Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Losing My Religion

It's interesting how you can live in a society, and yet know so little about it.  You have an intimate circle of friends and relations and you have a reasonable idea what they think and how they react, but you have no way of knowing, without detailed research, if what you and your friends think and experience is typical.

Tom Frame is a former Anglican Bishop to the Defence Forces and current Director of St Mark's National Theological Centre in Canberra.  His book Losing My Religion is an attempt to lift the veil on one aspect of our society - the level and nature of religious belief and unbelief in Australia.  Has unbelief increased in Australia?  If so what are the causes of this growing unbelief, and what are its consequences? 

Sadly, his attempt to answer these questions is at best only partly successful.  There are two reasons for this.  One is that the available evidence is insufficient to answer such a complex question.  The other is that Frame, for all his erudition, doesn't seem to know how to use much of the evidence he has.

He suggests that religious belief in Australia has declined steadily from a high point in the 1950s.  His main evidence for this is the census data on religion, which shows a steady decrease in the proportion of people identifying as belonging to a Christian denomination, and an increase in the proportion ticking the "no religion" box. 

This point seems correct as far as it goes, although his rather haphazard handling of the data makes it hard to be sure.  Some graphs and tables would have helped.  However, the main problem is that he doesn't get to grips with what the data mean.  What are people saying when they tick a box that says "Anglican" or "Catholic"?  Since the large majority of these people rarely if ever actually go to church, it seems certain this is not a statement of belief so much as affiliation, or possibly ancestry.

He mentions various other sources of data which could possibly add to our understanding of this question - church attendance figures, the National Church Life Survey, Hugh Mackay's social surveys.  However, he makes little use of them.  I looked in vain for an Australian equivalent to Christine Wicker's illuminating book on American evangelicalism. 

Another factor he fails to really address, although he illustrates it at length, is the overwhelming frustration of Australia's 19th century church leaders.  In their eyes, Australia was "the most godless place on earth".  Did belief grow in the first half of the 20th century, and then decline?  Or did the desire for respectability merely lead non-believers to occasionally attend church for social reasons? Either way, why did this happen?  Frame doesn't really tell us, although he does hint that it might be the latter.

All this meant I wasn't really sure if I should accept his thesis about the decline of belief when so much of his own evidence pointed in the other direction, but for the sake of argument I read on to his analysis of the causes.  He identifies three intellectual threads which he says have contributed to a decline of belief - trends in philosophy which have removed the necessity for God, the development of scientific knowledge, and the growth of what he calls "secular theology" from Bultmann and Tillich through to John Shelby Spong.

I enjoyed his summary but two things nagged at me.  The first was that all the trends he referred to, and all the thinkers, were from Europe and North America.  This is fair enough in itself, since Australia is hardly the centre of the intellectual universe, but his account of how these issues have been dealt with in the Australian church and the wider society was meagre by comparison.  A brief chapter with some haphazard quotes and citations hardly does the job in a book that purports to be about this country.

Then there was another problem.  Early in the book Frame cites some very interesting studies from Britain and the USA on why people abandon belief.  There seems to be no comparable Australian research, but overseas data suggests that personal reasons - disillusionment with the church, personal crises or hardships - feature much larger than intellectual ones in people's loss of faith.  Yet in examining causes he reverts to the intellectual issues.  Perhaps this is the only area where there is evidence, or perhaps it's where he feels most comfortable.  Certainly it would have been good to hear a little more about the social or emotional reasons believers might leave the church - the saga of sexual abuse, perhaps, or pastoral failings, or a failure to respond appropriately to suffering?

Which brings us to his final area of enquiry, the social consequences of loss of belief.  This is perhaps the most perplexing part of the book.  He focuses strongly on the activities of those he refers to as "anti-theists" - Dawkins, Harris and co and their Australian equivalents Phillip Adams, Terry Lane and Tamas Pataki, although of the Australians only Pataki really qualifies as an anti-theist as opposed to merely an atheist.

His idea is that the activities of these people are indicative of a de-legitimising of religious (and specifically Christian) perspectives in public affairs.  He fears that over time, it will become increasingly difficult to present an openly Christian view on issues of public concern.  At one stage he discusses the advent of the Secular Party of Australia, whose slogan is "Freedom from Religion".  Yet he ignores the fact that while this fringe political party gained less than one in a thousand votes in the 2007 Senate election, Family First has a sitting Senator.  Our two most recent past Prime Ministers, as well as our current Opposition Leader, are avowed Christians.  Even Adams and Lane are more interested in engaging critically with religious leaders than silencing them.  It seems a long stretch to suggest religion is being excluded from public life, although there is no guarantee that this will not happen in some unknown future.

Tom Frame has proposed some big questions.  Answering them was always going to be a hard ask and it's not surprising he struggled.  I would have too.  Perhaps he could use this book as the starting point for a research program which would help fill some of the gaps.  Then he would be able to write a book I would really like to read.

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