Australia's biggest church, Hillsong in Sydney, was one of the beneficiaries of the emphasis on personal fulfilment.

Australia's biggest church, Hillsong in Sydney, was one of the beneficiaries of the emphasis on personal fulfilment.

A country vicar once asked the Duke of Wellington whether there was anything he wished the sermon to be about. “Yes,” answered the Iron Duke, “about 10 minutes.”  We’ve gone full circle, and that’s what you’ll get in many churches today.

I was recently asked to talk to the Leo Baeck Centre, celebrating its 60th birthday, about changes in religion in Melbourne over the past six decades. Colleagues who know my sunny, optimistic nature often hear Joseph Heller’s dictum on my lips: every change is for the worse.  Disraeli observed that change is constant, but the headline comes from the most important change of all, the one foretold by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:51.

Colleagues who know my sunny, optimistic nature often hear Joseph Heller’s dictum on my lips: every change is for the worse. 

In a 20-minute speech I could barely scratch the surface of 60 years of change, but I’m interested in your observations too. To start that conversation, here is an edited version of my talk. It’s long, but there’s a small reward at the end.

Sixty years ago, 39  in every 100 Australians were Anglican, 22 were Presbyterian or Methodist, 21 were Catholic, six were some other sort of Christian. There were more Jews than avowed atheists, though that was only about 32,000. (11 per cent didn’t state any religion). Muslims, Buddhists and the rest? About 3000

Six decades later, Anglicans have more than  halved (19 per cent today), Catholics have increased to just over a quarter, Presbyterians etc have shrunk to 9 per cent.  In the 2006 Census, Christians totalled 64 per cent (down 24), other religions 6 per cent. Atheists had risen from 4 in 1000 to 190, while 11 per cent still declined to answer the question.

Australia is inescapably less religious today or perhaps it is just more honest about it, now the stigma of irreligion has gone. But in 1947 nearly half the population went to church at least once a month, and today the figure is 18 per cent (still vastly more than attend the secular temples of the football codes). That 1947 Census came close to the high point for the church in Australia, in terms of number and influence, which is regarded as the 1950s.  

Here are some of the main changes: the 1960s, which upended the ground rules; the end of sectarianism; the rise of multiculturalism; the emphasis on personal religion; the focus on Islam and the interfaith movement; and the rise of secularism and fundamentalist atheism.

1960s – The  ‘60s was the decade everything changed. The obvious symbol was the pill, giving women control of their fertility and thus their sexuality. It prompted the immortal line in the Guardian: “Protestant women may take the pill. Roman Catholic women must keep taking The Tablet.”

Feminism got new energy and impetus, and much official church teaching suddenly seemed less relevant. Bishop John Robinson wrote Honest to God, and questioning religion from the inside went mainstream.  Institutions of all sorts started to lose authority. Love was in the air, or maybe that funny smell had a herbal origin. The Beatles and Hollywood stars looked east for inspiration, turning Indian gurus into Rolls-Royce-collecting multi-millionaires.

1970s – collapse of sectarianism: Old Protestant-Catholic enmity and disdain started making less sense. For most of Australia’s history that was mostly a British-Irish divide, but the post-war influx of migrants leavened the national mix, and the Catholic schools helped Catholics get into universities and the professions. State-aid to Catholic schools ended an old Catholic resentment. As a friend of mine put it, Catholics dropped the chip off their shoulders and Protestants realised to their surprise that “they are just like us”.  But if sectarianism has almost no purchase today, it’s odd to think that it took The Age more than a century to hire its first Catholic reporter, the urbane Tom Duggan in 1966.  The Age was the Protestant paper, the Herald the Catholic paper.

1980s – Multiculturalism: This began in the 1970s, though its genesis was the post-war influx of Greeks and Italians. The White Australia policy was abolished in the late 1960s, and the 1970s brought the Vietnamese boat people and Lebanese refugees from the civil war.  But it wasn’t so much the increased diversity of the migrants as a change in expectations. They didn’t have to learn to love the VFL and Four and Twenty Pies. Integrate, yes; assimilate, no. And of course they brought their religions with them. 

The 2006 Census cited 418,000 Buddhists, 340,000 Muslims,  148,000 Hindus and 114,000 Jews. There are Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Baha’is, Pagans, Mormons, Confucians, Jains, Taoists, Druze, Wiccans, Humanists, even Satanists.

That accelerated the decline of Christianity from its privileged position. The Age used to report the sermons of leading prelates every Sunday. That sounds quaint now, though we still do it for Easter and Christmas.

