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Australians quietly spiritual, not Godless

  • 15 May 2007

Back in July 2005 Pope Benedict XVI made some off-the-cuff remarks to a group of local priests while on vacation near Aosta in the Italian Alps. He was discussing the self-sufficiency and neglect of Christ and Christianity which dominated Europe. "The mainstream churches appear moribund", he said. Then, out of the blue, he commented: "This is so in Australia, above all, and also in Europe, but not so much in the United States." This sent the Australian media into high dudgeon and like other Catholic commentators I spent a week trying to explain what Benedict might have meant.

Why we were targeted is hard to fathom, although it suits both secularists and bishops to maintain the notion that Australia is 'Godless' and the churches 'moribund'. For secularists it shows that they’ve been right all along. They claim religion has always been a sectarian blight on Australian life. If we all embraced the 'who cares about doctrinal differences' and 'it’s the same God we worship' approach, Australia would evolve into a more tolerant, terrestrial paradise.

On the other hand bishops use our presumed ‘Godlessness’ to claim the collapse in religious practice isn’t really their fault. It’s not church structures, poor leadership, dull sermons, uninspired ministry, lifeless worship, or failure to address the real issues facing society that has led to so many people to abandon the church. It is all the fault of crass materialism, relativism and Godlessness. Therefore, it’s society that has to change, not church leaders.

However a recent book, Australian Soul (Cambridge, 2006), by Professor Gary Bouma of Monash University argues that Australians are not Godless. We’re quietly spiritual rather than explicitly religious, holding on to what Manning Clark called 'a shy hope in the heart'. Bouma says that Australian spirituality is rather understated, wary of enthusiasm, anti-authoritarian, optimistic, open to others, self-deprecating and ultimately characterized by "a serious quiet reverence, a deliberate silence ... an inarticulate awe and a serious distaste for glib wordiness."

It could be argued that these characteristics are secular and that to use the word spirituality to encapsulate them is a misnomer. However, it is the reference to 'reverence' and 'awe' that spiritually transforms these attributes. Bouma says that part of the problem is that we unconsciously tend to judge ourselves by the rather ostentatious religiosity of some American Protestants. Australians are far more understated and reverent. Bouma has argued for two decades