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We shall all be changed

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

129 comments so far

  • It continually surprises me how even the most ardent Religious believers use the logic of their scientific mind to determine almost opinion and action in their lives from how to operate their DVD player, publish a blog, choose a school for their children, asess their health and treat their illnesses, to making their living and so on, yet completely deny those same faculties in their belief in a God. Knowledge is the enemy of ignorance and it will become increasingly difficult to convince educated people to accept there is a God when there is no reason why there should be, and no proof there is. Without supplying the answers to questions such as "If God created everything, what created God?" and "If God saved a thousand lives in the Tsunami why did he kill the other 300000?", how can Religion expect to have any crediblity? What is religion if not the last great superstition? Increasingly gone are the days when people accepted from childhood the notion of God because they were simply too frightened not to. Atheists such as myself are as deeply spiritual as any, we just have a different, more personal spiritual focus and we aren't the captives of Religion. I live happily with the fact that my sprituality is my truth, not the truth, and I will neither kill nor die for it and that alone sets me apart from millions of "Religious" devotees. "Religion" may have some small chance of survival if it adopted the same belief.

    Date and time
    November 04, 2009, 5:25AM
    • Barney, while reading your comments about the loss of denominational loyalty, and since you mentioned it, tongue-in-cheek in another context, I couldn't help think about the same thing in Melbourne's other great religion: football.

      When I grew up, club loyalty was a given. You were expected to follow a team, and stick with that team through good and bad. As I grew older, though, I found more and more people swapping their loyalties to suit their whims.

      Could it be that the decrease in denominational loyalty is just a reflection on our society, where we are less committed to things, and more prone to 'shop around' to suit how we feel?

      As an aside, I'm still a member of the same church denomination (originally Methodist until it merged to become the Uniting Church) that I grew up in, though it has changed considerably over the year, and I still support the same football team that I did as a six-year-old.

      Is all change good? No. Is all change bad? No. How do you tell which is good and which is bad? Too often you can only tell in hindsight, and often decades after the change took place.

      Barney says: Indeed. But re football clubs, do fans swap often? Players, of course, but I don't know many people older than 8 who have switched fan loyalty. However, you are surely right about shopping round being wider than church.

      Date and time
      November 04, 2009, 6:39AM
      • Barney,

        It would appear that religion has become more emotional and less doctrinal, although I would be interested to know what has happened to the number of theological enrolments over the years. This may be one clue to the decline of doctrine, if, indeed such a decline has occurred.

        The rise of non-institutional spirituality also seems to have occurred, although I suspect this may be more about lots of small institutions,replacing fewer larger institutions i.e. fragmentation rather than de-institutionalisation as such. I would be interested to hear from anyone who identifies as 'spiritual', yet has no association with any religious institutions at all, and how they understand their own beliefs/experiences

        Disclaimer: I personally have an interest in religious matters, but do not describe myself as 'spiritual', as I am not really sure what that term means. Hence the invitation to hear from others who do!.

        Date and time
        November 04, 2009, 7:18AM
        • Religious belief, have a look at the poll in your AGE newspaper today. 11% believe this superstitious nonsense and 89% do not, end of argument really isn't it? What about the (ABS census) on religious attendance at church, 9% combined all religions? And atheist 24%?
          But just what is a militant atheist?
          I will make this as simple as possible for the even the most simple religious minds to try an understand, even though we all know that the first step in religious indoctrination is to not let the cult member read non religious evidence or think rationally. Everyone on this planet are atheist, of the estimated 2500 Gods and religions invented by man, even the most devote religious fanatic prepared to kill for their cults God only believes in one god and makes them an atheist to all the other 2499 Gods, excepting Hindu and others whom believe in multiple Gods but still atheist to thousands of other invented Gods and religions, making them all ATHEIST!
          The best comparison of what is religious belief to an atheist is, the used car salesman that has a car, that we know all evidence shows that it does not exist and is trying to sell it to you?
          A militant atheist is someone who points out this irrefutable fact that you cannot see the car, that the car probably doesn't nor has ever existed or ever will, they even write books as guides, sort of like the way "choice magazine" do pointing out things to be wary of people selling things that cannot be proven as factual or substantiated! Their having an atheist convention in Melbourne in March, sort of a ""choice magazine" type meeting for religion?

          Date and time
          November 04, 2009, 8:16AM
          • these are all big questions, but a few changes I have noticed are: the emphasis upon youth, as if only with youthful membership is a church valid; the disconnect between religion and society; the rise of a general malaise in society which both the religious and the miltant atheist cannot break through; the increasing commercialisation of religion and its becoming as much a brand as any other throw-away merchandise; the exhaustion of institutional religion; the cultural incredulity of belief in God overlooked in favour of mere belonging regardless of credulity.

            The future? Islam and evangelical christianity are both expanding rapidly so they will have global political effect if not direct influence in the secular West (although Islam's emmigrant populations will be a significant presence in the West).

            Richard Dawkins will convert to Russian Orthodoxy, Christopher Hitchens will announce that he is John Paul 2's love child, the jensen brothers will announce their intention to kyak around the globe for jesus; Islamic leaders around the globe will acknowledge that Islam is just a silly christian heresy after all and reunite with those christian communities that most resemble their own beliefs. Utah is soon over populated.

