I often see memes in social media that state how nasty, mean and hurtful religious people can be and it’s true. Yes, it is true, that people have been hurt badly, spiritually wounded, even murdered under the watchful eye of all religious systems and while these atrocities stand as appalling let’s remember killing and torture is not something attached to any one system, killing is a human constant as is being nasty, mean and hurtful. What can’t be ignored too, is the harsh reality (no matter how the new atheists and those whose support the current secular spin of life) that as free choice agents, we of the twentieth century have left a trail of bloodied corpses in the multiple millions. So we can keep throwing verbal darts at each other forever, yelling and shouting each other down on social media with tissue wrapped tweets? Entertaining tweets, however, find no ground as rolling metaphoric balls in their attempts to insult. Nothing moves forward and I sometimes wonder if those who constantly participate in these forms of debate really want things too, given the abuse they appear to revel in hurling at each other.
Religion is a very difficult to discuss but in general terms there are four belief-driven standpoints. First, there are those who hold to an unbending belief in the idea of an omnipotent, personal, all loving, God – a difficult hypothesis that promotes arguments revolving around free-will, determinism and a defence of questions like why did God create something he can’t destroy? Within this group are (although not all) conservative Christian fundamentalists who take every word in the bible (the King James version) as literal and inerrant. Such a rigid position for theological scholars and modern day Christian progressives, is implausible and has also become the focus of atheistic ridicule, which finds fertile ground for derisive quips from biblical accounts like Genesis.
Secondly, are Atheists who claim they have no system of beliefs, no God, gods or doctrines, although many commentators argue that atheism is a quasi-religion. Not true most atheists contend, despite a global sprouting of atheist churches which would suggest otherwise. There is also more than ample defence of atheism on social media where fellow atheists group in fairly militant style to support each other should their ideas be challenged by theists. This surely reveals there is a system of beliefs – commonly held ideas that are further enhanced by atheist conventions and large membership websites – if that’s not a system then what is?
Essentially atheism is nihilism, a philosophical standpoint which is well reflected in this gloomy and forlorn quote by the celebrated atheist, Physicist and Molecular Biologist Francis Crick (1916-2004): You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. (source: taken from Mary Roach Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife). Crick sees no real purpose in life and posits humans as biological robots living in a meaningless universe.
Thirdly, there are those who are agnostic and take a view like the renowned American philosopher John Searle (1932 -) who declared he could not subscribe to atheism because (to paraphrase) one cannot prove a universal negative. Searle sees agnosticism as the most reasonable way to explore questions surrounding religion and God. For those in the theist camp belief in an omnipotent God he argues, is an unlikely and a very difficult hypothesis.
Lastly, there are those who believe there is a creator, or Spinozian God (often referred to as pantheist viewpoint) that is infused in nature – a world spirit – a God that doesn’t necessarily intervene in the actions of humans. For Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), God IS nature and is therefore not set outside it but a part of it. Albert Einstein (1879-1955) supported this view when he wrote; I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings. (source: On Truth and Reality). Of late it has been quite common and misleading to hear atheists attempt a kind of recruitment of Einstein into their league of followers but this is a total misinterpretation of his philosophical position which he makes clear in the following: Then there are the fanatical atheists whose intolerance is the same as that of the religious fanatics, and it springs from the same source… They are creatures who can’t hear the music of the spheres. (source: The Expanded Quotable Einstein, Princeton University Press, 2004, p214.) I would add an amusing comment I recently heard that applies to those attached to extremes, usually of the kind you hear directed at religious fundamentalists. This time the comment is aimed at atheists when the person being interviewed on the subject of atheism remarked “I don’t have the faith to be an atheist.” I agree atheism is a difficult position to defend, trendy as it appears for all who sprout about it’s far-reaching, free-choice and appeal to reason, its twitter constructed virtues, its promotion of values from the bottom of every café-latte, university tavern and canteen with undergraduate enthusiasm.
Snap-shooting the Australian Religious Environment…
According to a 2013 Social Trends Report by McCrindle Forecasts – Strategy – Research, Christianity is still the major religion in Australia (61.1%) significantly higher than the second largest Buddhism (2.5%). Around 1.8 million attend church regularly which is more than the population of South Australia which is 1.6 mill. Overall 8% of the population attend church regularly which means 92% don’t. as one might expect these figures do increase dramatically at Easter and Christmas time.
