Jim Belshaw has an interesting post on this, to which I wrote an off-the-cuff response for the sake of discussion, and Jim has replied. My answer, basically, is “No”. Except in a very broad cultural sense. One could also ask the question in the past tense, as Jim has, and one would get very many answers, as indeed Jim points out. Obviously Australia is more a Christian culture than it is a Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Muslim, or Jewish one, yet all those are, and in all cases long have been, living traditions within Australian culture, not to mention what remains of Indigenous spirituality.
Much better heads than mine have asked the question; it disturbs me nonetheless when people like the current Prime Minister make assumptions about our being a Christian country. My argument would be that we are very much a non-religious country in very important respects, even more deeply than the fact there is not and cannot be an established religion. I would even argue that secularism has been a critical ingredient both intellectually and practically, a point I made — or tried to make — in my comment on Jim’s blog. (Didn’t Manning Clark devote a lifetime and many pages to constructing a long epic poem of a history on this theme? At least he thought it mattered, which made him a rather odd “Marxist”.)
The nearest we get to a public religious experience is Anzac Day and, related but I think declining, the ceremony that takes place every evening at the RSL (used to?), but that is no more particularly Christian than the Masons are — and indeed that comparison is far from frivolous as the Masonic Lodge has been a very significant element in Australian life. I am not devaluing the Anzac Day phenomenon by saying this; it is a powerful symbolic focus for much we value in Australia, and I have taken part in school Anzac services in state, Anglican and Jewish schools with hardly any difference discernible among the three.
The Australian Christian Lobby endeavours to co-opt history to their cause, as of course many do. Their treatment of the first Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin, is a good example:
Alfred Deakin was the man mainly responsible for the passage of the Australian Constitution through the English House of Commons. He became Australia’s second Prime Minister, after Edmund Barton who himself was inspired to enter politics by his Presbyterian Minister, Dr. Robert Steele.
Alfred Deakin was the man mainly responsible for the passage of the Australian Constitution through the English House of Commons. He became Australia’s second Prime Minister, after Edmund Barton who himself was inspired to enter politics by his Presbyterian Minister, Dr. Robert Steele. The fourth Prime Minister, Sir George Reid, was also inspired to enter politics through Dr. Steele’s influence.
Deakin, a native born Australian was nurtured in his faith by his mother. It was Deakin who seconded the motion of Sir Henry Parkes for the proposed Federation of the Australian States.
Deakin kept a Spiritual Diary and from 1884 to 1913 wrote a “Boke of Praer and Praes” containing nearly four hundred prayers, many relating directly to major decisions in his public life, revealing his utter dependence on God. (For a brief time he joined the Theosophy Society but resigned in 1896).
Deakin prayed over the proposed Australian Constitution continually and was delighted when the Constitutional Convention unanimously carried the preamble inclusion “humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God”…
And so on, and HIGHLY tendentious. No, it is just plain propaganda. Contrast The Faith of Alfred Deakin:
Al Gabay: The period when he fancied that he was a medium didn’t last more than two or three years, so he wasn’t the only Prime Minister interested in spiritual matters or in theosophy or spiritualism. Edmund Barton was also at least vaguely interested in the theosophical movement.
Rachael Kohn: Well, I guess Alfred Deakin’s own claim to being a medium would have had a lot of competition at that time, because it seems that in Melbourne there was a great interest in spiritualism and the occult and the religion of healthy mindedness.
Al Gabay: Yes, there was. Spiritualism. Part of the reason that I became interested in it as a historical writer, was that they keep popping up in whatever you read about the so-called conflict between religion and science in that period, and although I knew that their numbers were never that extensive, especially in Australia, I learned that the spiritualist movement had far more of an influence on the cultural life of a place like Melbourne for instance, or Sydney, than historians have suggested before…
Rachael Kohn: Well wasn’t Deakin actually a friend of Hodgson, the founder of the London Institute for Psychical Research which took as its subject, Madame Blavatsky and her clairvoyant happenings?
