Religious react to being on the back foot

In the 1950s, Australians were constantly being told to be aware of the dangers of communist infiltration of our institutions. At the same time, DLP ads featured threatening arrows emerging from China and racing towards the heart of Australia.

Nineteen-fifties laws, including when we could drink, what we could do on Sundays and what we could read, had been shaped by 19th-century Christians. In 1959, there was also a Christian revivalist movement epitomised by the Billy Graham crusades.

Gareth Evans, a Patron of the Rationalist Society of Australia, admits to a “brief early-adolescent attachment” to Graham.

I also had a brief flirtation with evangelism when a girl who lived near us invited me down to a local church for a meeting. It turned out to be a revivalist event in which sinners like me were supposed to embrace Jesus.

As I only went in the hope it might end in me embracing the girl in one of the paddocks then dotted through the outer suburbs on the way home, it was a disappointment to the congregation and her when I didn’t step forward and embrace God. Needless to say the walk back didn’t take place to the strains of the song Embraceable You.

Today, we are still being warned about an existential threat from China even though any contemporary arrows would be in the reverse direction following our major exports.

The institutional power of the churches has also declined. But, instead, we face a campaign by religious conservatives who are systematically trying to get hard line followers elected to parliament.

The second part of Neil Francis’ magisterial report Religiosity in Australia delineates this and other issues by drawing on deep attitudinal, anthropological and social science research. I reviewed the first part on my blog in July.

Francis says: “Amongst political operatives, a key question about emerging (Christian) activism is not just ‘why?’ but ‘why now? There have been multiple attempts to stack Coalition party branches, and tenacious wanderings of the corridors of power in search of ‘religious discrimination’ protections.”

In essence, it is panic-driven, as the major drops in religious affiliation in the 2016 census results reflect a trend (probably to be continued in the latest census results) which might see Christianity become a minority religion with the release of the 2021 census data. At the census after that, due for 2026, the total religious percentage of the population could come close to dropping below 50% or at least indicate a trend which makes it more probable.

However, Francis says: “Those pushing for increased religious rights would be wise to take care in what they wish for. International research shows a causative relationship between state-sponsored protection of religion and religion’s decline.”

Francis also discusses how the religious activists are taking lessons from the US and how they now frame their demands from the perspective of them being victims. The experiences of Tyndale, Cranmer, Bruno, the victims of the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, abused 20th century children and millions of others would illustrate the differences between their victimhood and that of Australian prelates and Christian conservatives.

The detailed statistical analysis in the report is invaluable. For instance, 51% of Australian adults believe religious institutions have too much power. The 88% of Australians who have no, low or moderate religiosity rank churches the fourth least trustworthy among 25 institutions – lower than banks, unions, government and parliament. They are more trusted than the media and political parties however.

Eighty per cent of Australians believe that religious leaders should not try to influence how people vote in parliamentary elections. Even 59% of the religiously devout agree with that proposition. Possibly because they are anxious that some other religion might have more influence than them.

There’s not much consolation to the conservatives and prelates in the attitudes of what Francis dubs the SBNRs – spiritual but not religious – who get lumped in with the religious in the census inflating the religious total by 18%. They are more likely to be anti-establishment, practise mindfulness and yoga and vote Green.

Interestingly, lots of those who say they are religious do not say they are spiritual. That includes 47% of Catholics, 41% of Anglicans, 46% of Uniting/Methodists, 41% of non-Christian denominations and 14% of minor Christian denominations. That could partly be a product of the prosperity gospel types like Morrison’s Pentecostals and those who belong to a church for social, business or other reasons.

About a quarter of religious devouts like Morrison believe that religion is very important to ‘getting ahead’ but hardly any other Australians agree. Of the major reasons to be religious, however, morality is the least important.

Ironically, in terms of morality, given the emphasis that the religious and political conservatives put on the family, the only reason the marriage rate is now declining more slowly is the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

Part of the amazing hostility to that same-sex marriage plebiscite and vote (which Morrison missed) is probably explained by the fact that two-thirds of those who are devout think citizen participation in important policy decisions is a bad idea.

And if you wonder why religious politicians are as inflexible as Morrison and his cohort of party room Christians, Francis produces empirical evidence that “religious conservatives are more prone than others to intuitive thinking and to overconfidence in their beliefs. They are far more prone to resist assessing and especially revising their beliefs, and they are most likely to believe that contrary evidence is not a reason to change belief.” Hence attitudes to climate change.

Francis concludes: “There is a rich diversity of secular or non-religious views in Australia. While some secular Australians say they are spiritual, more religious Australians say they aren’t. Some secularists are hostile to religion, while many aren’t. Secularists have a sense of purpose, though it usually stems from internal rather than external foundations.”

Speaking personally, this secularist has a strong sense of purpose – keeping the religious like Morrison out of making policies and laws for the rest of us.

This article was originally published in the Rationalist Society of Australia magazine Rationale.