BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Where have all the believers gone?
, August 1, 2015
How Religion Fell Off the Radar
in Australia and What Might
Be Done to Get it Back On
by Roy Williams
ABC Books, 2015
Paperback: 416 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
“I am sick of being told that religion’s influence upon our country has been either minimal or malign,” declares Roy Williams, labelling this popular dogma “Christophobia”.
Broadly speaking, Christianity in Australia grew between settlement in 1788 and Federation in 1901, then during the 20th century began a slow decline which became more precipitous during the 1960s.
No one in the first census, in 1828, was listed as atheist. In the 1901 census, 96 per cent of Australians claimed to be Christian, and about half the population attended church regularly. By 2011, however, not only had the number identifying as Christian dropped to just over 60 per cent, but fewer than a 10th of the population (well over half of whom were women) attended church regularly, and 30 per cent had no religion.
Williams argues three theses:
1. That the role of Christianity in Australia has been widespread and mostly positive.
2. That its shrinkage in numbers and influence has been only partly attributable to its own behaviour.
3. That this collapse is worth fighting and could, in part at least, be arrested.
In “Part One: Our Religious Heritage”, he looks at Australian Christianity from 1788 until the second half of the 20th century. Contrary to popular belief, examples of genuine piety were to be found among the first convicts and military administrators, despite the description of the colony by one cleric as “the most godless place under heaven”.
Christian basis of institutions
With the later influx of free settlers, nearly all of whom had at least a nominal faith, and the consequent establishment of a European society, committed and useful Christians came also to be found among governors, politicians, judges, social reformers, businessmen, teachers, agriculturalists, scientists, writers, doctors, editors, soldiers, feminists, philanthropists and academics.
Australia was blessed to inherit the Judaeo-Christian principles contained in the British political and legal systems – but not, praise God, an established church!
Unlike America’s constitution, Australia’s acknowledges the Deity (“humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God”), but, like America’s, does not decree whether or how he should be worshipped.
Williams recognises the subtle, sophisticated spirituality of Australia’s Indigenous inhabitants, and makes no excuses for the patronising, arrogant and insensitive attitudes which too often characterised the churches’ dealings with them.
At the same time, he points out that Christians were consistently at the forefront of attempts not only to protect Aborigines from exploitation, but to understand their culture and languages.
Missionaries and other Christians also resisted, on scriptural grounds (“God … hath made of one blood all nations”), the pseudo-scientific Enlightenment theory, based on a bastard Darwinism, that Aborigines were subhumans. Williams cites surveys demonstrating that even today Christians are less prone to racism than the general populace.
So, is there evidence here that Christianity was integral to Australia’s formation as a nation?
Well, yes and no.
While it is true that a huge proportion of Australia’s men and women, until the 1960s at least, had some sort of Christian affiliation, it does not necessarily follow that it was an important – let alone the determinative – factor in their lives and actions.
After all, by the time of the First Fleet, Christianity had dominated the Western world for about one and a half millennia, that is, ever since Constantine’s edict of toleration in 313, and the decrees of Theodosius (emperor 379–95) declaring Christianity the official state religion.
It would therefore be very surprising had most Australians not belonged to some Christian denomination.
What is more, many of the figures whom Williams cites in the body of the text and the biographical appendix, while nominally Christian, appear to have had a fairly tenuous, impermanent or syncretistic connection with credal orthodoxy.
“Part Two: The Secular Juggernaut” contains some reasons for the de-Christianisation of Australia during the late 20th century.
His first, in Doctor Johnson’s famous expression, is “sheer ignorance”. Students learn little or nothing about Christianity at both state schools (religion was finally ejected from the classroom as a result of the churches’ “education wars” in the 19th century) and, increasingly, at most faith-based schools, Roman Catholic and Protestant alike.
Young people these days are far less likely to learn about the faith from family, church or Sunday School. Meanwhile, Christianity is ignored, misrepresented or traduced for them in the media and the culture at large.
Another major reason for secularisation, according to Williams, is the uncritical support of the churches for Australia’s involvement in questionable 20th-century conflicts, most notably World War I, World War II and Vietnam.
Next, the sexual revolution since the ’60s means that Christians who take their faith seriously are increasingly out of step with community attitudes towards marriage (including same-sex), cohabitation, divorce, casual sex, abortion and homosexuality.
