Even its most ardent opponents now concede grudgingly that religion is not about to whither away anytime soon. One hundred and perhaps two hundred years ago, there were hopes that this might come to pass, at least among the educated in the West. These hopes have died hard and for some it seems the disappointment is bitter indeed. Authors such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, among others, are very angry about it; like Jonah in the Old Testament, “angry enough to die”. Jonah was angry because God relented and chose not to smite Nineveh (Jon. 4:1-11). Atheist anger is a condition of its own, and several explanations have been mooted. Our atheist friends evince any number of reasons to be angry with religion, and particularly with Christianity, but there is a disproportion to it all which makes one wary. Why be angry at an absence? It leads me to wonder if some atheists are angry with God precisely because – by their lights – he does not exist. It is, after all, not unheard of for children to grow up angry at a father who is remote, absent, or unknown. And the alternatives are Creative Intelligence – that is, God – or blind chance. It would be infuriating to concede that Christ, the Buddha, Aristotle, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Newton, Beethoven and Einstein are pointless froth in a heartless universe.
Whatever of this, religion is here to stay, and in Western democracies such as Australia. I say this not to indulge in triumphalism, but simply to state a fact about real life as it is lived around us. Triumphalism is not in keeping with Christianity, and in some places in Western Europe there is very little reason for the Christian churches to be triumphalist. The situation continues to be hopeful for Christianity in Australia, despite recent census figures showing that the percentage of Christians has fallen from 68 per cent in 2001 to under 64 per cent in 2006. The percentage of people claiming no religion rose from 16 per cent to 19 per cent, perhaps in part because those identifying themselves as Jedi knights in the 2001 census have lapsed into unbelief. Catholics remain the largest religious minority in the country, with our overall numbers increasing to 5.1 million people, but slipping slightly as a percentage of the total population from 27 per cent to 26 per cent.
And next July, of course, Sydney will host World Youth, which will generate the largest movement of people within the country (50,000 young people will travel from Melbourne to Sydney in the week before World Youth Day); the largest number of overseas visitors to the country (at this stage, nine months out, registrations of overseas pilgrims stand at 140,000); and the largest gathering in Australian history, with 500,000 people expected to attend the final Mass with Pope Benedict XVI at Randwick racecourse. There’s also a useful statistic for those who think that young Australians are not interested in religion. Based on the registrations of Australian pilgrims, and again with nine months to go before the Holy Father arrives, we are looking at a forecast participation rate among young Australian Catholics almost three-and-half times higher than the participation rates of locals at the two previous World Youth Days in Germany and Canada. Australia has never seen anything quite like it.
Religion is not only refusing to disappear in modern Australia. There is also some danger of revival and new growth. What does this mean for our ideas of secular democracy? I do not think this is a problem for most Australians. As I have observed elsewhere recently, although Australian life has been marred by sectarianism in the past, Catholics here never suffered the centuries of persecution that befell Catholics in Britain and Ireland, and nor have they been victims of the mob-violence and church-burning that anti-Catholicism occasionally produced in the United States. The idea that religion is irrational and must be excluded from public affairs is not a native Australian plant.
In Australia, democracy is not spelt with a capital D. It is not treated as a high system of belief or a source of transcendent meaning. While it may be a cause for regret among those who take politics too seriously, Australians value democracy primarily because it works, although they are deadly serious about the right of each adult to vote for who will or will not govern them, and about the right of everyone to have his or her say. It is not a perfect combination and it has some serious flaws, but it has nevertheless played a significant part in the success of the Australian experiment. The Australian idea of life in common is often generous and always capacious. A bit more religion here and there is something most will easily take in their stride, and probably nearly as many would be uneasy if religious voices were completely silent.
It would be regrettable if American or European frames of reference were imposed on the very different situation of religious life and public culture here in Australia. The Greens, some Democrats and largely silent minority elements in both major parties, as well as a bigger percentage in the media, would like to exclude religious considerations from public discussion, but this overlooks the fact that Australians, often unlike Europeans and Americans, are also pragmatic rather than ideological about the relationship between religion and democracy. So while the separation of church and state is accepted as one of the foundations of Australian life, and strongly supported by me and by most Australian Catholics too, government funding for religious services in areas such as education, welfare, health and aged care is also accepted, whether they be Christian, Jewish, or Muslim facilities. There is no official religion, no compulsion on belief, and governments and courts are loathe to interfere in religious communities.
