Christendom over, faith enters a new era

With the 2016 Census expected to show a continuation in the trend for Australians to tick the "no religion" box, this is a good time to reflect on how Christianity is tracking. In August, Uniting Church minister Dr Philip Hughes, co-founder of the Christian Research Association, retired after 30 years as its director. He spoke to Roland Ashby about his latest book Charting the Faith of Australians, and why he believes we have entered a new "Axial Age".

The Western Front of WWI was not only the scene of terrible carnage, it also marked the death of Christendom, says Philip Hughes. “For many Christians it was the end of their confidence in the whole idea that Christianity and civilisation were one and the same thing.”

The Church, he believes, is facing another crisis of confidence today, under assault, as it is, on several fronts, including internally.

“Confidence in the Churches has dropped off significantly as a result of the sexual abuse scandals.

“A great external enemy of the Church has also been the rise of individualism, selfishness and greed that have been so effectively promoted by the corporate world, particularly through advertising, and also seen in recent corporate and banking scandals.

“Self-centred consumerism is rampant and has become faith’s leading opponent in contemporary society. Faith calls us to reject this and says you will not find meaning ultimately by pursuing your own personal ends in this way.”

Another stumbling block to faith he says has been the way science and faith often seem to be in conflict. “As a result, the whole story of belief is no longer credible to quite a large number of people.”

However, he does not believe that the so called New Atheists have had a major impact in turning people away from faith. “It’s interesting that almost all of the New Atheists are older men who tend to deal with the world of modernity rather than a post-modern world in which there are many truths and many ways of looking at truth. That’s one of their great limitations.”

Yet another significant factor in Church decline he says goes back to the 60s and 70s, and the new sexual freedom found through the contraceptive pill and the ensuing tendency for young people to live in de facto relationships.

“There was a huge drop in confidence in the Churches during this time, because they were seen to be out of step with this new freedom, and indeed, inhibitors of progress.

“When young people moved into de facto relationships they recognised they were moving outside the norms of the Christian churches. Many left the Church as a result.”

He believes the Church’s perceived narrowness and lack of tolerance for diversity undermined its moral authority, something which has been further exacerbated by the Church’s lack of leadership on other important moral issues of the day such as sustainability of the environment.

“This, together with the Church’s cover ups of sexual abuse, has therefore led many to view the churches as moral failures.”

But perhaps the greatest underlying challenge – and opportunity – for the Church is what Dr Hughes calls a new “Axial Age”.

“The Axial Age was a term coined to describe the period 700-450 BC in which there was the rise of prophet-like figures in all of the major civilisations of the time; Confucius in China, Buddha in India, Jeremiah and other prophets in Israel, Socrates and Plato in Greece. Religion moved from being something that was primarily about honouring the gods, to something which was also about living morally with each other.

“It was a huge leap in the nature of religion, and it seems to me we are part way through an age in which there is a shift in the nature of religiosity of a similar size.”

Religion in this new Axial Age, he believes, is not so much about what you believe, as what you experience. “It’s an Age in which what is most important is how you feel in relation to God; your experience of God. So the nature of worship is changing too. We are moving from something which is very rational to something which is very experiential.”

It is an Age in which many would describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” he says, “which at its heart is the sense that your spirituality is an individual thing which is owned by the individual. The individual becomes the reference point for its content, nature and resourcing, rather than being a big communal thing which is actually owned and governed by the institution.”

Their spirituality, he says, “is often either an eclectic mix drawn from a wide variety of sources, including Buddhism and yoga, or it is based around the environment and nature”.

The future Church he believes will consist of either mega-churches or “boutique” churches. “There are increasing numbers attending the big mega-churches. At the moment, of all non-Catholics who attend a church in Melbourne, 20 per cent attend 2 per cent of the churches. So that trend is very clear.

“The other trend is towards boutique churches which cater for particular ethnicities, interests, or forms of music and worship.

“Those churches that best meet their members’ needs and interests, and provide a place of community and belonging, tend to be the most vibrant.”

He suggests that one way for older congregations to attract younger members would be to start groups or activities around their interests. “Our recent surveys of young people show that there are many who aren’t interested in worship, but are interested in being part of a music or drama group, or becoming involved in a social justice group or activity, and in fact there are many who are involved in those things who don’t come to worship.

“Let’s open those doors to create a variety of pathways, rather than expecting that all are going to find their expression of faith through the worship service on Sunday morning.”

After 30 years of witnessing the diminution of Christian influence on the culture generally, he is concerned about what this might mean for the future. “I am disappointed, for example, that our government schools have increasingly become no-go areas in terms of values and the whole sense of the meaning and purpose of life”. Yet there are continuing positive areas of influence, he believes. “Many church-related schools do address values and the creation of meaning and purpose in life. Church-related social welfare organisations also have the capacity to add value to welfare, and many church-based social justice activities contribute to creating a better society. Moreover, many parishes provide nurture and support as well as creating communities in which people find fulfilment through serving others.”

Charting the Faith of Australians – Thirty Years in the Christian Research Association is available from the Christian Research Association website, or phone (03) 8819 0123 or email admin@cra.org.au. The book is $38 plus postage for the hardcopy or $9.50 for the pdf.