Sunday, 14 February 2010

Australia is Losing its Religion

Of all the books that I read over my holiday this one was the biggest and most researched (well it had lots of footnotes). Tom Frame looked at the state Australian's belief from the first fleet to present day. Tom admits that it is a hard task for measure belief. He looked at religion in the framework of believing, behaving and belonging. People who want to belong together, start behaving like each other and end up believing the same. Likewise, people who believe the same generally behave the same and have a sense of belonging to people who share their beliefs. Also some people believe that if they behave a certain way then then must belong to a certain religion.

For some reason I assumed Australia started out as a "Christian nation" (whatever that means anyway), but like the current difference between census data of people who say they are Christian to those Christians that actually attend church weekly, it seems that Australia has always been like that. For example (and there are quite a few in the book) in Brisbane in 1907 it had 354 244 people of which about 131 000 people said they were Anglican and although the combined seating of all Anglican churches in that diocese could seat 23 145 people they actually only had a regular attendance of about 15 000. Australian's for some reason identified themselves with a religion, but would not actively take part in it.

Before 1901 the settlers were so spread out and working hard seven days a week on their farms it seems that it was difficult to gather such a spread of busy people to one location. Some people in the outback would have to travel for days to see a minister to get married or to confirm their child, as there was no clergy in their area. It seems religion only just got into the commonwealth's Preamble with a reference to God and religion was only mentioned in section 116 of the constitution to avoid having the one Established religion for the country.

Based off census results it seems that the heyday for belief in Australia was around the 1950's, but Tom wonders if this was a result of the increased of immigrants into the country and their continuing to meet together as a community was more about belonging than believing. Perhaps it was a bit of both.

Tom also looked at how the census question of religion had changed over time and how possibly because of the way the question was asked it impacted the results. The religious question was always an option on the census form, but that was stated at the beginning of the survey, until 1933 where it was explicitly stated right next to the question. This made a jump from 2% of people not answering the question to 12.8% of people leaving it out. Also at that time there was just a line for people to write their religion out and only 0.3% of people were bothered to write they had "no religion". There was a big jump of "no religion" of 3.6% in 1967 to 25.1% in 1979 which may have something to do with how the question was asked. The question change from asking what religion they belonged to, to asking what religion they associated with.

In 1991 the census introduced check boxes for people to fill in and clearly stated next to it that the question was optional and specifically stated that if you had no religion to fill in the "no religion" box. Surprisingly Australians who marked "no religion" was just 12.9%. From the next 10 years the "no religion" number hovered around the 15% mark, but Tom notes that there were also small numbers of people labeling themselves agnostics, humanists and rationalists. In 2001 76 000 people also called themselves Jedi, and Tom notes that the "no religion" category for 2001 would have increased if they actually marked "no religion" on the survey.

Tom then moves onto part two of his book where he tried to look for some causes for the decline of belief in Australia. He looks at other world views and the impact of astronomy and biology has had on belief over the last 500 or so years. This was more of a survey of western though, rather than specifically targeting Australians and how these ideas impacted Australia. He then looked a rising ideas of secular thought and biblical criticism from the 1900's and some confusion that these ideas expressed towards belief and what secular though really was.

Tom then looks briefly at the new atheists in generally and just touches on Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Anthony Grayling, Michel Onfrey and Daniel Dennett while giving a bit more time to Richard Dawkins. He then moves specifically to three atheistic writes in Australia (who I hadn't heard of before): Phillip Adams, Terry Lane and Tamas Pataki. Tom lays out what Phillip and Terry think and then gives a thorough retort to Tamas and his writings, as he is more militant in his writings than Phillip and Terry and doesn't think secular society can function when you have one part of society quite hostile to another part. He also drew on comments from newspaper websites where random Australians would post their thoughts on religion and looked at how ignorant some commenters on religion and what a secular society really means is.

In part three Tom gives a suggestion on a way forward which sounded a little bit like the talk he gave at ANU. Some people need to be informed more about what they are actually rejecting, otherwise the market place of ideas will not grow into true understanding and will just grow stagnate. Also politeness and acceptance in a secular society might go a long way to get your point across.

Tom ends with a brief defense on his belief and why he continues to be a Christian. He sees too much evidence for the resurrection of Jesus to have happened, and until he is persuaded other wise he will not lose his religion.

This was a detailed and a bit heavy book, but I found it all rather interesting. It could have been shorter if he focused specifically on Australia in some parts and not western thought in general, but to be fair it might also be hard to separate the two. the cover said that he was "highly controversial" but I really didn't find it to be that. Tom was quite thorough in his research and explanations. At the start he even has a chapter of just definitions and explained what he means by such nuance concepts such as faith, disbelief, unbelief, doubt, spirituality, atheism, non theism, rationalists, anti-clericalism, agnosticism, humanists, freethinker and materialism. That may seem like a dry start, but I must admit that Tom changed my mind about the exact definition of atheism, and that I now think I have been too limited in my strict definition of atheism so far in my portable atheist series. I liked the book. If you have the time (and if you have read this far then you mostly likely have the time), then read the book.

The Center for Public Christianity (CPX) also have a review of this book by an agnostic.

CPX also interview David Marr on the results of two surveys about religion in Australia, which say closely the same thing. (One survey was commissioned by CPX, their results here, video summary here).


Post a Comment