Al Gabay: Yes, indeed. In fact it was Deakin who took Hodgson while they were students at Melbourne University in the 1870s, took Hodgson to his first séance, and Hodgson was very positivist at that time, a student of Herbert Spencer who he would quote copiously on any occasion, and gradually Hodgson became not only a believer in spirit return and spirit guidance but he became the chief investigator in the United States of psychic, what we would call psychic or spiritistic phenomena. That’s because he first of all went to Cambridge where he did an MA; he’d already done a Doctorate of Laws at Melbourne University, but then he went on to St John’s College Cambridge, and there he met people like Henry Sidgwick and Frederick Myers and various other people who were interested in investigating spiritualism…
Rachael Kohn: Well spiritualism’s interest extended further it seems than just monitoring apparitions; it also quite surprisingly, seemed to align itself with social reform, and I guess that was through its connections with the Free Thought Movement. Do you think this was one of Deakin’s attractions, that it did have some links to social reform?
Al Gabay: Undoubtedly. I think that Deakin learned a great deal about his political mission not just from spiritualism but from Swedenborg’s writings as well, which I’m happy to talk about later. But the social reform agenda is a result of spiritualism along with secularism and all sorts of other reforms, was linked to a general category of free thought, and free thought arises of course in the 18th century as one aspect of the high Enlightenment where people like Thomas Paine, for instance, argued against the institution of monarchy and against established religion…
Rachael Kohn: Well his interest in religion seems to have extended as far as Islam, he really admired the prophet Mohammed. Was that interest part of his desire to recognise that post-Christian religion also had something to say to the modern world?
Al Gabay: That’s an interesting way of putting it; I’m not sure that that was Deakin’s perspective on it. His work on Islam, which he produces in the late 1890s, was part of a series that he planned which was a little bit derivative, if you like, of Emerson’s Representative Men. You know, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote this book about various characters throughout history, including Napoleon the soldier, and Socrates the philosopher, and Swedenborg the seer. So Deakin wanted to write a series of studies which would look at not just Swedenborg but also Dante, Shakespeare, and the prophet Muhammad. And he hoped to get out these – this was never completed, there are just drafts left in his papers, but he hoped to extract from this some sense of the essential spiritual nature of all religious traditions. What amazes me, Rachael, as I write somewhere or other, is that he never explored Koori religion in his own country, and it’s indicative of attitudes that were common and prevalent among all Australians in that period, regarding the Aboriginal races in this country. And whereas for we here in the 21st century, Aboriginal religions, what we know of them, are fascinating to us, to people of Deakin and Barton’s generation, they held absolutely no interest. That I think is a curious development…
That gets much nearer to the truth. It is also far more interesting. There was little of the parochial in Deakin’s interests.
This is also close to the way I have seen our Christian past:
Historically, religion in Australia has largely been confined to rural areas, and is conspiciously absent as an urban cultural force in Australia, separating itself from the machination of the state. However, one must not underemphasize their regional influence; churches remained a dominant educational force throughout the nineteenth century. Thanks to large amounts of aid from the mother church and extensive missionary efforts, Australia witnessed a proliferation of a various Christian sects. The Anglican Church, largely because of extensive aid from the wealthy Church of England, established itself as the dominant church in the nineteenth century, and today 34 per cent of all Australians are Anglican. (For information of Australia’s religious history consult A.L. Mcleod’s The Pattern of Australian Culture.)
A pervading fear reigned over Christian minds in nineteenth-century Australia: the rising threat of a philosophy of doubt to the established doctrine of the Christian faith. The Anglican Dean of Melbourne feared that the teaching of philosophy would introduce an “unknown quality” which would be antagonistic to the tenets of the Church. Fearing intellectual insurrection, the Christian faith polarized into the preaching of religious dogma, and churches throughout Australia engaged in vicious disputes over the true teachings of Christ. Plagued by what cultural historian A.L. Mcleod has called “the doubting spirit of the nineteenth century” (Mcleod, 138), Christians responded to the rising influence of scientific rationalism by pressing for orthodoxy.