The separation of church and state is sometimes invoked as a principle when politicians or others disagree with what church leaders or agencies have said on social justice, government policy, or moral issues, but when they agree with church statements this principle is not mentioned. The most lurid objections are often made by political yahoos seeking publicity, evidence perhaps of anti-clericalism, but probably not evidence of sustained, thought-out opposition to religion. Even groups hostile to Christianity are happy enough to accept public interventions which seem to support their ideas of right and wrong.
Some of those who are not particularly religious also think it is important to have a critical mass of active religious believers in the community. In part this reflects an acceptance of the so-called social usefulness of religion, particularly in caring for the poor and in picking up the pieces of social and personal dysfunction. But more deeply than this, I also think many Australians appreciate that having a goodly number of active believers is essential to ensure that the values of a fair go and respect for others are promoted and passed on the next generation. Values don’t create and renew themselves, and it is a serious mistake to assume that people will always give to the poor and be concerned about social justice for the bottom five, ten or fifteen per cent. Many great civilisations have shown no regard for these values at all and have even considered them weaknesses, and there are occasional worrying indications of a return to this pagan mindset in parts of Western culture. We might not talk openly about the domination of the strong over the weak as part of the natural order of things, but some of the talk about “winners” and “losers” that can be heard from time to time is certainly reminiscent of it. Many people are worried that our egalitarian ethos is being eroded by the scramble to succeed. Christianity helps to renew and pass on to young people the sort of values that are essential for a decent, prosperous and stable society, and most Australians expect the churches to do this, even if they never darken its doors.
The contribution of religion to the renewal of social capital in a democracy is part of its day-to-day work. In more extreme political circumstances there is another contribution that believers make, and which sometimes only believers dare to make in the political realm, and that is in defending freedom and uman rights against brute force. This is not a new insight. I remember Jonathan Glover saying something along these lines at Oxford in the 1980s and he has explored it further in his book Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (1999). But it bears repeating and the writer Ian Buruma has recently done this while reflecting on the role Buddhist monks and nuns have played in leading opposition to the military regime in Burma.
Buruma points to the role of the church in the “People Power” movement which felled Marcos in the Philippines, the crucial part played by Pope John Paul II and the Solidarity movement in Poland in bringing down the Iron Curtain, and the role of Christian belief in sustaining political dissent in China. Buruma makes his own unbelief clear and acknowledges the evil that can be done in the name of religion. But he also understands the power that belief in an order beyond politics can give to people.
There is no doubt that secular beliefs in freedom or human rights can also provide this power, as they did for the students in Tiananmen Square in 1989, but only when they are held with the depth and strength of conviction that we would usually describe as religious. Buruma argues that “faith has an especially important role to play in politics” when confronting oppression and dictatorship. “Liberals” he says “are most needed when compromises have to be made, but not nearly as useful when faced with brute force”. What is needed then is people “driven by their beliefs to take risks that most of us would regard as foolhardy”. Buruma does not wish to be ruled by believers, but thinks it is good to have them around “when they are needed”.
Perhaps not many would admit it as frankly as Ian Buruma and Jonathan Glover have done, but I suspect many Australians think the same way, including probably many in our otherwise secular political and cultural elites. It is not mind control or an incapacity to think of dangers that enables religious believers to make extraordinary sacrifices for their beliefs. On the contrary. True individuality is produced and sustained within the mesh of social relations. In the West, the two institutions that have been most fruitful in producing a hardy and resilient individuality are Christianity and the family. It is for this reason, as Kenneth Minogue once remarked, that the great totalitarian projects of the last century paid so much attention to their destruction. Both seriously impede the creation of the sort of atomized society conducive to totalitarianism by uniting individuals with one another and giving them the courage and hope to defend a genuine idea of the common good. This is the sort of communitarian individualism that democracy needs, not that of isolated fragments in an atomized environment.
