OPINION | Roy Williams
Friday 6 November 2015
This is an excerpt of the annual Smith Lecture, organised by the City Bible Forum and that it is named in honour of the late Rev Bruce Smith. This excerpt is reproduced here, with permission. You can read the full lecture, here.
Let me begin with a personal confession. Not very many years ago, it would have been quite inconceivable to me that, one day, I’d be extolling the greatness of Christianity – let alone be invited to give a public lecture on the subject.
For the first 35 years of my life, when it came to religion, I was a disengaged agnostic – drifting towards atheism. I cannot stress enough why this was so. It was not because I’d had some bad experience within a church. It was certainly not because I had ever given careful thought to the question of God’s existence, and then rejected the notion as improbable.
Rather, it was because, not having been raised in a religious home, and having attended exclusively state schools, I knew next to nothing about Christianity – or any religion.
So at age 35 I was highly informed about many things of this world. But I was badly ignorant of the most important questions of all. Is there a God who created the Universe – and created me? If so, what does that God expect of me?
I was the epitome of the “average” Australian citizen of whom Bishop Tom Frame has written this:
The majority of Australians have either no idea what the Christian religion is offering or they have rejected what they mistakenly think it is offering.
It was not always so in Australia. At Federation in 1901, according to the census of that year, 96% of people identified as Christian. Of course, even then, there was plenty of nominalism. But one-half of all adults went to church regularly. And most children went to Sunday school.
Furthermore, levels of religious knowledge were reasonably good: the average citizen had been taught the basics of Christianity as a child; had some familiarity with the Bible; and knew that Christianity had played a seminal part in the formation of the Western world.
Until the 1970s, the educated classes of Australian society were steeped in this knowledge. And I am talking not only about people of conservative disposition – the wealthy ruling class – but progressives and reformers too. Most of the leaders of the early trade union movement in Australia were Protestant Christian socialists – the genuine article. So too were many of the founders of the Australian Labor Party in the 1890s.
What is the state of Christianity in Australia today?
Most of our political and media class is now ignorant of religion – if not openly antagonistic towards it. As for the general population, according to the 2011 census, nominal Christianity is now at 61% and falling – I’ll predict here tonight that it will be much closer to 50% when next year’s census is taken, perhaps even below 50%. And that’s nominal Christianity only. Perhaps a more telling statistic is this: only around 8% of people go to church regularly.
By contrast, more than 20% of Australians are prepared to state that they have “no religion”. Many say it proudly. Many admit that “no religion” is what they want for their children.
Now, the sixty-four thousand dollar questions are – Why is it so? And: Why does it matter?
As to the first question – Why is it so? – it is not because most citizens have made a careful study of the Christian religion and, weighing all of the relevant evidence, have decided in good conscience that it is not true.
And it is not because most citizens have decided, likewise after careful study, that wherever the truth might lie, the issues involved are unimportant – not worth considering.
That must be right. If pressed, any sensible person must admit that the question whether Christianity is true or false is one of vital importance. For, if it is true – I repeat, if it is true – what is at stake is nothing less that the fate of each person’s soul for eternity.
That said, let me make another thing absolutely clear at the outset. I am not going to argue tonight that, in this earthly life, it is impossible to be a good citizen without practising religion. There are, and always have been, many badly-behaved people who profess to be believers – and many comparatively well-behaved citizens who rarely give religion a thought.
Before my conversion to Christianity, I was not an obviously “bad” person. My parents were ethical people who taught me right from wrong. I was a “respectable” citizen. But something was missing – something big.
I was an unconscious product – victim – of the Secular Juggernaut. I now realise that I made all kinds of assumptions which are seriously questionable. I did not understand the good news at the heart of Christianity. I did not know nearly enough history – both ancient and modern. I did not properly understand the history of my own country.
What were the main factors working upon me? I now believe they were typical of the factors working, and still working, on most Australians. In my opinion there are four really big factors.
The “Big Four” Factors
It is hard to place them in any order of importance. But in combination, they have created a “perfect storm”.
Most people in Australia today simply do not know much about Christianity – or any religion. The well-educated professional classes are no exception.
Who or what is to blame for this state of affairs?
In a nutshell: the education system. At least two generations of Australian children have grown up without any proper teaching about religion – and here I include myself, schooled in the 1970s and early 80s. To tackle the Big Questions, you need at least a basic grounding in theology, philosophy, ethics, science and history.
Today, about two-thirds of Australian children are educated in State schools. The plain truth is that, at both the primary and secondary levels, these schools are largely religion-free. This is despite the best efforts of SRE volunteers in all states and territories. In Victoria, such volunteers have now been banned altogether from teaching inside school hours.
The remaining one-third of Australian children are educated in private schools. Most of these schools are run by the churches. But going to a church school is no longer any guarantee of a decent religious education either. There are honourable exceptions, of course. But religious tokenism is common, especially at the wealthy end of the Protestant system.
War and nationalism
60% of churchgoers in Australia are women. The first significant drop in measured levels of religious affiliation and commitment in Australia occurred in the 1920s, and, overwhelmingly, it was men rather than women who lapsed.
Why? The decline can be traced to a specific historical event: World War One.
That war was a catastrophe on almost every level. It was plainly avoidable and its short-term and long-term consequences were terrible. Pope Benedict XV in 1914 rightly called it “the suicide of civilized Europe”. But Benedict was a rarity – most church leaders in all countries, including Australia, strongly supported the war throughout and led prayers for the destruction of the other side.
