Australia: a nation in debt to God

Extract from Roy Williams’ new book Post God Nation?

Assessing the place of religion in Australia, now and in the past, is far more than a matter of head-counting. It requires an analysis of the impact of the churches, and of individual believers, upon the course of Australian history and the character of our society. My core argument in Part One is that this impact has been profound. Before embarking on the research for this book, I did not fully realise just how great that impact has been. I now share the view of Geoffrey Blainey that the Christian churches did “more than any other institution, public or private, to civilise Australians.”

Even as I write that last sentence I can anticipate the cries of dissent. What about the Graeco-Romans? Or the Enlightenment? What about science? Or liberal capitalism – Adam Smith’s benevolent “invisible hand”? Or the ALP? I acknowledge the roles played by all these forces and institutions, but I will stick to my thesis. Almost everything goes back to Judaeo-Christianity.

One theme will, I hope, emerge clearly: the key role played in Australian history by outstanding individuals of religious faith. I refer not merely to men and women of the churches (priests, nuns, ministers and so on), but to lay citizens in almost every field of endeavour. Although it is unfashionable to say so, I admit to being attracted by the Great Man (or Great Woman) theory of history. In the words of Thomas Carlyle, the main populariser of this theory in the mid-nineteenth century: “There needs not a great soul to make a hero; there needs a god-created soul which will be true to its origin.”

An astonishing number of distinguished figures in Australian history since 1788 have been people for whom faith was a major motivating force. They have had a sense of mission, and they have acted on it, in such disparate fields as politics, law, exploration, business, science, journalism, trade unionism, the arts, architecture, engineering and education. The point applies equally to Christians and Jews. And – a significant fact – they have come disproportionately from the upper levels of society.

This was also the position in the first century: Christianity was started from the top down. In my researching, I found it remarkable how often a famous lay Australian turned out to have been the son of a clergyman.

Here I should make a confession. I have said that this book is not one of Christian apologetics. So it is not – except in one incidental respect. In detailing the achievements of religious believers throughout Australian history, I am employing a variant of one of the lesser-known arguments for the existence of God: the argument e consensu gentium. Broadly, this is the notion that, because religious belief has been so ubiquitous a phenomenon throughout human history, especially among people who changed the world for the better, there must be something in it.

For those interested in knowing more about particular Great Men or Great Women who are mentioned in the text, especially regarding their religious lives, I have included further biographical detail about many of them in Appendix A at the back of the book.

The decline of religious belief in Australia has been partly the churches’ own fault, and partly the result of forces beyond their control. Please do not think that this book will be a glowing, unqualified tribute to the Australian churches. As institutions, they have a lot to answer for. In at least one instance in the late twentieth century – some readers may think this is the elephant in the room – they behaved quite indefensibly. I refer to the dire history of sexual abuse of children by clergymen and the cover-up of their crimes by men in authority. This horror has not been confined to the churches; it happened in secular institutions too. But it has been most prevalent in the Catholic Church, and it has affected many Protestant denominations as well. The scandal is impossible to ignore and hard to explain. It has provided secularists with powerful ammunition, but I will argue that it does not account for secularisation. And while it is relevant to some of the ultimate metaphysical issues (how could a loving God allow such evil?), it is not ultimately determinative of them. (Those questions belong to a field of intellectual discourse called theodicy.)

In this book I look at the major mistakes and misdeeds of which the churches have been accused down the years – including those identified by Elizabeth Farrelly’s baby-boomer friends (“arrogant, sexist, racist and monomaniacal”). In certain cases the allegations are unjust or misconceived; Indigenous relations is a striking example. I will try to explain, if not always defend, the churches’ stances down the years on now-unfashionable issues: abortion, temperance, Sabbath keeping, divorce, drug use, and gambling, among others. While these stances have often been unpopular, even in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they were largely well motivated. In several respects, the churches’ worst fears have been realised in ways that most fair-minded Australians today would, or should, be prepared to acknowledge. There was good sense in much of the churches’ social conservatism.

The churches’ most calamitous mistakes, I shall argue, were in the fields of education policy (schools) and foreign policy (war). They have also, at times, overdone wowserism. But it is necessary to distinguish between mistakes and misdeeds that have been operating causes of secularisation, and those that have had a neutral (or even positive) effect on levels of religious belief. Of course, to some extent these will be value judgments; I do not expect all readers to agree with me. My other argument is that two of the key factors in the decline of religion – the rise of scientism, and unprecedented material prosperity – cannot be sheeted home to the churches. Nevertheless, they are factors that the churches must find a way of overcoming.

Religion is worth saving, and there are ways that this might be done. It is difficult to imagine an entirely secular Australia. I agree with Tom Frame that “those without religious belief do not have a clearly articulated vision of what a godless world will be like.” Most of them, I expect, imagine an Australia much as it is now, but without the pesky presence of churches and God-botherers. Holidays such as Christmas and Easter would be abolished or renamed. The churches would be disbanded. All remaining church property would be sold off, and all schools, hospitals and charities currently administered by the churches would be taken over by the government, or privatised.

But beyond that, what? If a rampant free market is not the answer, other historical precedents – the Soviet Union, Communist China – are incomparably worse. Of course, most secularists are not advocating political dictatorship. But they seem unable to acknowledge that liberal democracy and the rule of law (among many other things) are products of Judaeo-Christianity. If that historical foundation were taken away, what would be left to underpin our institutions and motivate many of our most idealistic citizens?

Roy Williams is the award winning author of In God They Trust?

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Listen to Roy Williams discuss his new book with Centre For Public Christianity

In Australia in the 1901 census, 96% of people identified as Christian and half of all adults regularly attended church. Little more than a century later, 61% of the population describe themselves as Christian, but only about 8% of people regularly attend worship services. Does this make Australia a “post-Christian” nation? And if so, what are the consequences of that shift?

Roy Williams’ talks to Life and Faith about his latest book, Post-God Nation: How religion fell off the radar in Australia – and what might be done to get it back on, and explains why religion is no longer socially significant, why losing sight of the contributions Christianity has made to Australian society matters, and what the future of faith – both public and private – might look like. Listen now…