1990s – triumph of personalised religion: By personalised, I mean that it is about individualism and personal gratification, rather than the community, still less about God. The charismatic movements hit in the 1970s, and quickly gained momentum inside mainstream churches. These were was the “tongues” and prophecies and expect miracles Christians -  lively, passionate, weird. Before that, they were found only in Pentecostal churches like the Assemblies of God. Once it it hit mainstream churches who identified more with charistmatic churches in other denominations than non-charismatic churches in their own, it started the breakdown of denominational loyalty, identity as an Anglican, Baptist etc. Today charismatics have tended to migrate to the megachurches, which have acquired considerable polish.

That loss of denominational loyalty has accelerated enormously  – apart from Catholics, who go or don’t go to Mass, but still identify as Catholic. Today people look for a church that fits their circumstances – good for the children, or they like the music, or it’s convenient – rather than because they are committed to a particular tradition or set of doctrines. Today, research shows, people don’t believe and thus become Christian. Rather, many unchurched become Christian and then believe. That is, they are attracted by the feeling of community, start coming to church and are gradually convinced. Doctrine matters less than ever.

Personalised religion is much more obvious, though, in the various New Age  enterprises, whch are unabashedly about the individual,  about personal fulfilment . They also provide a spiritual outlet for those put off by institutional or orthodox religion. It’s curious that so many in the West are looking to the East, when so many in the East are looking to the West. China for example is supposed to have 100 million Christians, far more than it has communists.

2000s - Islam and Interfaith: Muslims now come from more than 60 countries, and it makes little sense to speak of them as a single group.  Like the mainstream population, at least half are only nominal believers but – like non-observant Jews or lapsed Catholics – it remains part of their self identity. They don’t pray, go to mosque or even believe in God, but think of themselves as Muslim.

Interestingly, the children of the migrants are much more religiously inclined than their parents. Some Muslim communities, especially those that have been here a while, are integrated and self-assured. Turks spring to mind, and many Arabs.  New refugees from war-torn communities, such as Somali Muslims, obviously face a stronger culture shock.  

2000 – secularism and aggressive atheism:  Australia has no official separation of church and state. What the constitution specifies is that no religion may be established , made the official religion as in England or Israel.  No faith can be imposed or prohibited by the state. That’s it.  I can understand that the non-religious resent perceived advantages given to religions or perceived influence on social policies such as abortion or euthanasia. But in fact I think it’s a long time since anyone has rammed religion down their throats.

Religious people who are trying to influence public policy have to be a bit more sophisticated than “God says so”.  Today they have to argue on common ground. Still, it’s an odd sort of democracy where the views of what is ostensibly the majority must not be put.

The ardent secularists remind me of the 19th century British Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, on hearing an evangelical preacher: “Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade the sphere of the private life.” Today, for secularists, of course that is the only valid sphere, and for the militant atheists it must be eradicated there too.

Aggressive atheism is fuelled around the world chiefly by anti-scientific attitudes on the part of religious people and by fear of Islam. Few are honest enough to spell out the latter  - they say, like Christopher Hitchens, that religion poisons everything without making any distinction, but it’s noticeable how active this fundamentalist group (a small but vocal minority of atheists) got after 9/11. I call them fundamentalists and militants because that’s exactly what they are, the mirror image of the religious fundamentalists they despise. But they share the same reductionist world view where not only are they right and everyone else is wrong, but they cannot rest until everyone thinks as they do.  They will not rest until they have levelled Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.  

In the face of this onslaught, combined with social upheaval, many religious groups have suffered a massive loss of confidence. There is a tendency to retreat behind the battlements and dig in, emphasising personal piety, or to minimise fundamentals of the faith so they end up not standing for particularly much.  All of us who adhere to any religion have to steer between that Scylla and Charybdis.

Religion in Australia in 2009 is much more diverse, and challenged from many directions. Believers have lost certainty in many ways, but gained flexibility and more sincerity. We’ve lost respectability, and have to fight harder for influence.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  I’d like to leave you with a possibly uplifting thought, from James Ball Naylor:

King David and King Solomon
 Led merry, merry lives,
With many, many lady friends
 And many, many wives;
But when old age crept over them,
With many, many qualms,
King Solomon wrote the Proverbs
And King David wrote the Psalms.

Over to you. What changes have you noticed over time? Which are good, which are bad, and why? How do you see things heading in future?

NOTE: It appears that in the new blog program used by Fairfax, comments copied into the comment window from Microsoft Word create a conflict and disappear into the ether. They do not reach me as moderator. Please type straight into the comment window, or copy from a plain-text file such as Note Pad. Thanks, Barney