While we await the results of the latest Census, and we may be waiting a while, it is almost certain the percentage of those who tick the “no religion” box will rise above the 2011 Census figure of 22.3% or 4.8 million Australians. “No Religion” was the most common “belief” category for Tasmanians, and Hobart was Australia’s least religious capital with almost 30% (29.4%) ticking the “no religion” box. Clearly, for many Tasmanians, God is dead, or never existed in the first place.
However, despite “no religion” being the most common choice, the majority of Tasmanians, 61.5% in fact, still nominated a religion. And of those that did, the overwhelming majority nominated an affiliation with Christianity. 61.1% of Tasmanians say they are Christian.
More recent research by McCrindle shows that not only do most Australians remain religious, more than half (55%) have a belief in God as the creator of the universe or the supreme being.
These statistics fly in the face of reports of the end of religion and the death of God. They counter the loud voices that continually question the place of religion in Australian society and seek to muzzle its voice banishing it from the public square.
This push is built on many false assumptions, none more important that the caricatured contrast between “the secular” and “the religious”. The contrast goes something like this: secular society is rational, open, free and diverse; whereas religion is superstitious, narrow minded, restrictive, and regressive; because of this religion has no place in our liberal democratic society.
But the caricature is not applied equally to all religions. We often hear voices advocating for moderate Muslims, and rightly so. But when was the last time you heard anyone advocating for moderate Christians? Christians are stereotyped as closed-minded and totalitarian, even dangerous, always wanting to impose their views on the rest of society.
Yet, in his 2014 book, Inventing the Individual, Larry Siedentop, a liberal secularist and no devotee of religion, debunks this contrast. Rather than painting Christianity as the villain, Siedentop insists, liberalism is the “child of Christianity” and secularism is Christianity’s greatest gift to the world.
He echoes what Friedrich Nietzsche said many years earlier when exploring the origins of modern progressive values – values such as democracy, socialism, feminism, equality and human rights – Nietzsche found their source in the rise of Christianity.
But whereas Nietzsche saw Christian morality as a kind of slave morality born of bitterness, resentment and envy, Siedentop concluded, “the Christian conception of God provided the foundation for what became an unprecedented form of human society. Christian moral beliefs emerge as the ultimate source of the social revolution that has made the West what it is.”
The presumed contrast between “the secular” and “the religious” stands on shaky ground.
Even the strong critic of religion and author of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, reflecting on the threat of terrorism said, “There are no Christians, as far as I know, blowing up buildings. I am not aware of any Christian suicide bombers. I am not aware of any major Christian denomination that believes the penalty for apostasy is death. I have mixed feelings about the decline of Christianity, (in so far as) [even so] Christianity might be a bulwark against something worse.”
“Is God dead?” The majority of Tasmanians say no. Is religion irrelevant to the future of our state? Again, the answer must be no.
This is not an excuse for the failings or excesses of the church, rather it is a call to appreciate that the forgetfulness, ignorance and sometimes hatred directed at our Christian past will have, and is already having, severe effects in our communities. As a society, we struggle to remember who we are and how we got here. We assume, mistakenly, that we arrived at our open, free and liberal state though an evolutionary inevitability rather than a hard-won battle over centuries of blood, sweat and tears.
Today, we enjoy freedoms the envy of the world. I have friends, part of the church I pastor, who fled persecution for a better life in Australia. Yet they are dismayed and mystified, as are many Australians, that we are biting the historical hand that fed us.
So, we gather to pray in the name of Jesus. Not because we are religious fanatics, although some may accuse of that, but because we are concerned about our future and the future for our children and our grandchildren.
We pray recognising our history, honouring our past, asking for guidance and entrusting our future into the hands of the supreme being who was and is fully revealed to us in Jesus. May God be gracious to us all.
Stephen L Baxter