What actually went on in the heads of our late 19th century Australians has been captured brilliantly but eccentrically in Joseph Furphy’s Such is Life — if you have the patience to read it. (I will always be grateful to Gerry Wilkes for introducing us to that.)
Unemployed at last!
Scientifically, such a contingency can never have befallen of itself. According to one theory of the Universe, the momentum of Original Impress has been tending toward this far-off, divine event ever since a scrap of fire-mist flew from the solar centre to form our planet. Not this event alone, of course; but every occurrence, past and present, from the fall of captured Troy to the fall of a captured insect. According to another theory, I hold an independent diploma as one of the architects of our Social System, with a commission to use my own judgment, and take my own risks, like any other unit of humanity. This theory, unlike the first, entails frequent hitches and cross-purposes; and to some malign operation of these I should owe my present holiday.
Orthodoxly, we are reduced to one assumption: namely, that my indomitable old Adversary has suddenly called to mind Dr. Watts’s friendly hint respecting the easy enlistment of idle hands.
Shot through with ideas and language deriving from Christianity (and much else) but not taking any of them too seriously…
It is true that churches have exercised influence on all sides of politics in Australia; you will find the Methodist strain in Trade Unionism as well as in business both small and large. You have a whole [Irish] Catholic history of Australia which in my youth was — to us — suspect as potentially (sometimes actually) disloyal to Empire, and yet many Catholics fought just as hard as anyone else in both World Wars. I think we have all learned to absorb the Irish experience — Ned Kelly, Vinegar Hill, and all — into the broader picture now. But that really is recent.
As Susan Ryan said at the beginning of this century, addressing the Parkes Foundation on the subject of public education:
In acknowledging the great and enduring contribution of Henry Parkes, I don’t wish to romanticise his motives, or sanitise his attitudes. He was a man of his time and background, and like all of us, perhaps especially those of us who exercise political power, not without human flaws. He did indeed hold dear the centrality of public education to providing opportunity to all and building an enlightened society where ability and energy rather than privilege would be rewarded.
He was at the same time deeply affected, apparently to the point of paranoia, by the religious and cultural divisions that obstructed enlightened policy making in the colony well before Parkes gained political power.Anti Irish and anti Catholic sentiment prevailed in NSW and Parkes absorbed it. His over reaction to the attempted assassination, by a deranged Australian of Irish birth, of Alfred Duke of Edinburgh in 1868 at Clontarf, was not Parkes at his most statesmanlike. But given the depth of religious and cultural divisions, very real problems not of his making, it is understandable that Parkes saw a “national” or public school system as offering much more than the denominational alternative to social harmony.
As well, he was aware that a unified system would make better use of the always-scarce education funds. His principles and the frustration he felt in trying to implement policies that reflected them are well expressed in the following extract from the parliamentary debate on his 1866 Schools Bill. In introducing his Bill, Parkes declared that while more than half the children in the colony received no education at all, there were twenty-six places where two or more schools existed to serve fewer than 100 pupils. He blamed the clergy, of all denominations, for this disparity of provision.
“…if in a locality where there is only a sufficient number of children to form one good school they (the clergy) would consent to their children being educated side by side, extravagance would be avoided and the means of education would be extended to a number of other children who, while ministers of religion were cavilling over a division of the spoils, were left to moral destitution- to the gaols, and unfortunately to the gallows.”(A. W. Martin, p224) …
In a later development however, in 1880, Parkes caused the repeal of the 1866 Act, and its replacement by the Public Instruction Act of 1880, which removed some of the compromise features. Control of the education system was transferred from the Council of Education to a new Ministry of Public instruction; state aid to denominational schools was ended. Education for children between the ages of six and fourteen made compulsory.That last measure is surely one of the earliest commitments anywhere to universal education…
Did you know, by the way, that it was once illegal for a Catholic and Protestant clergyman to be on state school property simultaneously? There were good reasons for that once, but it is long gone. SBHS on a Friday morning has nuns, rabbis, Muslim teachers, evangelical Anglicans, even the occasional Buddhist, and I never saw any fisticuffs…
Helen Irving argues “Politicians are wrong to claim Australia is a Christian country, when it is secular.”
