Religion’s place in Australia

Illustration by Matt Adams for opinion piece by Jenny Stewart - Canberra Times
Illustration by Matt Adams for opinion piece by Jenny Stewart – Canberra Times

Recently, Baroness Warsi, a Conservative Cabinet minister in Britain’s coalition government, and also a Muslim, criticised what she saw as a trend towards ‘militant secularisation’ in European society. By this, she meant that religion was being downgraded in the public sphere. Europe, she wrote, should be more comfortable in its Christianity and less timid about its religious heritage.

The Baroness’s comments followed a case brought by an atheist Councillor from Bideford Town Council in Devon in the UK, objecting to the presence of prayers on the agenda for council meetings. A High Court judge found, somewhat surprisingly as the original action had been brought under anti-discrimination legislation, that the Council’s practice contravened the Local Government Act. The Council could still hold its prayers, the Court ruled, but could no longer effectively compel attendance. An appeal, from the religious side, is contemplated.

As far as I can make out, practice varies in this country. At the beginning of each day’s work in the ACT Legislative Assembly, members are invited by the Speaker to pray or to reflect upon their responsibilities to the people of the ACT. But the federal parliament is more conservative, with the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate requesting God’s blessing and reading the Lord’s prayer at the beginning of each sitting day. At one point, the then speaker of the House of Representatives, Harry Jenkins, called the continued practice of parliamentary prayers into question. But political leaders were quick to pronounce themselves in favour of the tradition. After all, it does not impact that much on their behaviour.

The Constitution, or at least the way it has been interpreted, reflects a pragmatic attitude towards religious matters. Unlike England we have no established church, and indeed section 116 prohibits the government from legislating to do this. At the same time, there is no practical separation of church and state, as we find in the United States. This is particularly so in matters educational. We are – or have become – quite unconcerned about public funding of religious schools, provided that, as well as religious doctrine, they teach a more or less secular curriculum. As long as our right to live our lives in our own way is protected, most Australians simply do not worry about the relationship between church and state.

This attitude would no doubt horrify British atheist-in-chief Richard Dawkins. But Professor Dawkins might also reflect on the fact that when the state appears to support religion, religion does not necessarily flourish as a result. The UK and the US, which provide little public funding to religious schools are far more religious societies, at least as measured by belief in a deity, than is Australia.

Why this should be so, is a fascinating question. The founder of the Jesuits is said to have remarked ‘give me the child for seven years and I will give you the man’. On the other hand, Voltaire, the most famous anti-clericalist of his day, was educated by Jesuits.

It may be that Australian kids pay as little attention to their religious instruction as they do to their other lessons. It is also possible that, even if they do pay attention, religion-based schooling somehow inoculates the young against religion in later life. Perhaps the churches would encourage more interest in religion if they were to give up on their schools.

On the other hand, history would appear to be against them. Unlike the US, Australia was not founded by religious dissidents, but by people who had fallen foul of the state for quite different reasons. Ever since, despite the best efforts of the great and the good, we have remained a determinedly irreligious mob.

In the nineteenth century, communities went to great efforts to build churches, many of them very beautiful. But overall, in its culture and customs, Australia is not a notably religious country. Ordinary people, once they had escaped the power structures of their homeland, seem to have been quite content to settle into a secular lifestyle. Australia has that effect on you, and will continue to do so. We may inadvertently import extremists and we produce a few of our own, but few people take them seriously.

This is not to say that there is no spirituality in this country. Many of those who have given up on God would say they still believe in something beyond themselves. There are new-agers in abundance. Many environmentalists have a reverence for the earth that is quasi-religious. We flock in our thousands to hear the Dalai Lama and as a non-theistic religion, Tibetan and other forms of Buddhism attract many converts. Many people, both Aboriginal and white, care deeply for country. And helping one’s neighbour is still a real tradition in rural Australia, and in many of our towns and cities, too.

But there is no doubt that mainstream Christianity is in trouble. The late Reverend Ted Noffs said that in his view it was because Christianity had never become truly Australianised. And he may have a point. Our discomfort with religion is so ingrained it extends to a sort of embarrassment. Social researcher Hugh Mackay found his interviewees to be vague and inarticulate on the subject of God. Phillip Jensen, Dean of Sydney, tartly observed that Australians were simply not interested in the rigorous pursuit of religious questions.

So, what should the churches do? All would love to see more people come through their doors, but no matter what they do, most Australians – and in particular, most Australian men – simply sidle away again. Perhaps ministers should talk less about belief, and more about belonging. Perhaps they should not present their teachings as cut and dried. Perhaps they should say – ‘we don’t know the answers either, but we are all in this together’.
They have a good story to tell. The message of Christ is arguably too beautiful, improbable and compelling to be forgotten. As Geoffrey Blainey wrote in his wonderful A Short History of Christianity, Jesus is easily the most influential person in the history of the world. Provided they can find their own way into his ideas, people will still be thinking, talking and writing about this extraordinary man for centuries to come.

Jenny Stewart is Professor of Public Policy in the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

First appeared in the Canberra Times – click for link:


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