            Barney says: All good points, but you saved the best for the last paragraph. I wait with bated breath.

            Date and time
            November 04, 2009, 8:24AM
            • Barney,

              Wellington's acerbic comment reminded me of Anthony Trollope's blast on clergymen. Apropos of nothing in particular, I post it below :)

              There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilized and free countries than the necessity of listening to sermons. No one but a preaching clergyman has, in these realms, the power of compelling an audience to sit silent and be tormented. No one but a preaching clergyman can revel in platitudes, truisms, and untruisms, and yet receive, as his undisputed privilege, the same respectful demeanour as though words of impassioned eloquence, or persuasive logic, fell from his lips. Let a professor of law or physics find his place in a lecture-room, and there pour forth jejune words and useless empty phrases, and he will pour them forth to empty benches. Let a barrister attempt to talk without talking well, and he will talk but seldom. A judge's charge need be listened to perforce by none but the jury, prisoner, and gaoler. A member of Parliament can be coughed down or counted out. Town-councillors can be tabooed. But no one can rid himself of the preaching clergyman. He is the bore of the age, the old man whom we Sindbads cannot shake off, the nightmare that disturbs our Sunday's rest, the incubus that overloads our religion and makes God's service distasteful. "

              It is a beguiling measure of careful prose, and hyperbolic exaggeration. I wish other anti-clerical diatribes were delivered with the same wit and whimsy!

              Barney says: Many thanks, Mike, for sharing that. It has been a favourite of mine. I do think it's a bit 19th century though - preachers today may well pour out empty words to empty benches.

              Date and time
              November 04, 2009, 8:28AM
              • "Militant" atheism only arose because of that of which they despise. If Religion wasn't pranced around as scientific fact, and forced down the throats of children in a science classroom, to which it has no place, Religion wouldn't be in sad state of retreat it is in now. Nor would it be forced to argue on this 'common ground', trying to split the difference to make itself fit with contemporary knowledge by coming up with every arbitrary and ambigious interpretations.

                They brought it upon themselves, and down upon all of the more rational theists who simply believe in a non-intervening creator, and I for one am happy that were starting to see a shift from the child abuse of brainwash.

                As for your gross generalisation of Atheists believing everyone else is wrong, I resent.

                Barney says: Yet you clearly think I am wrong. And other believers. As for the gross generalisation, that's in your imagination. I clearly and specifically designated that (small) group of atheists who want to evangelise everyone to atheism. This is a minority, but you will find it in their own comments.

                Elicits Mop
                Date and time
                November 04, 2009, 9:06AM
                • I'm an atheist until proof of a deity is given. I don't want to try and convince others of this, but will respond honestly if asked.
                  I was an atheist before 9/11 and will probably remain one in future, even in foxholes.

                  I think you'll find that writers like Hitchens lump all religions together for criticism simply from fear of being physically attacked (if they differentiate Islam from the others.)

                  Understandable really.

                  Nick Swan
                  Date and time
                  November 04, 2009, 9:25AM
                  • Regarding the issue of the modern ten minute sermon, for some time I have been struck by the difference between my memory of sermons in my Catholic youth and the situation in my Buddhist present. Buddhist teachers, in my experience, routinely give talks for an hour or more, confidently expecting that their audience is interested. Generally, this assumption is correct. Furthermore, often these talks consist of doctrine that, coming from a very different culture, is obscure to the audience, and so requires a real degree of effort to understand.

                    Why is this? Is there a collapse of confidence in the minds of mainstream Christian speakers - and in their audiences - that they have something to say that is worth saying? And the popular denominations - the Pentecostals, for example - do they give long sermons that are happily accepted?

                    Date and time
                    November 04, 2009, 9:40AM
                    • Barney,

                      Fair points and I don't disagree, although it may seem I do.

                      I think the best point to discuss is your reference to politicians. They are (IMO) supposed to represent the people who elected them, not their faith. Their faith must take a role, and for anyone to think it wouldn't is just unrealistic, but at the same time their faith can't blind them to the needs of their constituants.

                      Two examples here come to mind - gay marriage and computer game ratings. Gay marriage has been done to death here, but computer game ratings are another issue that hasn't had as much traction. An R18+ classification is being deined to Australians because one man - Sth Australian AG Michael Atkinson - has a veto power and will not allow it, despite the fact that surveys show nearly 90% of Australians support it. He has stated in numerous interviews that he believes it is his duty as a Christian to protect Australians from themselves.

                      This is the kind of faith I object to in politics. I object to Family First claiming to represent families when they only represent right wing Christian families. I object to politicians barring gay marriage on religious grounds. And I object to Michael Atkinson blocking an R18+ classification because he feels it is his duty as a Christian to do so.

                      On a recent episode of QAndA, Tony Abbot was asked about his opinions on abortion. Tony is well known for his faith, and his answers on the subject were how I believe people of faith should operate in politics. They were considered and moderate, and showed that he had balanced the needs of his religion with the needs of his position.

                      Barney says: By and large I agree. But I also agree with Edmund Burke's claim that an elected representative owes his constituency his best judgment. Certainly Parliament is not a place for proselytising.

                      Date and time
                      November 04, 2009, 9:45AM

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