788 penal colony, but grew steadily during the 19th century despite the contempt of most convicts, the indifference of many free settlers, and the hostility of the few, but influential, doctrinaire infidels.
By about 1900, just before Federation, Christianity reached its peak of influence.
Regular church attendance rates in some colonies, such as Victoria and South Australia, were at 40 per cent or more, representing two-thirds of all the population over 14.
In the 20th century, religious observance declined very gradually until after World War II.
It then plateaued out and showed signs of revival in the 1950s, before finally going into a precipitous fall in the '60s, which continues today.
Having charted the history of unbelief in Australia, and the most recent statistics concerning its prevalence, Frame goes on to look at some of its causes and manifestations.
Among the causes are the usual "village atheist", "precocious schoolboy" and "bar-room bore" staples.
These include religion's alleged incompatibility with science; its supposed role in most of history's injustices and atrocities; and the claims of psychology and anthropology that it is merely an illusory projection, a crutch for the weak, and an explanation, for the ignorant, of natural phenomena.
Frame also surveys the writings of current global celebrity atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, and home-grown representatives such as Phillip Adams and Terry Lane.
Despite its current high media profile, outright atheism remains very much a minority position.
Australians are spread along a sort of bell-curve spectrum, with a few passionate religious believers (Christian and otherwise) at one extreme, a few militant, hardline anti-theists at the other, and the great majority, who hold to some sort of belief with varying degrees of confidence, in the middle.
The great value of Frame's book lies in his subtle and nuanced attempt to tease out the variety of religious, non-religious and anti-religious outlooks that exist in Australia, and the often less-than-obvious reasons for them.
Some Australians can't believe, some believe with doubts, some profess a vague syncretism or generic "spirituality", some are agnostics ... and so on.
The reasons why they no longer straightforwardly adhere to the Christian faith, which was held uncritically by all but a tiny minority of their ancestors who came to this country, are often vague, amorphous and nebulous.
They include the health, safety and security most of us enjoy today; the meaning and satisfaction offered by work, family, sports, hobbies and hedonistic consumerism; the confused messages emanating from liberal mainstream churches; and an awareness of the huge variety of belief systems on offer (are any, all, or some of them right?).
Frame discerns signs of the encroachment of a belligerent, authoritarian, fundamentalist secularism on Australia's easy-going tolerance of religious diversity.
It is driven partly by panic over the emergence of a (completely illusory) burgeoning "Religious Right", and ignores the reality that the most powerful religious political influence in Australia, such as it is, is left-wing, and emanates from sections of Australian Christianity's three largest blocs - Catholic, Anglican and Uniting.
He concludes with a plea for an inclusive pluralism in which the religious of all persuasions, like the many varieties of unbelief, are allowed a voice, and given a respectful hearing, in the public square.