For the last few months The Australian, through its Op Ed pieces, has been waging a campaign on the behalf of God, or at least the Christian (and, usually, Catholic) God. It has brought out some of its big guns: Editor-in-Chief, Paul Kelly, Foreign Editor Greg Sheridan and Dyson Heydon, a former Justice of the High Court.
Their underlying argument is that a decline in belief in God is leading to a breakdown in society, and those responsible for this breakdown are The Australian's usual culprits: the "Elites". For Sheridan, 'the high points in our elite and popular culture have been colonised by a militant and intolerant atheism' and for Heydon, 'the tolerance practised by modern elites is tyrannical' and this is why 'seats are not given up to the pregnant, the elderly and the infirm.'
Census figures do seem to provide some evidence for a decline in religious belief. In the 1966 census 88% of the population identified as Christian but at that time your only choice was to choose a particular religion or leave the question blank. In 1991 a "No religion' option was introduced as the last of the options and in the 2016 census this option was moved to the top, which would encourage more people to tick it. By the 2016 census the 88% identifying as Christian had dropped to just over half – 52%; about a third (30%) reported no religion.
But how much does this reflect people being more honest when they have the opportunity to respond rather than an actual decline in belief? A more detailed view of belief in Australia is provided by a survey regularly undertaken by Mccrindle Research on 'Faith and Belief in Australia'. The most recent was undertaken this year. Instead of asking what is the person's religion' the question became 'What religion do you currently practise or identify with?' The Mccrindle survey also adds an option for 'spiritual but not religious'.
In the 2017 survey the proportion identifying as Christian was 45% while those with no religion were 32%; both of these results were comparable with the census results. However, the new category 'Spiritual but not religious' was responded to by 14% which is certainly different to a 'militant atheism' The survey also looked at practise rather than belief and found that only 15% claimed to attend church at least once a month and only 7% claimed to 'actively practise' their religion.
A major concern of The Australian's writers was a supposed link between 'God' and morality. Many Christians are inspired by their experience to live selflessly and show love for others, but others have used their religious position as a cloak to cover their abuse of children. On the other hand, people with no religious belief can have a clear sense of right and wrong and join with Christians as strong campaigners for the rights of refugees and the less privileged.
The media often portrayed Churches as a united force against Marriage Equality, but many Churches said the way you voted was a matter of individual conscience and some Melbourne Churches actively promoted a Yes vote by displaying large rainbow banners. Ben Gilmore, the Uniting Church Minister in Paddington, Sydney, is openly gay and in a gay relationship. The High Anglican St Peter's Church in Melbourne had a Requiem Mass on World Aids Day
And is Australian society actually worse than fifty years ago? Then the 'white race' was considered superior to any 'coloured' people; police spent much some of their time entrapping and arresting gay men; people with disabilities could not travel on public transport or attend most venues. Today, despite moving backwards on our care for refugees, we are moving towards ensuring that the disabled have life time care and, far too slowly, we are attempting to overcome Indigenous disadvantage.
Peter Sellick provided a good critique of the weaknesses of journalists like Kelly and Sheridan, talking about 'God' as an object of rational thought as if this was, in his words, equivalent to investigating the phases of the moons of Jupiter. 'God' is not a word like 'rain' with a clear meaning, but only has meaning within a specific community. What 'God' means differs for Sunni or Shia; for Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox Christians; for Orthodox or Liberal Jews. Religions and countries have gone to war over opposing claims to know what God wants.
A great achievement of Christians in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, particularly among the various Protestant Churches in England, was to recognise the fallibility of human belief, to respect difference and seek mutual understanding. This was far preferable to burning someone at the stake for a particular belief. Our challenge today is to extend the understanding of spiritual across those who have a variety of religions or are seeking faith outside a particular religion
Apart from Sheridan and Heydon being unaware of the difficulty of speaking about 'God' what Kelly, Sheridan, and Heydon really lack is a sense of what the spiritual might mean in the contemporary world and the challenges this puts forward
After the passing of the Same-Sex Marriage Bill, for which many Christians voted, Paul Kelly can still write (The Weekend Australian December 9-10) '…Australia's culture wars will continue. Its intensity and timing now depends on how the radical activists pursue their continuing campaign to erode further religious principles, norms and institutions.' An alternative response would be to say that the postal plebiscite demonstrated that the majority of Australians recognised that love for others comes in a variety of forms and is not limited by a narrow doctrinal view.
The Gospel of Mark records Jesus saying that there were only two commandments. The first was to 'love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength' the second is ' Love your neighbour as yourself'. Or, as the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians Chapter 13, "If I am without love, I am a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal'
There are many both inside and outside churches today trying to put into practice what it means to 'love your neighbour as yourself'. Yes, there is some militant intolerance on the left, but this is also clearly demonstrated in the writings of these conservative critics.