Australia is neither Christian nor atheist


Graph of religious observance in AustraliaThe Greens have called for the dropping of the Lord's Prayer from the opening of each day's sitting of Federal Parliament. The party's acting leader Richard Di Natale says the use of the prayer is outmoded and does not reflect modern multi-faith Australian society.

Senator Di Natale is correct to remind us that Australia is not a Christian country. But we cannot infer from this that religious and spiritual dedication should be dropped from parliament altogether. That would be appropriate only if Australia had adopted atheism or secularism in some official capacity like the totalitarian states of the 20th century.

Rather the changes in the religious composition of Australian society since 1901 imply that parliament should adopt a mix of prayers and moments of reflection that reflect a multi-faith society. That would include various representative religious faiths — as occurs in the US Congress — as well as secular beliefs or values.

The comment from the Greens' acting leader was prompted by a suggestion from the Federal Government's curriculum reviewer Kevin Donnelly, who argued that Australia's schools are too secular. His point was that school curricula are out of line with the religious assumptions of the Federal and State Parliaments, and that it's the schools that need to be brought into line.

He said: 'When you look at Parliaments around Australia — they all begin with the Lord's prayer. If you look at our constitution, the preamble is about God.'

The Donnelly review was announced by federal education minister Christopher Pyne, who is worried that the curriculum is too left-leaning andby implication — secular. Subsequently Donnelly said religion does not have enough of a presence in Australia's 'very secular curriculum'.

Significantly he is advocating the teaching of multiple 'religions', and not just Christianity. 'I'm not saying we should preach to everyone, but I would argue that the great religions of the world — whether it's Islam, whether it's Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism — they should be taught over the compulsory years of school.'

Donnelly's main challenge with respect to the teaching of religion in schools is to ensure that teachers are genuine in their attempts to promote understanding of the various faiths, and that they have no interest in proselytising. Unfortunately his initial statements leave the door open to proselytising in a manner reminiscent of the Howard Government's chaplaincy program, which was abused by particular religious interests because it did not include adequate safeguards to prevent such indoctrination. 

Even the president of the Rationalist Society of Australia Meredith Doig agrees that 'most people are in favour of general religious education'. She has a problem only when a curriculum or program facilitates indoctrination, and this invariably occurs when it focuses on a particular form of religion. 

Di Natale is right to urge a change to current practice, but only to bring it into line with modern Australian society, which is multi-faith and not no-faith. Therefore the Lord's Prayer should not be scrapped altogether, but used in a cycle that includes prayers and observances reflecting the non-Christian part of the population.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. 

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Richard Di Natale, Kevin Donnelly, curriculum, Federal Parliament, faith, atheism, Pyne



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Existing comments

I think perhaps a more appropriate prayer for the opening of each day's sitting of Parliament would be the lowly 'Kyrie Eleison' - the cry of the needy in the face of the all powerful one. And it could be part of a cycle of reflections to reflect the nature of modern Australian society. Those of atheistic bent may like to recite a poem.

Pam | 17 January 2014  

In fact Australia HAS officially adopted secularism via Clause 116 of the Constitution. Secularism should not be equated with "atheism" as the author has attempted to do. Removing the Lord's Prayer from parliament would not require or imply that Australia as a whole is "no-faith" but only that the operation of parliament (and executive government) should be based on secular reasoning and universal human values rather than any particular flavour of religious dogma.

Rod Bower | 18 January 2014  

In the interview I actually warn that teaching about religions should bot be about 'preaching'.

Kevin Donnelly | 20 January 2014  

There are a number of models for managing religious diversity in a plural, democratic society. The French model has an official disdain for all expressions of religious faith, even though all faiths are free to operate. The American model is enthusiastic about religion generally, but stipulates some no-go areas for religion (public education, entertainment content in the media). The British model (also found in the Netherlands, the Nordic countries, Ireland, and much of Europe) gives wide rights to all faiths in practice, but privileges one community over others re the public space. In Australia (and in Canada, and in some other countries) we have a model where all faith communities have equal access to the public space, but where no community should expect privileges not extended to others. Our model works well. Let's keep it.

