Ar­gu­ments in favour of faith

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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