Despite the number saying they have no religion, a 2012 survey by McCrindle Research found 52% of Australians believe Jesus rose from the dead and a huge 80% accept he died on a cross. This suggests that although Australians are increasingly staying away from church they still retain some acceptance of the Jesus story. “People are fine with Jesus, but they have issues with the church. They like the product but they don’t like the retail outlet,” McCrindle Research commented.
When Australians say they have no religion, we are left wondering what concept of religion is it that they say they don’t have. Some media commentators presume their ‘no religion’ reflects the hostility found in the writings of authors like Dawkins and Hitchens whose aim is to put an end to religion and eradicate any forms of belief in God. But does that truly reflect the Australian attitude? A more accurate portrait would surely conclude that in the main, Australians simply don’t want to talk about religion and are more likely to display indifference than hostility.
The truth is, Australians have never been particularly religious. Unlike America, where the first Europeans immigrants were dissidents escaping religious persecution in Europe, our English forebears were an irreligious lot who had fallen out with the state for quite different reasons. When at the last moment a chaplain was assigned to the first fleet, the Australian church got off to a bad start. When the Pilgrim Fathers first stepped onto American soil freedom of religion was foremost in their mind. When the convicts landed in Australia, Jesus was probably no more than a swear word.
Such a different beginning plays out in many different places. For instance, Australia’s Julia Gillard took office as Prime Minister in 2010 as a declared atheist, unmarried and childless. It is almost impossible to imagine the same happening in the USA where the political risks would be too high. In Australia it barely rates a mention. Then when it comes to church/state relationships we have, despite our secularity, a government funded school chaplain program staffed mainly by evangelicals. It wouldn’t happen in America.
Being labelled one of the most secular countries in the western world is a little more complicated than the label suggests. More research is needed to understand and explain what it is about our particular attitude to religion and to Jesus. Perhaps because of our English roots, and our predilection to all things American, we unconsciously assume their ways of following Jesus and being church will be the same. But clearly we are not.
While there is probably little that the late Ted Noffs of the Wayside Chapel, Sydney, and I might have agreed on, I do agree with his suggestion that Christianity has never been truly Australianised. Despite our long indigenous history, modern Australia is a young country and perhaps it is time we stopped importing our spirituality and worked it out for ourselves.
Without doubt, Aussies are different to every other country in the world. Perhaps our larrikin behaviour and ‘she’ll be right’ attitudes change our views on far bigger concepts than we realise. What are your thoughts?
Stephen L Baxter