Bob Faser | 20 January 2014  

But the "Lords Prayer" other than its name and perhaps the opening phrase is about as multi faith as they come. We Christians know that God's will is for peace,love and justice to prevail in all their fullness throughout the whole world. That hope surely should be paramount in all governments which need a daily reminder to understand their full meaning and to seek the will to achieve them. The alleviation of world hunger and poverty and the valuing of their people , the avoidance of evil practices and the understanding of forgiveness are international duties of those purporting to govern so lets not see too big a change in a prayer that is best meditated upon privately and personally anyway.

Tony Knight | 20 January 2014  

The Lord's Prayer is not a 'Christian Prayer' it is the prayer of Jesus of Nazareth which has been adopted by Christians as the model for all prayer for all people. Any glance at the text of the prayer will shout with a universality that could never be achieved by the likes of any political party, let alone any established religion. Di Natale or any other politician is not the person to judge the integrity of a prayer or, for that matter the accepted practice of praying in Parliament. That belongs to the Australian people in a plebiscite after a suitable and well managed (read no pollies) information program.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 20 January 2014  

When Dag Hammarskjold became secretary of the United Nations in 1953 one of the first things he did was arrange for a Silent Room in the UN Building in New York. This is a place dedicated to silence where people can withdraw into themselves, regardless of their faith, creed, or religion. He recognized that even politicians, or especially politicians, need space and time to reflect away from everything. Two problems with Mr Di Natale’s (Italian for Christmas) proposal to remove the Lord’s Prayer in Parliament are (1) it ignores the fundamental reason for having the prayer in the first place, which is to centre everyone’s attention on possibilities outside their own desperate daily round of monkey-minded activity, something we find in silence and prayer and (2) he has no practical alternative to put in its place.

Philip Harvey | 20 January 2014  

The data suggest the Christians are sell by far the majority group. As Tony Knight points out quite correctly, the Lord`s Prayer is pretty multi-faith and uncontentious. I would suggest, however, that its 16th century language be brought up to date for today`s children ( religion has to be seen as relevant to their today)...and the apparent heresy of God potentially leading us into sin should be dropped!

Eugene | 20 January 2014  

Not every prayer from a given faith or background would be helpful in a multi-faith civic setting. Could Australia's religious, indigenous and humanist/rationalist leaders take the initiative and compile, from their various traditions, a set of prayers or reflections which they would propose for use on rotation in our various parliaments? Let's see what is offered and allow people to judge whether those prayers or reflections really do appropriately reflect not just our multicultural society but the aspirations and commitments which should guide our law-makers. I would have thought a dozen or so in total would be sufficient to offer a thoughtful, carefully chosen selection.

David Busch | 20 January 2014  

Thanks Michael. I couldn't agree more. Your suggestion makes great sense, and such teaching would make me rush to re-enrol, though I suspect nothing, even acknowledgement of our many belief systems, could make me want to enter parliament. I do support the idea of moments of meditative reflection in the chamber!

Ailsa Piper | 20 January 2014  

I must say I agree with Di Natale about the use of the Lord's Prayer. There is absolutely no evidence that its recital has any positive influence on the behaviour of Parliamentarians. Perhaps for many it's "too familiar", ergo meaningless? Your suggestion of a cycle of meaningful prayers/observances is a good one. There might just be something amongst them that lights an internal spark.

Patricia R | 20 January 2014  

We are a Christian country, the statistics say so. Our institutions come from a Christian base even though they may have nothing to do with religion. I'm tired of the feeling that I have to apologise for having faith in Jesus Christ and I refuse to feel ashamed of my background or my faith. I like the sentiments expressed in the Lord's prayer: we all need "bread", to forgive and forgiveness, protection from temptation. These 3 concepts are a very good start to anything. If we are going to have change then I suggest we start with: show courtesy to all, show kindness, love one another. It covers everything, though we could add: for the common good.