Here’s 6 main reasons why Australians don’t go to church…typical responses.
- Relevancy: “Going to church adds nothing to the enrichment of my life…” 47%.
- “I neither like or accept how religion is taught…” 26%.
- “Church services and ceremonies are old-fashioned and outdated in style and approach…” 24%.
- “I have too many issues with clergy or ministers…” 22%.
- “How can you believe what you read in the bible? I don’t…” 19%.
- “There’s other things I need to attend to I’m just too busy to get there…” 18%.
Most Australians (88% excluding regular churchgoers) said they considered churches beneficial to the community while 48% found churches beneficial to them personally. (Source: McCrindle Forecasts – Strategy – Research. 28th March 2013)
A 2012 Win-Gallop international poll revealed 48% of Australians claimed no-religion at all and while 37% were religious, 10% were atheists. Globally Australia was in the bottom 14 for religious devoutness and in the top 11 for atheism.
An Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Social Trends report in 2013 revealed there were 58,900 atheists in Australia, 34,632 Agnostics, 7,663 humanists, 2,435 rationalists and 4,695,621 put “No Religion” without further definition. From 2006-2011 the report confirms that atheists nearly doubled from 31,300 to 58,900. This increase declares the ABS may have been due to a campaign orchestrated by the Atheist Foundation of Australia who encouraged people to choose the “No Religion” option on their census form.
For those who closely monitor social trends and the religious spiritual mindset of Australians the upcoming 2016 census will be interesting as the “No Religion” option will appear first on the form when people are asked for a response regarding their religious leanings. Many believe that will have an influence on the results. Is it possible that secularism will grow to be the preferred way of life from most Australians? The report suggests that may by the case. (NB: I’ll insert the latest census results when they are published, although they may be somewhat rubbery, as many people in recent times are showing a reluctance to participate truthfully in the upcoming census claiming privacy concerns.)
While the last census does show that church attendances have fallen the question of spirituality put by National Church Life Surveys (NCLS) produced some notable results in 2010 when people were asked if there is “something beyond that made sense of it all?” The results of the survey revealed that twice as many Australians agreed there was (44.6%) as opposed to 21.8% who didn’t, 33.5% were non-committal. (Source: online Australian Spirituality Fact Sheet 1. NCLS: 2010)
What is often overlooked in discussing religion is that it can be approached by devotees in more ways than one. Many seem to think that religious practice is only defined by one’s adherence to the supernatural – There’s only one God, There is a heaven and a hell, God is in his heaven and all is well with the world, Jesus rose from the dead, so religion is verified by a set of formal propositions that construct truth claims about another worldly order over and above a reality known by natural sciences and everyday experiences.
When religion takes this propositional approach for the devotee, belief in certain doctrines as being authentic is essential. But there are those who take an opposite approach and see their religious leanings connected to altruism and are more concerned about helping others – the sick, poor and less-fortunate. For the latter to say one believes in Jesus Christ is say, I adopt an attitude of selfless love to my fellows. The idea of looking to the heavens and debating religious rights and wrongs about religious doctrines and supernatural entities is not considered a priority.
This is a point not lost by David Bentley Hart in his book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, (which as the title suggests a critique of modern day atheism) where he refers to the agapeistic aspect of Christianity which he claims gave Western culture a caring edge with its ancient medieval hospitals, leper asylums, orphanages, almshouses and hostels and To the golden rule: Love thine enemies, Judge not lest ye be judged, prophetic admonitions against oppressing the poor and commands to feed and clothe and comfort those in need… ( Source: Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies: David Bentley Hart. 2009, p219)
As I mentioned previously, discussing religion is problematic and arguably like discussing art where much comes down to varying points of interpretation. This discussion has been designed to give a general overview of how religion is defined and plays out in the community. Views concerning religion, what it is and what it means will continue to be treated extensively and goes way beyond what I’ve outlined here. There are those commentators who argue religion and theological concerns will always be a part of our lives, even in the current secularist environment and point to the rise of quasi-religions for example, in recent times evidenced in atheist churches. Is has been shown that religion is a human invention and belief in God or gods is something that some neuroscientists claim is possibly hard wired into the human brain. Should the latter be proven it looks like religion is not going away soon and God, gods intend to hang around for a bit longer.