Of course as regards sexuality, revelations of the abuse of children in religious institutions (most notably, but not exclusively, Roman Catholic) and the perceived mishandling of them by ecclesiastical authorities, have emerged as among the most powerful reasons for anti-Christian animus in our era.
Prosperity and scientism
Some reasons for secularisation are beyond the churches’ control. They include urbanisation, postmodernism and the emergence of militant, high-profile celebrity atheists. But the two most important, according to Williams, are scientism and prosperity.
Scientism is the faith that science is not only the best source of our knowledge of the natural world (a belief that the overwhelming majority of Christians share) but that it is also the ultimate authority on everything from religion and ethics to relationships and aesthetics. Scientism assumes that there is no question to which there is no scientific answer.
As regards prosperity, Australians enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world, and also one of the longest life expectancies. While this is obviously desirable, it has produced an unexamined conviction that the acquisition of money and possessions is the chief goal of existence, and that good health, a secure old age, and a long lifespan, can be taken for granted.
Prosperity has also provided a long list of distractions with which Australians can fill their non-working lives, including sports, cars, entertainment, hobbies, holidays, travel, movies, television, computers, pornography gambling and smartphones. All these products of prosperity are either incompatible with, or at least potentially inimical to, the Christian worldview.
How valid are these explanations for the burgeoning of atheism in our society? For a start, Williams’ analysis of the role of war in producing anti-Christian scepticism can be questioned.
There was certainly a bizarre conflation of religion and nationalism during World War I but, as Philip Jenkins points out in his recent The Great and Holy War: How World War I Changed Religion Forever, (reviewed in News Weekly, April 11, 2015), there was, contrary to the assertions of many historians, little apparent anti-Christian backlash in the post-1918 decades in terms of church attendance and loyalty.
Australia’s participation in World War II is still generally regarded, by believers and unbelievers alike, as a justifiable reaction by a responsible world citizen to Nazi aggression, even though it was not fought with the conscious purpose of confronting the Holocaust, and even though Japan had no intention of invading us.
To have followed an isolationist, “I’m alright, Jack” policy towards expansionist fascism would have represented a betrayal not only of Australian values and League of Nations principles, but also of the Christian imperative to help those in need instead of passing by on the other side of the road.
The Vietnam War was badly mishandled and finally untenable (I personally, despite my passionate anti-communism, demonstrated against it), but there too there was, at the beginning, a strong case for helping prevent the forcible imposition of neo-Stalinism on the South Vietnamese people by the Hanoi regime. Vietnam was certainly part of the anti-authority (and anti-Christian) cultural revolution in the West, but it is not clear whether it was a cause or a symptom.
Another problem is that in his suggestions for removing the barriers to consideration of Christianity’s claims, Williams lapses into the very scientism against which he warns. Urging the abandonment by Christians of opposition to homosexual practice, he cites “the objective findings of modern science”.
Now, science may (or may not – at least not yet) be able to demonstrate that same-sex attraction is innate and ineradicable, but it is a non sequitur to argue that “science” therefore “proves” that to follow through on desire for same-sex relations is OK. Unmarried heterosexuals have always had impulses to fornication, and married heterosexual Christians to adultery, but the mere demonstrable existence of these inclinations, and the scientific, physiological (that is, hormonal) explanation for their existence, say nothing one way or the other about the acceptability of giving way to them.
As for Williams’ claim that Scripture is obscure on the issue, the following comment by Diarmaid MacCulloch is relevant: “Despite much well-intentioned theological fancy footwork to the contrary, it is difficult to see the Bible as expressing anything else but disapproval of homosexual activity, let alone having any conception of a homosexual identity”.
MacCulloch is one of Britain’s foremost church historians. He trained for the Anglican ministry and is himself a practising homosexual.
Williams also argues that Christians would commend Christianity by adopting, tout court, the ABC/Fairfax Press line on climate change, refugees and overseas aid. This might indeed make the commentariat more tolerant of (though probably no more sympathetic towards) Christianity, but it is not a reasonable or honest suggestion. That is because there is as wide a range of defensible opinions by decent people on these three issues among Christians as there is among non-Christians.
Whatever one might think about some of his hobby horses, Williams is spot on with his central assertion: for all the faults of its adherents, Christianity has been responsible for far more good than harm in Australia’s history, and the prospect of its abandonment raises several spectres. Williams offers eugenics and infanticide as examples, and it is not difficult to think of many more.
You won’t agree with everything in this book, but buy it anyway. It deals with a vital question, provides a host of fascinating details based on passionate research, and will make you think.