Jane | 20 January 2014  

Let's have the dozen inter-faith reflections as per the general themes in the Comments.. My suggestion - ye olde 'Golden Rule' - let us 'Do unto others.. " Let's have the Reflections ready for our next census [or a plebiscite].. Eugene - re monkey- minded pollies and apparent heresy - I still pray LITERALLY that these well-intentioned folk & others influencing or backing them, WILL be led well AWAY FROM TEMPTATION

Mary Ebert | 20 January 2014  

Perhaps an appropriate prayer would be a non-sectarian request for guidance and illumination, humility and honesty, throughout the Parliament's deliberations that seek, after all, to make the best possible decisions and determinations for and on behalf of all Australians?

David Arthur | 20 January 2014  

"The Charter for Compassion is a document that transcends religious,ideological and national differences. Supported by leading thinkers from many traditions, the Charter activates the Golden Rule around the world." See The text of The Charter contains fitting sentiments which could be prayerfully invoked by our parliamentary representatives.

Peter Butler | 20 January 2014  

I do not understand how some can deem the subject religion always means 'indoctrination', particularly in schools. We pass on many subjects to the next generation of children. We even allow them to examine alternative political systems. Why is religion & the spiritual side often a 'no go' area? Surely the understanding that there is some entity greater than our mean & petty selves, still serves humanity well, as it has done for centuries. The Christian, and in general, many other religions' messages are ways of living in peace with goodwill towards others. Our children deserve to experience these ideas as well as all the other ideas. Likewise, there can be no evidence what is in people's hearts, but a moment of reflection reciting the Lord's prayer in Parliament, which focusses on striving for the greater good, may direct their actions to be in line with a 'quiet & peaceful heart'.

Penny | 20 January 2014  

How about a time of respectful/sacred silence for genuinely spiritual not religious ritual? Each according to their own spiritual practice and or a moment of pause and sacred silence in the usually torrid, noisy chambers. The recitation of a prayer without any connection or norming of the rest of the communication is some form of formalism or an opportunity to rehearse the slings and arrows to be used thereafter.

Michael D. Breen | 20 January 2014  

Peter Butler's suggestion is a good one. Looking at the Charter of Compassion, we'd easily find the elements which could be accepted by all 'spiritual' people, even many atheists. The Lord's Prayer is the perfect prayer, but due to the movements of history, it's seen as exclusively Christian, and therefore serves to exclude rather than include. Let's look at the Charter!

Joan Seymour | 20 January 2014  

The Greens and any others who agitate for the removal of the Lord's prayer from the opening of Parliamentary business might like to take a closer look at exactly the prayer is requesting: a world governed by the principle of a just distribution of the necessities of life, equity and justice. The original context of the prayer sheds should inform a major focus of the Millennium Goals, namely the cancelling of debt. The text actually says, 'Forgive us our debts, as we forgive those indebted to us.' How Green can you get? Forgiveness of 'sin' is a theological interpolation or licence in translation. And who could knock the intensely human cry for the daily staple, bread? I find it curious that some propose that humanity would be far better off without God when Jews, Christians and Moslems alike ascribe to their God the fundamental qualities of decency, justice, mercy and compassion. For those interested in another dimension of this conversation, I recommend 'Umberto Eco & Cardinal Martini. Belief or Non Belief - A Dialogue,' NY, Arcade Publishing, 2000. The little book is a collection of conversations held in public, in an auditorium in Milan before audiences of thousands of mainly Italians.

David Timbs | 20 January 2014  

I believe that a prayerful moment is essential prior to the sitting of parliament and am very much in favor of retaining The Lord's Prayer. I believe The Lord's Prayer to be a very meaningful and universally open-minded piece of meditation. I cannot see how offence could be taken by anyone whether they be atheist, or of any other earth faith persuasion - or yet to be discovered 'non earth faith/religion' for that matter. I have always believed it's universality akin to Newton's Universal Laws of Motion. I could agree that the wording could be perhaps updated, and if people find they are 'hung up' about its name, then change the name to something that does not reveal its Christian origin, but for goodness sake retain the prayer and its universal sense as I believe there is nothing more relevant and beautifully reflective for such occasions.

