Patrick White, Australia’s only Nobel Prize winner for literature, once said: “I suppose what I am increasingly intent on trying to do in my books is to give professed unbelievers glimpses of their own unprofessed faith”.
Far be it for me to assume the mantle of Patrick White. Yet one of my main aims in writing Post-God Nation? was to convince contemporary Australians – those of them who doubt the relevance or utility of “religion”, let alone of a living faith – that the subject deserves to be taken seriously.
One of my main strands of argument is historical. I contend that since 1788, the influence of religion on Australian life has been vital and largely favourable. And by “religion” I mean, of course, Christianity.
For a start, the Western world as we know it is substantially the product of Judaeo-Christian ideas. Many have heard this rhetoric before, and yawned. In the book I try to put flesh on the bones, by explaining the “how and why” of some of Judaeo-Christianity’s most enduring secular legacies: the scientific method; the study of history; parliamentary democracy; universities and mass literacy; the moral duty to be committed and charitable; and the primacy of individual conscience. It is quite a package.
Then there is Britain’s debt to the Christian Church. The very creation of Anglo-Saxon England, in or about the seventh century, was due to the unifying force of religion. Similarly, it was because of Christianity that England survived two potentially lethal foreign invasions – those of the Vikings and the Normans – and the Black Death (bubonic plague) of the mid fourteenth century. The venerated English legal system was also, in large part, a product of the Christian Church. So too the distinct national identities of Britain’s other constituent parts, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The Australian continent was discovered by the West as a direct result of the Reformation and the Counter Reformation.
What of post-1788 Australia itself? Here I make some admittedly big claims – in part to counter a prevailing myth that “religion” has never much mattered here.
As to the very survival of the early colonies, I write: “Colonial Australia was not godless – far from it. It was rough and often irreverent, and much evil was perpetrated on the frontiers. But without religion, and committed individual Christians motivated by religion, it would not have existed – or not for long. The convicts would have been sent to their doom in West Africa, or the First Fleet would have foundered. The colonists, or those of them who arrived alive, would soon have starved, or fallen fatally ill, or committed suicide, or descended to impoverished barbarism. The first generation of native-born, those of them who survived childhood, would have grown up as lazy, unprincipled brutes. Sydney might have remained no more than a penal colony and most of the rest of the continent might have been left unexplored. And if, without religion, all of these hurdles had somehow been overcome, the Indigenous population would have been wiped out. The whole venture, in any of these ways, could have been a disaster”.
The details of each claim are fleshed out, I trust convincingly.
Another broad contention is that Federation in 1901 could not have occurred absent religion: “Let us count the ways. Without the abolition of the convict system, without cultural and religious pluralism, without strong marriages and the civilising influence of women, without parliamentary democracy, without a self-supporting yet civically-minded middle class, without an empowered and decently-treated working class – without any of these things, there would have been no serious possibility of establishing a functional nation in 1901. At least, a civilised nation to which most citizens were proud to belong. In that sense, these were all preconditions to Federation”.
I make similarly big claims about Christianity’s role in the 20th century, in the making of modern Australia. Most of the main aspects of our national story are covered, including politics, the law, science, literature, Indigenous relations, and – perhaps our greatest collective achievement – multiculturalism since World War Two.
The second half of the book is an attempt to explain the decline of religious belief in Australia since the 1970s, notwithstanding this imperishable legacy. In my opinion the decline has been partly the Churches’ own fault, and partly the result of forces beyond their control. I argue that – since the late 19th century – the Churches’ biggest mistakes have been in the fields of education policy (schools) and foreign policy (war). I also look at other factors in the mix, among them insidious “scientism” and unprecedented material affluence.
Intrigued? I hope so.
Post-God Nation? is Roy Williams’ third book. It will be published by ABC Books in May 2015. Thank you to Roy for writing this piece exclusively for Starts at 60.
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