We should place all this in a bigger picture. The key public task facing all Christians today is to make the case for Western civilisation and to replenish the sources from which it takes life and strength. In the midst of unprecedented prosperity and opportunity we have more and more evidence of the instability of our families, diminishing trust and safety within our communities, and growing fears about the future. One of the most important indicators of trust in the goodness of life and confidence in the future is the willingness to have children, and the fertility rates of every Western country are below replacement level, in some cases catastrophically so. Christianity’s role in democracy, and in particular Catholicism’s role in Australia, is to help turn this situation around. We do this through our works of service, but also through our contributions to debate on a range of issues crucial to the well-being of society – faith and religious freedom, life and biotechnology, marriage and family, social justice and social capital.
We focus on these issues to maintain and improve a decent society. Let me given an example. In September I was cleared of a charge of contempt of the New South Wales parliament. The charge was ridiculous and my exoneration no surprise. It arose out of remarks I made about the cloning legislation. Legislating for the destruction of human life contravenes important fundamental principles. These principles come from both the natural law known through human reason alone and Christian teaching. They hold that human life should be accorded the full protection of the law without regard to race, ethnicity, sex, religion, age, condition of dependency or stage of development. There is nothing undemocratic in this principle. In fact, in the normal course of things it should be at the heart of democratic life and politics.
Setting this principle out is a rational contribution to public debate, not an imposition of some supernatural dogma on the general community, and respect for human life is shared by people from every section of the Australian population, not just the Christian majority. In asking all politicians who respect human life to vote against this legislation, the NSW bishops were not calling for the “enforcement” of Catholic beliefs, but reminding legislators to fulfil the demands of justice and the common good that follow from the inherent and equal dignity of every member of the human family. This is exactly the basis on which the church also calls on legislators to protect the poor or to oppose racial discrimination. Christians in Australia have long played an important part in ensuring that fundamental human rights are respected and will strive to continue this important work. My contribution to the public discussion on human cloning was made in this spirit and tradition. It is strange that the church’s defence of a principle which should be one of the foundations of democracy was seen by some as an attack on democracy.
There are other fault-lines that can be identified which, like cloning and biotechnology generally, are likely to give rise to tension between religion and secularist democracy in the years ahead.
A large battle is likely to open up over human rights and anti-discrimination legislation. Last week English papers carried reports that a couple with an unblemished record as foster parents to 28 vulnerable children have been forced to give up this work. As committed nonconformist Christians they were unable to teach the children they are fostering that homosexual relationships are just as acceptable as heterosexual marriages. This requirement was imposed under the Sexual Orientation Regulations, the same laws which forced Catholic agencies out of adoption services earlier this year. The British government refused to grant church agencies an exemption from the laws, even though it meant that the country would lose one of its most successful adoption services.
In Australia, the concept of exemptions to anti-discrimination laws to allow church agencies to go about their work in a manner consistent with their beliefs continues to survive. But it was subject to sustained attack during the debate in the United Kingdom over the Sexual Orientation Regulations. These laws prohibit any discrimination against homosexuals by anyone providing “goods, facilities and services”. This makes them practically all-encompassing, with exceptions only for a small number of narrowly defined religious activities, primarily services held in churches. Church adoption services were therefore confronted with the prospect of being forced to place children with homosexual couples, contrary to their beliefs.
When the Catholic bishops petitioned the government for an exemption for church agencies a member of the Scottish parliament said it would make “a mockery” of society’s decision “to end discrimination” if exemptions were granted “to those groups most likely to discriminate”. The English philosopher AC Grayling said the Catholic bishops’ request posed “the threat of a possible return to the dark ages. We are trying to keep a pluralistic society, and elements in the Christian church and other religions are trying to destroy it”. The American academic lawyer Ronald Dworkin said the laws were “necessary to prevent injustice”, and argued that respect for religious freedom does not mean accommodating any “preference” designated as religious. Even though supportive of an exemption for church agencies on adoptions, Dworkin claimed that, as a matter of general principle, allowances should be made only for the “central convictions” of religious believers, and must not extend to the state allegedly taking the side of religion on questions such as abortion or same-sex marriage, by restricting or prohibiting them.
