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Australian Religious Thought launch speech

By Emritus Prof Graeme Davison, 23 March 2016 Readings Hawthorn.

Graeme Davison

Since colonial times Australia has often been depicted as an irreligious country. Sometimes Australians were seen as happy pagans, who had simply sloughed off the obsolete creeds of older lands. They owed reverence to no established church like Englishmen or Scots, and eschewed the high voltage religion of their American cousins.  Free compulsory and secular education and secular republicanism were among the hallmarks of a national culture that was effectively, if not officially, secular.

When Harold Harding, a young Englishman who accompanied my grandparents from England arrived in Melbourne in 1911, he immediately noticed the ‘absence of the once familiar church and churchyard ‘ and decided that his new countrymen were ‘not too religious’. Local intellectuals had ventured similar opinions  ‘Our fathers, or their fathers, or some of them, had the kernel of religion; we in Australia have little more than the husk, and we shall have less and less of it as the years go by’, declared A. G. Stephens of the Sydney Bulletin in 1899. Like other Bulletin writers, Stephens was an avowed secularist and in predicting the decline of religion, and the estrangement of his fellow Australians from religious belief, he was barracking rather than observing.

Secularisation was, in Charles Taylor’s apt phrase, a ‘subtraction story’. It presented the decline of religion as irresistible, a dynamo of disenchantment installed in the engine room of modern societies. As knowledge increased, and the fog of superstition lifted, it said, the world would be revealed as it really was – without God. Stephens was not entirely happy with this prospect. ‘We have lost religion but we have not yet adapted ourselves to its loss’, he lamented, citing the ways in which religion had fortified national endeavour, for example.

As Wayne Hudson shows, Stephens was among the many Australians – ‘disbelievers’ he calls them– who challenged religious beliefs and institutions, yet remained in other significant ways religious. The historian Ernest Scott, he remarks, could be ‘both rationalist and credulous, though in different parts of their minds’.  In my chapter on Religion for the Cambridge History of Australia, I cited the large numbers of Australians, then and now, who considered themselves neither religious nor irreligious, and hesitated, oscillated or equivocated somewhere between the two.  

Some time ago, before Roy Williams did it more thoroughly in a recent book, I reviewed the religious beliefs of a selection of Australian political leaders.  Rather than religion or irreligion, the most striking feature of their biographies was the transition from a religious childhood to a secular adulthood defined, at least in some measure, by the faith of their fathers and mothers. Of the fourth Hawke Ministry, for example, besides Hawke himself, Keating, Button, Blewett, Beazley, Howe, Evans, Jones and (perhaps) Crean could be so described. For many politicians, I suggested, the work of political apprenticeship was translating the emotions, values and sense of sacred purpose acquired during a religious childhood into the adult world of tsecular public service. Because people sometimes fear that private religious motives may be imported to the public sphere, the politicians may be wary about disclosing their religious background, especially if they feel that they have left it well behind, although the more reflective of them are more candid in their post-career memoirs.

Many my own tribe, Australian historians, I suspect underwent a similar transition. Hancock, Clark and Blainey were all the children of religious, in fact, clerical households. To describe any of them as either religious or secular might be an over-simplification. Those historians who do attempt to define their beliefs often resort to hyphens – “Christian atheist’ was Hugh Stretton’s self-description; ‘cultural Christian’ was John Hirst’s.

While it was in the interests of religious orthodoxy and militant unbelief to sharpen the distinction between the two, many, perhaps most, people refused to categorise themselves in this way. Is this why so many of the respondents to surveys say that they are not religious yet admit to a belief in a power beyond themselves and to religious practices such as private prayer. One of the important achievements of Religious Thought in Australia, is to provide us with a more accurate, and therefore more variegated and interesting, map of the Australian intellectual landscape. Only someone who has read widely in Australian sources (Is there anything this man has not read? I sometimes asked myself) , but who understands the European and American religious and philosophical worlds from which so much Australian religious thought derived, could have done it. In seeking to register and explore the ambiguities and subtleties of the terrain he has provided us with a new vocabulary – distinguishing, for example, between unbelief and disbelief, or merging secular and sacred into ‘sacral secularity’. For now on, Australian intellectual and religious historians may begin to speak of the pre-Hudson and post-Hudson eras.

The picture Wayne presents raises, but does not altogether resolve, three questions to which I would like to devote the rest of my time.

