Film and Book Reviews

Post-God nation?... not quite

BOOKSThis fine book shows the colossal contribution over two centuries of men and women explicitly motivated by their faith, writes Barney Zwartz.

September 18 2015Australia is not and has never been an irreligious country. It is easy to forget that before 1788, about 1.6 billion people lived and died on this continent in deeply religious societies, while the modern nation owes an incredible debt to the churches, and to the Christian men and women who did so much to shape it.

It takes an obsessive and wilful blindness to accept the narrative increasingly taking shape under modern secularism that Christianity played only a minimal or malign influence in Australia’s development, and Christians need to be informed if they are to combat it gently but intelligently.

That is the thesis behind Roy Williams’ Post-God Nation. It is a really fine book: cogent, considered, informed, unapologetic yet fair-minded and irenic. It does not try to deny the manifold faults and failures of Christians in Australia, yet it shows the colossal contribution over two centuries of men and women explicitly motivated by their faith. It is an ideal tool to bolster the confidence of Christians, and to rebut the attacks and misconceptions of their critics.

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Williams feels Christians are inclined to overstate the problem, though it is real. Even today, when institutional religion is certainly in decline, explicit atheism is rare. Far more common is agnosticism, among a population where many have never seriously thought about the issues and are therefore “religiously tone-deaf. They lack any sense of the numinous and try to ignore their mortality”.

From the first settlers, he suggests, devout Christians looked through the prism of middle-class morality and underestimated the importance of religion among the convicts and how it sustained and guided them even though many were irreverent, profane and not much found on the pews. Such popular devotion leaves little trace upon the records, yet the unbiased eye can find it.

And right from the first settlers, the positive impact of the churches and individual believers has been profound. “An astonishing number of distinguished figures in Australian history since 1788 have been people for whom faith was a major motivating force. They have had a sense of mission, and they have acted on it in such disparate fields as politics, law, exploration, business, science, journalism, trade unionism, the arts, architecture, engineering and education,” Williams writes. All his claims are meticulously detailed and footnoted.

That New South Wales did not quickly descend into nihilistic chaos was in no little measure due to visionary Christians, especially in feeding the colony, but also in early attempts at education – the Anglican Church provided all education until the 1830s – healthcare and exploration. All social welfare was done by the churches and volunteers. Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who led NSW from penal colony to free society, has mystified historians precisely because they look with secular eyes and do not understand how utterly he was motivated by his evangelical faith.

Contrary to modern secularists, and despite some awful failures by the churches, saving the Indigenous people from total extinction may be the churches’ most important achievement, Williams believes.

“Colonial Australia was not godless – far from it. It was rough and often irreverent, and much evil was perpetrated on its frontiers. But without religion, and committed individuals motivated by religion, it would not have existed – or not for long. The convicts would have been sent to their doom in West Africa, or the First Fleet would have foundered. The colonists, or those of them who arrived alive, would soon have starved or fallen fatally ill, or committed suicide, or descended to impoverished barbarism.”

In a chapter on the enduring Judaeo-Christian legacy in the West (including the scientific method), he has an important summary of its moral influence and the ways it differed from the classical world. These include seeing humility, compassion and commitment each as a virtue rather than a vice; seeing justice, at least in part, as changing the status quo rather than accepting it; and seeing work as having as much intrinsic dignity as leisure. The last is a result of the maligned Protestant work ethic, in which work is done to the glory of God, including for the benefit of the community and not just the individual.

The Christian role in Federation was possibly more important than settlement. “It played a central part in the shaping of our national character – a character that has endured in the essentials and evolved in the details. Let us count the ways. Without the abolition of the convict system, without cultural and religious pluralism, without strong marriages and the civilising influence of women, without parliamentary democracy, without a self-supporting yet civic-minded middle class, without an empowered and decently treated working class – without any of these things, there would have been no serious possibility of establishing a functional nation in 1901.” And in all of these things, Christianity played a prominent role.

The second part of the book tackles “the secular juggernaut” and the areas where the churches have lost adherents and influence, including ignorance, war and nationalism, issues of sex and gender (the role of women, sexuality, abuse), scientism and national prosperity. The wounds, Williams concedes, have often been self-inflicted.

Australia can go on only so long living off its Judaeo-Christian capital, Williams says, but religion is worth saving, and he believes it is possible – especially if it seeks to right wrongs and tackle ignorance. Provocatively, he suggests the churches will find more allies on the Left because that is where more well-meaning idealists reside.

As an interesting aside, he notes that the Liberal Party, once the part of the moral middle class, has been hijacked by neo-liberals and has become a populist party of the super-rich and go-getters. Its senior parliamentary ranks are “dominated by a curious mix of shallow, market-driven secularists and nominal or selectively doctrinaire Catholics” who endorse the Vatican on homosexuality or abortion but not war, climate change, social justice or refugees. In the process, it has become less benevolent, and much less Protestant, so that mainstream Protestants are now marginalised on both left and right. I hope Williams is not expecting a knighthood via a Prime Ministerial captain’s pick.

Post-God Nation? How religion fell off the radar in Australia – and what might be done to get it back on, by Roy Williams (ABC Books 2015 $32.99).

Barney Zwartz is a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity and communications adviser to the Primate, Dr Philip Freier.