At the heart of this attack on the concept of exemptions for faith-based agencies lies a false analogy drawn between alleged discrimination against homosexuals and racial discrimination, and this is already beginning to appear in Australia. This analogy allows opponents of exemptions to dismiss the objection that the law makes exceptions all the time – for example, for halal abattoirs, or for Sikhs to wear turbans, or for pacifists to avoid military service – by pointing to the legitimate absence of exceptions in laws against racial discrimination. Opposition to same-sex marriage is therefore likened to support for laws against inter-racial marriage (which continued in some US states until the 1960s), and opposition to homosexual adoptions is likened to refusing to adopt children to black parents.
The analogy is false because allowing blacks and whites to marry did not require changing the whole concept of marriage; and allowing black parents to adopt white children, or vice versa, did not require changing the whole concept of family, or for that matter, the whole concept of childhood. Same-sex marriage and adoption changes the meaning of marriage, family, parenting and childhood for everyone, not just for homosexual couples. And whatever issues of basic justice remain to be addressed, I am not sure that it is at all true to say that homosexuals today suffer the same sort of legal and civil disadvantages which blacks in the United States and elsewhere suffered forty years ago, and to some extent still suffer.
All the same, the race analogy has been very effective in casting the churches as persecutors. So, in the United Kingdom, and also in Massachusetts where a similar issue arose in 2006, warnings that the Catholic Church would be forced to close its adoption services if exemptions were not granted were described as blackmail.
Then there is the question of human rights legislation and the adverse effects it can have on religious believers. In the United Kingdom in 2005, Mrs Veronica Connolly, a pro-life campaigner, sent photos of aborted babies to three pharmacies in an attempt to dissuade them from stocking the morning after pill. The pharmacies complained to the police and Mrs Connolly was charged under the Malicious Communications Act for posting material to people which was “in whole or in part, of an indecent or grossly offensive nature”. She was duly convicted and fined, and she appealed to the High Court of Justice. In her appeal Mrs Connolly claimed that the Human Rights Act required the English law against malicious postal communications to be applied in a way consistent with her rights to freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience and religion under the European Convention on Human Rights.
In January 2007 the court dismissed this argument, ruling that freedom of thought, conscience and religion is a right which of its nature is likely to cause offence to others and so must be narrowly construed. The limitations for protecting the rights of others placed on this right, and in this case also on the right to freedom of expression, were given an expansive reading, so that the “distress and anxiety” caused to those who saw the photos sent by Mrs Connolly was found to be a violation of their rights. For this reason, the court concluded, “the conviction of Mrs Connolly on the facts of this case was necessary in a democratic society”. The House of Lords has since declined to grant her leave to appeal against this decision.
English precedents remain powerful in a cultural and legal sense, especially throughout the Anglophone world, but the religious situation in Australia is somewhat closer to that of the United States rather than post-Christian Britain. Both our Prime Minister and his challenger are serious Christians. Neither the British Prime Minister nor his alternative are in this mould, and the Catholic community here is larger and with a much longer and stronger tradition of contributions to public political life than in Britain, whose history and traditions are still residually anti-Catholic.
All the same, this case shows what can happen when bills of rights are interpreted from the premises of a minority secularist mindset, especially when it is sharpened, as in Europe, by fear of home-grown Islam. Reading freedom of religion as a limited right to be offensive to which only a limited toleration is extended is not acceptable in a democracy where many more than a majority belong to the great religious traditions – even more so when it is claimed that this is “necessary for democracy”. Democracy does not need to be secular. The secularist reading of religious freedom places Christians (at least) in the position of a barely tolerated minority (even when they are the majority) whose rights must always yield to the secular agenda, although I don’t think other religious minorities will be treated the same way. Proponents of a bill of rights in Australia regularly point to the UK Human Rights Act as a model that we should adopt. Connolly v DPP shows how little protection religious people can expect from anything like the UK Human Rights Act if it were to be implemented in Australia, even for minor and maladroit forms of religious expression and political activity such as Mrs Connolly’s.
