The spiritual ingredient in nation-building
At the 2011 census, 61 per cent of Australians identified as Christian and a further 7 per cent as belonging to other faith traditions (mostly Buddhism, Islam or Hinduism). Accordingly, about two-thirds of the population was at least nominally “religious”.
Yet the Christian percentage has been falling steadily for decades, and this year’s census will no doubt reveal a further fall since 2011.
Of course, the census measures religious affiliation only, not strength of conviction or depth of knowledge.
A more pertinent statistic may be this: in 2016, only one Australian in 12 regularly attends a service of worship. In the general community, apathy to religion is rife and antipathy not uncommon. This is so at all levels of power, income and formal education.
It was not always so. In 1901, the year of Federation, half the adult population went to church each Sunday. Furthermore, until quite recent times, most civic leaders and opinion makers were at least religiously literate, if not notably pious.
And as Wayne Hudson is right to emphasise in Australian Religious Thought, even “those who questioned religion were not necessarily outside it or free of religious concerns”. Many public critics of the churches wanted to see them reformed rather than gagged or sidelined.
Hudson is an adjunct professor at the University of Queensland, Charles Sturt University and the University of Tasmania, with 18 books to his credit and impressive expertise across various disciplines — philosophy, theology, history, politics.
One of his operating premises is that religion as variously understood and applied has been “a basic element of Australian society, if sometimes carried lightly”.
But in this book he does not purport to prove that premise in any comprehensive way. This is not a history of the Australian churches, nor a history of secular Australia seen through a religious prism.
Hudson’s aim is less ambitious: to demonstrate, by way of six themed case studies, the sophistication and diversity of Australian religious ideas as published and promulgated since 1788. “My task,” he writes, “is to alert the reader to the wealth of materials available.”
In this he succeeds. The depth of his research is prodigious, and refreshingly non-sectarian. While his material is selective, most Christian denominations are well represented, along with indigenous spirituality. The major non-Christian faiths are also dealt with appropriately.
But while Hudson’s subject matter is always fascinating, purists may well quibble with the breadth of his conception of “religious thought”.
For instance, two of the six chapters are devoted to “sacral secularity” and “post-secular consciousness”. As defined by Hudson, these notions encompass almost any realm of thought that is a step up from the totally selfish and mundane; any attitude of mind that is not entirely closed off to the numinous. He sets the bar low.
To give a flavour, Anzac Day is cited as Australia’s most obvious commemoration of modern-day “sacral secularity”.
Another historic example is Henry Lawson’s paean to the early trade union movement — “a new and grand religion”. Under the rubric of “post-secular consciousness” there is a discussion of, among other topics, environmentalism and psychiatry.
Several chapters deal primarily with thinkers who stood — or stand today — on the fringes of traditional Christianity. “Shapes of Disbelief” is devoted to those who mounted attacks on various aspects of creedal orthodoxy — though not on the existence of God.
Hudson’s “religious liberals” were cut from similar cloth, influential “heretics” of their day such as Charles Strong, founder in 1885 of the socially progressive Australian Church, which remained a force in Melbourne until World War I; and Samuel Angus, who twice came close in the 1930s to being expelled from the Presbyterian Church in NSW.
Another chapter deals with notable Christian philosophers, innovative figures such as WR Boyce Gibson, Max Charlesworth and Kevin Hart, as well as the most influential atheist in Australian history, John Anderson. Anderson, a Scot, was a long-time professor of philosophy at the University of Sydney (1927-58) with something of a cult following among impressionable students.
It is only in the chapter headed “Theology in Development” that Hudson deals primarily with thinkers within, or at least close to, the mainstream Trinitarian tradition, Protestant or Catholic. Here — and in his wide-ranging introduction — he comes closest to the guts of the Australian religious story.
Since 1788, in ways obvious and not so obvious, orthodox Christian beliefs have motivated