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Despite census results we dismiss religion at our peril

  • 30 June 2017


The census results tell us that the number of people who indicate 'no religion' has grown to one third of the population. That is a solid fact about our Australian society. And facts are there to ground us in reality. In this most secular of societies it is not surprising that this number is rising.

Indeed, a growing refusal to tick a box marked Christian, Muslim or Buddhist simply because of family or cultural allegiance reveals an honesty about how we live and think. Some commentators greeted this news as a clear sign of progress, a mark of our growing maturity: people are learning to see through the claims and limits of religious belief. It's worth pausing a moment to consider the underlying assumptions.

Let's be frank. Religion has been, and still is in many cases, a trap. It can be used as a cover, a cloak, for political, economic, sexual or personal power over others, for economic gain, for violence. History provides numerous examples of colonisation where exploitation of peoples, land and resources went hand in hand with 'Christianising' the population.

Today examples of brutality and violence cloaked by appeals to the Koran, to the importance of Hindu, Buddhist, or Islamic superiority are constantly before our eyes. Christians in many Western countries block entry to refugees, treating those of other faiths with great suspicion lest they weaken our 'values'.

People with power can tap into a deep energy, anger or fear in the human psyche which can be manipulated through appeal to religion. 'With God on our side' and 'in the name of Allah' have led to hideous acts carried out in the belief that they are the will of God.

In addition, many people have maintained a pre-critical sense of God that is unable to dialogue meaningfully with modern science. It makes sense that we would grow out of such a 'small' God.

So why not rejoice that Australians are seeing the light? Well, letting the worst of something blind us to its deeper possibilities is not wise in any sphere. One concern is the flat-lining of our society, the removal of any guide other than what I, and the small group I belong to, value.

'Religion' is the name we give to the 'system' — the world view, the principles, the beliefs, the ethics that guide our priorities and actions. This does not always involve reference to God, as many totalitarian regimes have shown. A vacuum