John Whitehead | 20 January 2014  

Wrong premise to this article. We actually ARE a Christian country in our very foundation, our laws and institutions and within our culture. Despite the weakening within our culture, this should not be a reason to surrender it up to a multi-culti/religious inter-faith form of prayer or confected daily statement to begin each parliamentary sitting day.

Michael Webb | 20 January 2014  

I am absolutely sick of the intellectualising/philosophising of those people who want to show off their religious academia or whatever!!! In my humble opinion Australia IS a mainly christian country and I do not care what cultural changes we have had: we should be as patriotic as the Americans and stand by our original beliefs.

Lynne Z | 21 January 2014  

Tony Knight's comment "We Christians know that God's will is for ...." is fine, however the challenge is, without the necessity for or reliance on God's will, that every person's self-adopted will "be for peace, love and justice to prevail in all their fullness throughout the whole world." I have "faith" in the goodness of the human spirit and trust that the wills of all good people can have such aspirations.

Richard Heggie | 21 January 2014  

Perhaps some caution is warranted in attributing the term "universality" to The Lord's Prayer or to Newton's Laws of Motion (John Whitehead). Newton's Laws fail to describe observed behaviours of objects travelling at relativistic speeds - which are better described by Einstein's "theories". No deviations from Einstein's "theories" have as yet been observed - and, with open minds, scientists repeatedly design experiments to test (disprove) Einstein's rules. Many advances (eg space exploration, accurate GPS) would not now prevail had acceptance of the "universality" of Newton's Laws of Motion been the end of the story ...

Richard Heggie | 21 January 2014  

In reply to Richard Heggie's cautioning my use of the word 'universality' I would like to say that Einstein's relativity has not proven Newtons laws of motion non universal or incorrect; they are simply inexact. Einstein's special relativity shows us the correct laws for objects that move at high speeds. But at ordinary conditions, Einstein's laws give the same answer as Newton's laws up to 99.9999999%. The universality remains - regardless of where in the universe, and apart from singularity situations! the laws will apply. Of course Einstein informs us of things way beyond Newton's static universe concept, such as an understanding of space-time; there is also universality in this. The EPR paradox as proven by Aspect, I am sure will shed further light on our universe, but I believe it will not discard relativity. Science uncovers new things and generally old ideas are not discarded outright, apart from the odd likes of philostogen. The knowledge of Newton's motion laws are imperative for every space walker, and this knowledge has not hindered the development of Dopler/GPS situations. I believe I already was analogously cautious when using the term universality for 'The Lord's Prayer'

John Whitehead | 21 January 2014  

One of our problems in Australia goes back to the 1870's when the States became involved in secular education. In England where the Church of England generally had control over the teaching of scripture, a distinction was made between what was taught in the class room by school staff and what took place in the church or chapel through chaplains. In Australia churches were given freedom to "indoctrinate" children in the classroom with the doctrines of their particular church or denomination and were responsible for morals and ethics. School staff had to teach secular subjects with "religion" left out. In the 21st century this concept is outdated. there is no place in any school for either political or religious indoctrination in the classroom Even in Parliament when members of Government take the oath they use various translations of the bible or if Islamic the Koran.

John ozanne | 22 January 2014  

The spirit of above article sounds to me like a clarion call[Jihad?] for some brand of synergistic eclecticism or bland dictatorial sang froid indifferentism, all leading to a societal nihilism [God forbid,ultimately regressing to pagan animism or overt witchdoctory?] A sad article. Surely, more ES articles please on a reinvigorated Christian evangelisation. E.g. “I would like to tell you what my expectations are regarding this World Youth Day” said Pope Francis “I would like us to make noise, I would like those inside the Dioceses to go out into the open; I want the Church to be in the streets; I want us to defend ourselves against all that is worldliness, comfort, being closed and turned within" [NB no demographic charted eclectic reductionisms at 3 million packed Copacabana beach!]