While all involved claim to welcome other religions, it is clear that a specifically Christian message is intended. Our highest values, it is asserted, are rooted in the Christian faith. The “moral decay” (evidenced by drug-taking, divorce and violent music), said Costello, can be resisted only by those who adhere to the faith.
Such claims are not only offensive to the many decent and honourable Australians who are either non-religious or follow another faith. More significantly, they distort our history and disturb our carefully wrought constitutional settlement. Australia has a “secular heritage”. In the 19th century, colonial governments took pains not to encourage sectarianism and refused to give official recognition to one church over others. State schools were required to be secular. Unlike in England, there was no established church.
This policy was reflected in the federal constitution. The constitution’s framers faced two questions: was Australia a nation with a particular religious character? Should the constitution recognise this?
They answered “no” to both. In debate, much concern was expressed about the potential for religious intolerance, even official support for religious persecution. Finally, in response to a flood of petitions from church organisations, praying for references to God and to Christian practice to be included in the constitution, they added eight words to its hitherto secular preamble: “Humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God.” But in doing so, they made it clear that the formula was intended to be “universal, and not necessarily applicable only to Christians”.
Then they added section 116 to the constitution expressly prohibiting the Commonwealth from establishing a religion, requiring or prohibiting religious practice, or imposing any religious test for public office. Not only did it depart from English practice, it went beyond the First Amendment in the US constitution, which only forbids laws establishing a religion or prohibiting free religious practice.
Departing again from English precedent, they also gave incoming Australian parliamentarians the constitutional alternative of either a religious oath or a secular affirmation.
Certainly, a majority of Australians still identify as Christians. MPs are entitled to do so like anyone else, but, as section 116 makes clear, religion is not the business of Australia’s government…
I think she has a good argument, and find no contradiction between that and personally taking much that I find in The Uniting Church into my thinking about social and political matters — but only as one contribution among many, and indeed not everything I might hear in church either… The church informs and enriches my views, but does not determine them. I find the Tao Te Ching just as powerful a resource, just to cite one personal preference; in the recent Compass program it was Inga Clendinnen, historian and atheist, who most rang my bells.
There is a student essay written in 2001 by a German student apparently for the University of Melbourne. I have no idea why, but suspect it was part of an entry requirement or an ESL/Foundations course. The student, Nadine Richter, says some very interesting things.
Before I came to Australia, a nun told me that Australia was the most secular country in the world – since she has travelled a lot and lived in a number of countries, I trusted her judgement. Living in Melbourne for four months gave me a different impression of religion in Australia, though. On the streets there are many Muslim women wearing headscarfs; some male Jews on campus have a kippah on their head; I bought a desk for my room at the Salvation Army; at Melbourne University, there is a vast number of religious clubs and societies and the Chaplaincy caters for Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. In the beginning of my stay, I had the impression that religion seemed to be everywhere.
After a while I started noticing instances of secularism. One of my housemates answered the census question concerning religion with ‘Jedi’; there is a church on sale in Carlton; in an everyday conversation, a girl blushed because she had to admit that she was Catholic. Gradually it dawned on me that Australia is not necessarily a Christian country, but a country in which different people live different religions as a very private matter and some do not have any religion at all – which is accepted by those who do.
In order to find out more about religion in this country, I did research and interviewed some Australians. I talked to both non-religious and religious people and asked them the following questions:
· Is Australia a secular country?
· Do you think that changes have occurred in Australian society concerning religion?
· Is there anything specific about Australia that could make it a more secular country than other places in the western world?
· Are Christians accepted in society?
· What role does the church play in Australian society?
It’s not a highly formal piece of research, but is nonetheless very perceptive, I feel.