What was even worse, the Australian Churches, Protestant and Catholic, largely repeated these mistakes during World War Two and then again during the Vietnam War.
You may ask: how did this harm the cause of religion, especially among men? The answers are complex, and disputed, but I will proffer a few ideas.
Most obviously, it was twentieth-century Australian men – much more so than women – who witnessed the horrors of war first-hand, as combatants overseas. Many of those who survived returned disillusioned.
And yet the story is not as simple as that. Let’s also remember this:
- It almost always men who start wars and fight wars
- Men are more inclined than women to see “national honour” or “national security” as a primary goal of public policy
- Men are more inclined than women to see violence as an effective solution to conflict between nation-states
- Men are much more inclined than women to sanction the use of lethal force against defenceless civilian populations – this was the most ghastly legacy of World War Two
By buying into this mindset – as the Churches did through most of the twentieth century, in the face of clearly contrary teachings by Jesus and the Apostles – they gradually lost their moral authority. They lost it most especially among the segment of the population who identify as “anti-war” – the idealistic Left. Vietnam was a turning point. Many people saw religious hypocrisy, and thought it repugnant.
This is the third of my “Big Four” factors in the Secular Juggernaut.
Scientism must be distinguished from the scientific method. It cannot be emphasised enough that the scientific method – empirical reasoning, tested by experiment – was and is a wonderful long-term product of Christianity.
It is also worth remembering that, until very recently, most of the world’s greatest scientists were serious practising Christians. The men who invented science as we know it – Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Lavoisier, Jenner, Pasteur, Lister, to name a few – were all in that category. So was Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian priest, who was the first to propound the Big Bang theory.
And so also, by the way, were many of Australia’s greatest scientists since 1788.
The problem nowadays is that the amazing success of the scientific method has given rise to the shallow idea that science is the only reliable source of knowledge.
That said, in my opinion, some of the best arguments for the existence of God are based on the findings of modern science – cosmology, physics, chemistry, biology.
We have now reached the fourth and last of my “big four” factors: prosperity. Let me repeat that: prosperity. Material affluence. In my judgement, this may be the biggest factor of all.
Australia in 2015 is one of the richest societies in the history of humankind. There has been a threefold increase in real personal income since 1950 – in real terms, I stress.
It has been the same, more or less, throughout the affluent West – and it is no coincidence that it is in the West where Christianity is in decline. On the other hand, Christianity is gaining ground in many of the less affluent parts of the world: Asia, Africa, South America. Religion in general is strongest in the Second and Third Worlds.
What are the links between prosperity and secularisation? There are various factors at play, I think.
One is that material comfort acts as a kind of spiritual soporific – the more pleasant this life, the less focus on the life to come.
A second factor is much increased life expectancy – for most people in the West, there is a reduced consciousness of death until old age. Comparatively few people in the West die young nowadays – a big change even from the early twentieth century, let alone earlier eras.
A third factor is sheer distraction – technology has created a world where there is far less time for quiet, uninterrupted contemplation.
But at core it’s a question of personal priorities. I now realise that when I was a partner at a big commercial law firm, earning a lot of money, my own priorities became skewed. And my health badly suffered too.
It seems to me that some of the core truths of Christianity – as stated in the Bible – are its best defence against all the main factors in the Secular Juggernaut.
Prosperity? – Well, it was Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount who rightly insisted that a man cannot serve two masters, God and Mammon (Matthew 6:24). He also commanded, a few verses earlier, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth … But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:19-10). In other words: you can’t take it with you. The state of your eternal soul is what counts.
War? – Again, it was Jesus who rejected physical violence as an answer to anything; and for 300 years Christians eschewed violence, even in the face of persecution and torture. Tens of thousands were martyred. They obeyed Jesus’ injunction to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:29).
Nationalism? – Jesus warned strongly against nationalistic self-righteousness and stereotyping. The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) addressed these vices directly – one of the lesser-known features of that parable is that the Samaritan was a foreigner from a distrusted nearby land. And it was the Apostle Paul made what may be the most counter-cultural, cosmopolitan and anti-nationalistic of all pronouncements: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Christianity if it is to mean anything must transcend national borders.
Scientism? – Well, I think scientism is just a subset of ignorance. So ultimately any solution goes back to the education system. Australian children and university students need to be taught much more about science – the established facts and theories, of course. But also the history of science; and the limits of science; and the implications of what science does, actually, prove. They should be informed of these words of Johannes Kepler, the discoverer of the laws of planetary motion: “The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order which has been imposed on it by God.”
Ignorance in general? – The only cure for ignorance is knowledge. The Bible rightly says that “fools despise wisdom and instruction”. But that same Bible verse – Proverbs 1:7 – hits the nail on the head. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge”.
I am sure that is right, but I am also sure that in the end hope should trump fear.
In concluding, I’d like to quote a few lines from a poem by Bruce Smith, the man after whom this lecture is named. Among other things he was a distinguished poet. This is the final stanza of his poem “Being Elsewhere”:
It’s heaven itself—
the absence of fear,
the reign of love
and the prospect of bliss,
that moves our hearts
in a world like this.
Bruce Smith knew that hope is produced by genuine belief in the good news about Jesus.
Roy Williams is one of Australia’s emerging public intellectuals. His non-fiction book reviews have appeared regularly in The Weekend Australian since 2006. He writes and speaks knowledgeably about a wide range of subjects including politics, history, science, sociology, sport, law and religion. His latest book, Post-God Nation?, surveys the underrated place of Christianity in Australian history since 1788, and the reasons for its recent decline.