Another fault-line concerns Islam and democracy, or more precisely, the presence of growing Muslim minorities in Western countries. In discussing Islam in the West it is absolutely crucial to distinguish the activity and agenda of the small violent Islamist minority from the aspirations and ambitions of ordinary Muslim citizens around the world, many of whom bear the brunt of Islamist intimidation in their own communities. One of the obvious tasks for the majority non-Muslim population in Australia is to establish and deepen friendship with the different Muslim communities now around us and to make them feel more at home, especially their young people. We have to acknowledge too that the ideological struggle against Islamist violence in the Muslim community is one in which most of the heavy lifting has to be done by Muslims opposed to extremism, but we should be prepared to help them in this task in ways which are effective and which build trust and openness instead of fear and ghettoisation. The prospects of success for this in Australia are good, provided they are not derailed by a series of disasters overseas.
Leadership is crucial here, and one advantage we have in Australia is good relations between the leaders of the Christian churches and those of the different Muslim communities. Internationally, the recent letter sent to Pope Benedict XVI and other Christian leaders by 138 leading Muslim scholars from around the world is a helpful initiative. This letter is one of the most authoritative statements we have seen from Muslim leaders supporting dialogue and friendship between Christians and Muslims, based on a shared belief in God as the God of love, and in the commandment to love our neighbour as we love ourselves.
Outsiders and insiders have every right to ask spokespersons of the great religious traditions, perhaps the monotheist traditions in particular, how they understand and explain the teachings of their sacred writings on violence and coexistence, and how they explain, condone, or condemn what are, or appear to be, religious wars. This letter is an important contribution to this discussion.
Of particular interest to me is the idea of human nature which the Muslim scholars present in their letter, and the interpretation of the Koran they use for this. The letter argues that the “the three main faculties” of human nature are “the mind or the intelligence, which is made for comprehending the truth; the will which is made for freedom of choice, and sentiment which is made for loving the good and the beautiful”. Christianity teaches that human beings are a unity of reason, freedom and love, and while the emphasis on “intelligence”, “will” and “sentiment” in the Muslim scholars letter should not automatically be assumed to be the simple equivalent of this teaching, it certainly opens up new and positive questions to explore. It also raises the intriguing possibility of Christians, Muslims and Jews co-operating to help secular society address its radically diminished ideas of the human person, and the fragmented and incoherent ideas it has about the meaning and value of reason, freedom and love.
Many complexities and problems remain, of course, but the leadership given by the 138 scholars who have issued this letter is to be welcomed and applauded. Serious scholarly replies from the leadership of the Christian churches are required.
The great religious traditions differ considerably one from the other and there are huge differences within traditions: for example, between Quakers and the medieval Catholic orders of military knights. These differences bring sociological consequences for democratic life and an unanswered question is the compatibility of religiously motivated Islamic majorities with the democratic process. What other alternatives are there beyond the secularising policies followed by Ataturk in Turkey after the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire? Time will tell, but the experience in Indonesia provides considerable reassurance, even for Christians, as does Pakistan’s post World War Two history, although the situation there for Christians is difficult and confined.
The story of religions in the Western world will continue to be interesting, and probably surprising, for the foreseeable future. The future of an explicit secularism is more problematic even than the future of regular religious practice. Professor Alistair McGrath from Oxford University believes post-modernism will damage atheism more than it damages Christianity. I believe this is correct as the numbers in humanist societies have dropped radically. Therefore, challenges to Christianity are more likely to come at a popular level from a variety of superstitions, from muddled agnosticism, and for the more sophisticated, from some forms of pantheism, of semi-religious and personally undemanding environmentalism. Free democratic societies provide an appropriate setting for these systems of meaning to offer their different solutions to those who are searching or dissatisfied.
The prospects for continuing religious peace continue to be good in Australia, while vigorous debate will continue on the best ways to repair our diminishing social capital (which still remains high in comparison with many other societies), and to wrestle with the escalating possibilities from biotechnology. A succession of big terrorist attacks would also change the religious scene dramatically and provoke ferocious retaliation, especially from the United States. We can only hope that policies of continued vigilance and strength will deter the violent fanatics, and that the battle for public opinion in Islamic societies (and our own) will be won by the peace makers.
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