Religion in Australia did not start off under the best conditions. First of all, there is the “convict thing”, as A, 28, put it: although church attendance was compulsory, the convicts lived in open immorality and religion was subject of ridicule (Millikan, 69f). The first church built on Australian soil was even burnt by church members (Gillman, 20). This aggressive attitude towards the church can be explained by the fact that the clergy was considered to be part of the government and thus opposing the convicts, as A pointed out. Only when free settlers arrived, the situation improved (Gillman, 20). However, for many settlers life in the bush was not easy. The harsh conditions of the outback produced both the famous Australian sense of mateship (Millikan, 72) and lax religious observance, for the next church often was days away (Breward, 1). In 1833, exclusive Anglican establishment ended (Breward, 1), and from the 1850s on, a decline in church attendance was recorded (Millikan, 74)
While in the 1950s church-going was “a big thing for people, getting dressed up on Sundays” (M, 20), a shift to secular optimism occurred in the 1960s – humans seemed to be able to solve the problems of the world on their own; they did not need a god for this (Hughes, 7f). In the same decade, the Catholic Church was severely shaken by the Second Vatican Council, the church’s attempt to come to terms with modernity, introducing a number of changes concerning dogma as well as religious practice (Goosen, 140ff). Many Catholics had the impression that their religion had changed over night and felt confusion and despair (Goosen, 148). The 1970s brought a number of social and political innovations, triggered by the 1968 student revolts (Carey, 172), but they also saw the collapse of secular optimism (Hughes, 9). From the 1980s on, cultural diversity characterized Australian society and today there is a wide range of religious affiliations and practices (Hughes, 9f).
Overall, during the last 200 years two major aspects of religion in Australian society can be observed: on the one hand, there exists a constancy of devotion and religious practice (Gillman, 4); on the other hand, there never was a Golden Age of religion (Bouma, 164) and Australians never liked talking about religious matters (Ballis, 7). Ian Gillman expresses this phenomenon like this: “While European Australians never have been an overtly religious people, they have not been a stridently atheistic or an aggressively anticlerical people either.” (Gillman, 4).
Spare a thought for poor Richard Johnson. He was an adherent of the famous Clapham Sect, that included such luminaries as William Wilberforce. He had a naive hope to make a Christian country out of the convict colony of which he was the first chaplain. He didn’t get much encouragement or co-operation. Mind you he did get Glebe — far enough away and on the surface pretty useless — parts of which the Anglican Church still owns, I believe. And hence of course the name, “Glebe” being “a plot of land belonging or yielding profit to an English parish church or an ecclesiastical office”.
Further reading: Religion in Australia
It’s a curious thing, but much as I greatly admire and like Jim Belshaw there are times we seem to have come from two different Australias. I have occasionally ventured into the one he recalls; I always felt a little like the black swan of trespass. I think he will know what I mean. Oh, and all views expressed here are provisional. If I were young enough I may have found an academic study worth pursuing, but I don’t think I will. I do gather that the Religion Department at Sydney University is very good though.
We were never taught any of this at school, of course. Far too controversial, probably.
By the way, I think we should learn about people like William Wilberforce, and about what motivated them. And indeed about the REAL John Howard, the Quaker prison reformer. We should also learn about Caroline Chisholm, Simpson and his donkey, and about what Simpson actually believed in… I suspect he would have found the Greens too conservative.
What happens next?
I hope we remain an unreligious (not irreligious necessarily) country, with a pragmatic pluralism and secularism forged, some say, by a climate unfavourable for fanaticism. At the same time, may all those with values of compassion (whether sourced in a religious tradition or in common decency) prosper here. That, if you like, is my prayer.
Oddly, I find talk of a “Christian country” to be quite divisive. Once at SBHS when an evangelical old boy was addressing an assembly of students and parents, conspicuously light on in terms both of Anglos and Christians, and exhorted them on the topic I, on the stage behind him, had a fortunately resistible urge to suddenly scream Allahu Akbar! at the top of my voice. I told the Principal later; he was glad the urge had been resistible…
See also: The Australian Christian vote? and What is really surprising is that this is obvious… on whether the USA is a Christian nation.