Arguments in favour of faith
One of the best Australian books of last year was Don Watson’s The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia. Best, but disfigured by sneering and intellectually sloppy references to religion. A diary, for example, from an exploring party of the 1890s refers to a Sunday service followed by a leading of the camels to a native well. “This was muscular Christianity,” comments Watson, and he goes on to imply that such Christianity was responsible for the drying up of the wells, the 600,000 feral camels now in Australia and the botanical havoc the animals have wrought.
Roy Williams doesn’t mention Watson and his absurdity, but his new book certainly has been provoked by better known sneerers. Post God Nation? is the third volume in the Sydney lawyer-writer’s evangelical mission to make religion, in particular Christianity, not only respectable but appealing, following God, Actually and In God They Trust? The Religious Beliefs of Australia’s Prime Ministers 1901-2013. It’s the best of the three.
His argument is twofold. First, Christianity formed Australia. Second, Australia is now a secular society where adherence to Christianity and knowledge of it are shrinking towards possible extinction. The trouble with the first argument is Williams’s obsession with lining up an endless queue of historical figures and ticking them off as members of his believers team. As argument this is unnecessary, superficial and boring. Readerly sympathy is not helped when Williams gives vent to sneers of his own: “trendy white defenders of indigenous spirituality” or “Australia’s greatest creative writers — not the fashionable fly-by-nighters, but the enduring greats ... were (or are) steeped in Christianity”.
That said, there is much that is stimulating and impressive about the second part of this book. The flip side of superficiality is the range of reference.
Williams has 57 pages of footnotes, and an eye for memorable lines from other writers. Geoffrey Blainey, for example, laid down the “First Commandment of Australian Protestantism ... followed, more or less assiduously, for a century, Do not allow the public purse to subsidise private schools because such schools are mostly Catholic”. (Williams’s own treatment of the different Christian churches — he’s a Presbyterian — is strikingly even-handed.)
Then, from the other team, we are given the equally fighting words of Patrick O’Farrell, the great historian of Irish and Catholic Australia, that “the secular school system is to blame for the non-philosophical tenor of Australian so- ciety. It is also responsible for the remarkable ignorance of religion.”
Refreshments such as this are part of the pleasure of the book’s second half, The Secular Juggernaut. Williams works his way through numerous reasons for Christianity’s decline in Australia, some of which are self-inflicted wounds. The stark statistic is that in the 1901 census 96 per cent of the population identified as Christian and half the adults were churchgoers. In the 2011 census 61 per cent were willing to call themselves Christian but only 8 per cent attended church. Often relying on other commentators Williams is able to point the finger again and again. For example, “the beginning of the steep decline in rates of churchgoing in Australia can be traced to a specific event: the introduction of television in 1956. Numbers at evening services straight away fell sharply, and have never recovered.” Contemporary social media, he adds, “are antithetical to traditional forms of worship, which require extended periods of quiet, uninterrupted contemplation”.
There are many other diverse factors. The state has taken over most social services from the churches, so the chances of interaction between individuals and churches are diminished. Increasing life expectancy and reduced birthrates make death a less frequent presence. Throw in ever-growing prosperity, a trust in science as eventually having all the answers, the breakdown of Sunday as sacrosanct, philosophical relativism — and the churches didn’t need to be adding to their own woes. But they did. The sexual abuse, of course.
But the two dramatic collapses in religious belief followed World War I and Vietnam, conflicts the churches generally supported, and the first with a fiery belligerence. Williams claims that with Vietnam the churches “lost the idealistic Left”. With at least one exception. Williams himself is, surprisingly, of the idealistic Left. He is horrified by “neo-liberalism at full throttle”: the obsession with short-term shareholder returns, the selling off of public assets, higher and higher executive earnings, and lower and lower income taxes ... The commodification of education, especially at the tertiary level ... The plain fact is that neo-liberalism does not sit well with basic Christian teaching.
Williams will not allow that entropy is writ- ten into Christianity. He wants it to make a comeback and believes it can. His prescriptions include a drastic resumption of the teaching of religion, particularly in state schools; a redistribution of the churches’s wealth; a wholehearted and generous response to the victims of clerical abuse; vigorous proclamation of orthodox supernatural theism; total opposition to war and support for ‘‘brotherhood of man’’ issues such as foreign aid, refugees, climate change.
Most unexpected of all is a passionate if forlorn plea to both major political parties to allow individual voting in the spirit of Edmund Burke’s great 1774 pledge to the electors of Bristol. Williams believes greater licence to individual conscience can make for a more honest society, as well as one more trusting of politics.
I sympathise with Williams’s program for renewal, but I can’t manage to share his optimism. It’s hard to see the churches, or the state, implementing his ideas. And Christianity seems too ambiguous, if not divided. Who best represents the truth of it, Tony Abbott or Tim Costello, Fred Nile or Frank Brennan? There seem no signs of resurgence as yet. Naive reports of upswings in numbers in Catholic seminaries, for example, serve only to reinforce the notion that Australian Catholicism is on a drip of temporary Third World pastors and students.
If you follow your commonsense assumption that Christianity was central to the formation of Australia, you may well skip the first half of this book. But relish and be informed and provoked by the welter of facts and arguments in its second half. Religion, if only as a topic, is too important to drop.
Roy Williams believes the church, in a bid to win over more believers, must declare total opposition to war