Are we living in a Post-God Nation? Why religion should be taken seriously 272



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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. post-god-nation

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.

Pre-order via Booktopia for $30.25


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Guest Contributor

  1. Insidious ‘scientism’? Using the scientific method, proof of god does not exist, and this is why religion is becoming less relevant. We no longer rely on ‘faith’.

  2. Do unto others but only if they believe as you do! “Religion is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, …” you may worship as you choose but please do not force your belief on me. There is more than one religion – Christianity – or formalised worship is not the only choice –

  3. I don’t believe in the tooth fairy,santa claus or the Easter bunny so why would i believe in a mythical ghost/ person that sits on a cloud and passes judgement.

  4. I was brought up catholic. My Nanna who was the best person I have ever known told me that God is everywhere, you can pray anywhere and to be a good christian you have to be a good person. I am not a good catholic, but I am a good christian and have tried to instill my values into my children.

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  5. unfortunately religion has, thru the ages, and to this day … been an excuse for very poor behavior by a good number of people, Women and children have been oppressed, those of other races enslaved the poor marginalized and people persecuted for their sexual orientation to name just a few. As for its benign influence in colonial Australia… read a little history people… if the behavior of either the church or the state was benign then Hitler is a candidate for cannonisation. No organised religion AT ALL for this little brown duck.

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    • You don’t have to have a religion to believe in God that is for sure God will look over you no matter what and you don’t have to go to church to believe in God. You know what I hate is when they come knocking at your door to tell you all about God please.

    • Seems to me that most churches condone child sexual abuse. How many times have we heard the blatant denials. The insulting excuses like “ was the children’s fault because they dressed seductively”. Really??

      Then there were the poor kids who were abused at a church run children’s home. The excuse “…they are ungrateful”. So, the kids were given a roof over their heads and they should expect to be sexually abused…. Really?? 🙁

    • I don’t agree. It was through Christianity that slavery was abolished. William Booth , founder of the Salvation Army, helped to get the age of consent raised to stop young girls being abused.Yes there has been shocking cases of child abuse in the church and I certainly do not condone that but that was individuals and I don’t condone the way it was covered up . Christianity can just be title but to those who really believe it is a way of life ,living a life of love

    • It was a priest that said the native Indians are not strong enough to work. Why not getting niggers out of Afrika. But yeh who learns HISTORIE in school these days.

    • Marsha…every God is the one and only depending on which religion you subscribe to

  6. I am not religious. That is not to say I am not spiritual and I do not have a moral/ethical/value code that is consistent with the codes of most ‘religions’ – including those of indigenous people throughout the world. Australia was founded in an indigenous set of beliefs. Since this time we have prided ourselves on the diversity of backgrounds within our population. I value the eclectic nature of this, rather than the ‘one true God’ theory sometimes put out by my more zealous Christian friends.

  7. Proudly a good moral and ethical person with values and an Athiest.

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    • So agree with you Kathy. I am a devout Athiest but also consider myself to be a kind and compassionate person no need for religion just be a good person

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