One is about how we should now redraw the broad narrative curve of religious and intellectual history in Australia. After Hudson much more of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – the period he chiefly writes about – must now be seen in a different light, with much more religion of various kinds permeating intellectual life both within and outside the academy than received accounts might suggest. This might lead us, in turn, to question the grand narrative of irresistible secularization– if not its irresistibility or broad direction then at least its speed and completeness.  In his last chapter ‘Postsecular consciousness’ Wayne turns to developments in the past three or so decades, suggesting a picture not so much of a revival of religious thinking, as of ‘an openness on the part of those who embrace secularity in certain domains to be open to what lies beyond a strictly secular horizon’. Terry Eagleton, reared a Catholic then a Marxist, summarises this outlook quite well when he says: ‘Without reason we perish but reason does not go all the way down’. At the end of a period when critical deconstruction has been the order of the day, we are left more conscious of how our thinking is defined by things beyond the horizon or below the reach of reason.  This seems to me to be as true of many secularists as it is of many who think of themselves as religious.

The second question concerns the relationship between religious thought – the writings of self-conscious intellectuals–and the broader currents of popular thought. Deep undercurrent of religious thought, it seems to me, continue to subsist in a society that considers itself otherwise entirely secular. You might describe this as our religious subconscious. Outsiders are often more conscious of it than insiders. The political philosopher Bhikhu Parekh, notes that many of his fellow Muslims continue to think of Britain – a country in which churchgoing is now at a lower ebb than in Australia– as a Christian country.  Are they simply ignorant or are they noticing something that the rest of us have missed? ‘The fact that the historical roots {of many everyday practices] have been forgotten does not mean that their religious basis or overtones go unnoticed by non-Christians, Muslims or for that matter devout Christians’, Parekh observes. ‘They do not introduce an alien element into an otherwise secular society, rather they state loudly in the same language what the rest of the society says in a quiet whisper’.

Listening for those quiet whispers is one of the important tasks of the contemporary student of religion. When Kevin Rudd apologised to the stolen generation, he not only drew on the religious subconscious of a society still vaguely aware of Christian ideas of redemption and reconciliation, he even appropriates the ritual language of the Mass – We are sorry, we are sorry, we are sorry – mea culpa, meal culpa mea maxima culpa. When I hear school children say, as they often do, that the heroes of Anzac ‘died for us’, am I mistaken in hearing echoes of the language that their parents or grandparents might have used in speaking of the sacrificial death of Jesus of Nazareth?   Are such ways of speaking simply the husks, the lifeless relics, of belief? Or are they the kernel, deep-buried in the soil of indifference, but capable of being revived?

In the final pages of Religious Thought in Australia, Wayne turns to a question that has been bubbling just below the surface throughout the book. Many Australian religious thinkers were, to use his word again, ‘transnational’. The questions they were pondering were universal questions and in thinking about them they consulted the writings of other religious thinkers in Europe and the United States. A surprising number of works on Australian religion are actually published by foreign publishing houses.  A case could be made that religious thinking in Australia was and is actually more genuinely international than writing in may other fields.

So we must ask, finally, can one speak of Australian religious thought, as distinct from religious thought in Australia.  Australian philosophers, from Anderson through Smart and Armstrong to Peter Singer, have acquired a reputation as a distinct sub-branch of analytical and empirical philosophy, the so-called Australian materialists. One might even hazard the view that there was something in the harsh environment and iconoclastic culture of the country that encouraged its development. Is there any similar tendency in Australian religion? When the Congregationalist R W Dale visited Australia in the 1880s he struck by the blue skies and fierce sun but surprised how little Australian religion had taken on the colour of its surroundings. ‘The new environment has not produced any serious effect on the religious life [of the country’, he concluded.

Today, I think the answer might be a little different. One of the most persistent threads in recent religious thinking of almost all Christian traditions has been a new openness to Aboriginal spirituality. Many of the persistent dualisms that beset Western religious thinking – body/soul; sacred/profane, earth/spirit–are unknown to indigenous thought which now becomes attractive to Westerners eager to escape their confines. Wayne is sympathetic to these influences while being alert to the implications of cultural appropriation and a tendency to romanticism in the approach of some advocates of convergence. The interest in Aboriginal spirituality, along with the consciousness of deep time evident in eco-spirituality, are among the evidences for the more general account of the distinctive features of of Australian religious thought he sketches in the final pages of the book. Australian religion, he suggests, is distinguished by an avoidance of positive religious affirmation in favour of a more generalised moralism. It tends towards untheorised pragmatism, is relaxed about tensions and inconsistencies, readier to proceed without agreement on first principles, and inclined to ‘immanentism’, that is, to find meaning in things near at hand rather than transcendent or other-worldly reality. It is, to summarise, more down to earth than the religious thought of some other lands. Based as, as they are, on prodigious learning and deep reflection, these suggestions offer a provocative start to the debates I am confident this book will launch.

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