Father John George | 23 January 2014  

The Lord's Prayer (one of two forms in the Gospels) is really a Jewish prayer, attributed to one who was not a Christian (cf the writings of the great Jewish Jesus scholar, Geza Vermes). And the other prayer used in parliament in is addressed simply to "almighty God", deliberately in no way a specifically Christian prayer.

John Bunyan | 24 January 2014  

I vote we stick with the Lord's Prayer. If the atheists and agnostics can't stomach it, let them mentally preface it with "If you exist...". For an excellent tonic to ward off the nauseous syncretism afflicting some of the commenters above, a must read is Mgr Ronald Knox's hilarious but extremely pertinent "Reunion All Round".

HH | 24 January 2014  

I am a regular Question Time viewer on the T.V. and have always considered the Lord's Prayer irrelevant because of the professed Christian politicians who then go on to display absolute hypocrisy eg. demonising asylum seekers. I've always thought the Speaker should ask the Members to have 3 minute silence to reflect or be mindful of the responsibility they have to the people, to the next generations on the quality of debate, truth of facts or the like. If an MP wants to pray to a supernatural deity they may as an atheist might meditate on the principals of humanism. I think this would honour individual beliefs and enable some calm before the theatrics. Obviously I think that we should keep religion out of Parliament. Keep it personal. After the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse in institutions, the apologies hard fought for, and the 'willful intent' to deny climate change science say to me contemplation of personal responsibility would be more appropriate. As a woman who knows her generational history of harm done from laws using the God of Abraham as touch stone, you may sense I'm with the Greens leaders on this.

Julie | 25 January 2014  

I note Julie's belief in declaring irrelevance of the Lord's Prayer as being based upon her disappointment of professed Christian politicians who display absolute hypocrisy, and I agree very much with her citation of the asylum seeker issue as being an apt current example of this hypocrisy, but I do not agree with her similar logic for invalidating "The Lord's Prayer" or use of it, anymore so than I could to using similar logic to invalidate Christianity; its validation as one is often inclined to forget, has always rested solely upon whether Christ did in fact or did not actually rise from the dead,

John Whitehead | 26 January 2014  

I agree with the sentiment of this article. However, people need to acknowledge that our Westminister system of government has been significantly influenced by Christian principles and philosophy. I believe the 'Lord's prayer' is an excellent and appropriate prayer for the commencement of parliamentary proceedings. It can also serve as a non-denominational prayer. I think that all the Christian religions have a version of the 'Lord's Prayer'. Are there any similar prayers for Islam, Hindu, Buddhism etc. Comments such as Julie's on the 25 January are ignorant and naïve because most of the professed Christians in our parliaments are not representative of the majority of Christians in Australia; most of these people are conservative Catholic males who are religious bigots, anti-feminists and intolerant people. Most of these people are also supporters of conservative minority organisations such as Opus Dei, The Knights of the Southern Cross, the DLP and the NCC. People such as the Green's leader and other atheists should also acknowledge that in a multi-cultural pluralist society, people have the freedom and right to be members of a religion, which provides an excellent community culture for people to share their way of life. Atheism does not have any formal community culture - refer Alain De Boutton's recent book on this subject. This community religious culture also provides an excellent service in providing good quality schools, which are particularly valuable in contemporary Australia because of the large number of poor quality state government primary and secondary schools in the outer suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne.

Mark Doyle | 28 January 2014  

Teaching of any religion in public schools should include the historical and current atrocities committed in the name of the religions and only when students are at an age where they are capable of developing their ownopinions. I would not tolerate my daughter being taught as matter of fact any religion by a person i will teach her to respect (such as a teacher) at a young age when she is incapable of questioning or forming an argument if she feels the need.

paul miller | 10 May 2015  

48 per cent of Australians said they were not religious; 10 per cent declared themselves "convinced atheists"; and 5 per cent did not know or did not respond. Only 37 per cent were religious. What's more, the poll placed Australia in the bottom 14 for religiosity and in the top 11 for atheism. Australia IS most certainly an ATHEIST nation. Christians would have you believe otherwise, citing outdated data. Clinging to the past in a post-Christian Australia.

Chris | 24 May 2015  

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