Hugh Mackay on spirituality vs religion

The Christian Research Association is about to publish the results of a major survey into changing patterns of belief in Australia. Researchers quizzed 1718 people, and the results were compared with similar surveys conducted in 1993 and 1999. According to reports in the Fairfax press, one of its key findings is that while there's a marked decline in adherence to institutional religion, more people are saying they are, nevertheless, 'spiritual'.

In this interview, one of Australia's most respected social researchers, Hugh Mackay talks about this phenomenon of being 'spiritual rather than religious'. He also addresses more general trends and contradictions in belief in this country, the value of progressive thinking in religious institutions, and how both atheism and fundamentalism challenge contemporary religion.

He spoke to Eureka Street TV after giving an address at the Common Dreams conference for religious progressives held over four days at St Kilda Town Hall in April this year. (Continues below)

In October 2004, Compass on ABC TV presented an in-depth profile of Hugh Mackay in which he talked about his own family and religious background. He grew up in the very comfortable suburb of Castlecrag on Sydney's north shore, and his family attended a conservative Baptist church.

In his early 20s he rejected Christian belief and practice, only coming back to it in his mid-40s when he started attending the high-church Anglican St James in King Street in the centre of Sydney. He was attracted by the music, and even started singing in the church's choir.

'I do love liturgical music,' he says. 'Though, having been raised in that rather primitive fundamentalist context, of course, I didn't have much exposure to sophisticated sacred music.'

He says this is an expression of the mystery and mysticism at the heart of life which is the primary concern of religion: 'That's what I go to religion for. I mean, I go for a sense of, not exactly making sense of life's mysteries, but celebrating the mysteries, contemplating why we're here. I mean it's a mysterious business.'

Having been through two marriage breakdowns, Mackay does not see himself as a haughty detached observer, passing judgement on his research subjects: 'I've never stood aside and said, "Look what's happening to all these peasants who are leading these messy lives, and I'm somehow beyond, above that struggle". Never had that view, I've always known I was in the struggle as well myself, even though I've often felt a bit of a loner.'

Mackay is in high demand as a speaker around the country, and often appears in the opinion pages of major newspapers, and on TV and radio. He has written 12 books, both fiction and non-fiction. His books of social analysis, Reinventing Australia and Advance Australia ... Where? were best-sellers, and the latest of his five novels, Ways of Escape, was published in 2009.

Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant who worked for 23 years in the Religion and Ethics Unit of ABC TV. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity. 

Topic tags: peter kirkwood, hugh mckay, religion in australia, spirituality, christian progressives, common dreams



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Existing comments

The feel-good, do-your-own thing, individualistic autonomy of "spirituality" is more attractive to many people than the inconveniences of the shared creed, communal obligations and moral imperatives of traditional "religion".

Sylvester | 18 June 2010  

Basically New Age nonsense, whereby what used to be considered superstition as opposed to religion,with the decline of religion has been upgraded to spirituality.

Leander Gonzaga | 18 June 2010  

To be religious is to be human, it is a definition of being human. Religion is what you bind unto yourself this day. When people say they are not religious the real question you have to ask is, what is their understanding of religion. When people say they are spiritual or believe in spirituality they are expressing something very important about themselves and their world, but it is not a denial of their religiousness. Perhaps what they are afraid of in religion is being bound down to something, whereas true religion is liberation from bonds, it is as I say a binding to yourself of all that has ultimate and deepest meaning. Christians in every age find they bind unto themselves the truth of the trinity, which necessarily includes the spirit. Often by saying they are not religious, they are rejecting false religion, but not religion as such. In this they are no different than most Christians or others who treat their religion seriously.

Desiderius Erasmus | 18 June 2010  

Yes we all need a story and a need to beleive. What then? Spirituality is part of religious belief but if kept close takes us nowhere. We also need to be in community, in a reltionaship with the God who made and loves us. I see this shying away from communal life as another example of being separate. We no longer rush to join communal organisations which have an emphahis on service and being in community. We tend more to join things like the gym or join boot camp or flock to the football or a cafe or even medidtaion retreats which feed the self but do little else.

