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Shrunken Christianity becomes more militant

By Mark Johnson - posted Friday, 1 April 2011


Christianity is much in the news lately, especially with our Prime Minister's need to reassure Christians in this country of her being savvy with the Bible and of its thematic permeation throughout Western culture. Religion can rest assured of its value to society and to the Labor Party. We wait expectantly for a photo opportunity of our Prime minister flanked by Fred Nile on one side, and George Pell on the other, a rebuffed Tony Abbott caught somewhere in the background. Good times.

On the one hand we are used to the aforementioned clowns of Christianity, in so many ways they and others have ensured that religion will stay at the periphery of society. It is much more than a matter of theistic claims being untenable or not, most people do not engage with the content of either theistic or atheistic claims, rather it is the entire demeanour of so many advocates of religion that simply doesn't connect. Such is the fate of all ideologues - concepts taking the place of life.

On the other hand the debates between the religious and their antagonists are simply boutique, also another disconnect with the bulk of Australians. Mere abstract language games playing at sword fights in the sky. For every dullard-faced George Pell, there is a pinched-faced Dawkins, both joined in zealotry, both mere media spectacles.

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Australiatruly is the Lucky Country - in so many ways shielded by its ambivalence, its apathy and its multi-faceted distance from the rest of the world.

What we aren't so aware of is that religion in the West is transforming, and is doing so in a way that should send a chill through the bones of all thinking and compassionate people, atheist or not. Religious adherents are becoming much more politically engaged whilst the bulk of people are still dozing in the belief that the beast has been tamed.

The reasons for this political engagement are complex, but they all essentially boil down to one key phenomena: whilst the atheist and the ambivalent alike have become comfortable with the knowledge that religion has been on the rapid decline in the West (with the distinct exception of the United States, but even here it has been ever so gradually declining) what has not been noticed is that those who remain committed to religion -in this case Christianity-are what could be called 'hard-core' believers, a remnant community which is deeply committed, deeply conservative (if not actually reactionary) and particularly deeply hostile to the secular world around them.

As Christianity declines in this country and throughout the West, those many of actual compassion, integrity and thought who leave such institutions so to seek outside regimented boundaries, leave behind those who then transform the largely vacant structure into one of their own shrunken image and vicious agenda. But wait, there's more, because not content with transforming the ecclesial structure, it is the secular terrain that also needs their attention.

An example of this new reality is the recent effort by the Vatican to spread the use of state sanction against sexual minorities.

On Tuesday of this week, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi expressed concern to the UN at Geneva over a "disturbing trend" of people "being attacked for taking positions that do not support behaviour between people of the same sex." The Vatican diplomat went on to declare that those that express their moral views concerning "the gift" of sexuality being reserved only for married heterosexual couples are "stigmatised, and worse - they are vilified and prosecuted."

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Further to this Tomasi then went on to say that such "attacks are violations of fundamental human rights and cannot be justified under any circumstances".

Human rights have proven to be a useful tool worldwide by which resurgent religious interests gain cover for some questionable practices and activities, using the language so to actually subvert the intent. We can imagine the thigh slapping and general hilarity of the Vatican diplomatic corps when constructing this particular strategy delivered by Archbishop Tomasi.

All very clever, until Tomasi then went further showing the actual intent covered by the language play. Of course the usual blandishment of the inherent dignity of all human beings and the condemnation of violence against all people because of sexual orientation was trumpeted, to be then followed by the observation and demand that: "states can and must regulate behaviours, including various sexual behaviours," and that there exists a consensus around the world "that certain kinds of behaviour must be forbidden by law."

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About the Author

Mark Johnson teaches in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, where he is a PhD candidate. In January, he is teaching a course at the the university's Summer School titled Christianity as a Global Religion.

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