Jorie Ryan | 18 June 2010  

"Spiritual" is the currently acceptable face of religious, because presently the word "religious" is all too often used to denote "collective", "dogmatic", "institutional", "fundamentalist" and/or "sectarian". In the post-Protestant West "spiritual" is what "pious" used to be: individualistic, subjective, immediate, anti-authoritarian, anti-intellectual (or pseudo-intellectual) and voluntarist.

But I think the most telling phrase in the whole article is: "According to reports in the Fairfax press..." - one of the oracles of post-Protestant secularism shaping our 'cultural consciousness' and manufacturing the very "marked decline in adherence to institutional religion" it reports on.

Jonah | 18 June 2010  

Wow. What a great and timely contribution from Eureka Street for me. In starting a class yesterday with 4th year education students my opening (powerpoint!) slide stated: Assumption 1 - to be human is to be religious. Hugh McKay's videoclip will be an ideal 'teaching aid' to move towards the story of our faith and, with that, faith in a God of mystery and an understanding of life as mystery. This is language that helps a younger generation express their on-going belief in and search for One who is timeless. Thank you!

Alan | 18 June 2010  

One of our problems is to define theological words like "religion" and "Spirituality". In the West we have suffered from a Dualism that separates the physical from the spiritual and mistrusts the actions of the "body" with an obsession with "Original Sin". By going back to the early Church Fathers and the New Testament itself we can look to the welfare of the whole person through the building up of christian communities and ones own spiritual awareness and transformation into the likeness of Christ through our own prayer and healthy relationships in the wider "Body of Christ"

John Ozanne | 18 June 2010  

It seems that Hugh Mackay talks about the phenomenon of spirituality and religion as though they are two separate entities. I consider religion to be an organization for human spiritual expression, I like the proposed view that the primary concern of religion is to facilitate an expression of the mystery which lies at the heart of life and perhaps this can form the bridge between religions and spirituality.
My children (now responsible caring young adults) consider themselves to be ‘spiritual people’ but they will not embrace any religious tradition. All their friends are getting married on beaches or at wineries rather than have a traditional church wedding. I must say the weddings I have attended have been very spiritual affairs with readings from Scripture, so I feel that when people talk about being spiritual they acknowledge that the mystery is certainly a valid phenomenon but they prefer to observe it in ways that are non religious.
Many young people think of religion as an organization of arrogant old men whose lifestyle has nothing to do with real life issues.
When a religious organization claims to have a superior power or authorship; then it becomes fertile ground for evil ideals that in the past have resulted in untold harm being inflicted upon innocent people (predominately women and children). The patriarchal system that supports religions is way out of step with societal values, and the past evils done in the name of religion are indicative of the danger of religious institutions -especially when they view themselves as ‘being above’ accountability to society.

Traditionally religious elders were leaders, a resource for a society that sought unity and change. These days young people can no longer see the value in religious practices, however their observances do go much deeper than isolated self expression.

Trish Martin | 18 June 2010  

It is nice that Hugh has become awakened to Christian Mysticism. It becomes reverent and alive if one listens to the call from inside.

soma | 19 June 2010  

Who cares, as long as you live it.

Driver at the Wheel | 19 June 2010  

I often wonder why I'm never part of these studies on religion and spirituality. To me spirituality is innate and children demonstrate instinctive responses. What happens in our exposure to the world around us?

Mary | 02 July 2010  

To me spirituality and prayer go together. My transcendental awareness and imagination allow discernment of my world. Without this I'm a shell. Ritual, prayer, music and song, art, earth and sky are some manifestations.

mary | 02 July 2010  

Supposedly a book about 'god' or by 'god' - or something like that - says 'they will know we are X-ians by our love." and 'The greatest of these is love'. I don't particularly believe anything any more about religion, spiritually etc. I DO know how I, as well as two other members of my immediate family and dozens of my school friends, have been treated by an organisation that insists it represents the 'god' mentioned above. After years of physical abuse to soften me up, I was repeatedly molested, abused and raped by three different 'Catholic' clergy. Years later after much torment, I joined a new x-ian church who then dis-empowered me further by claiming that a 'god' will give me healing and help and support. Bovine excrement! I have only been 'healed' after many court cases prosecuting criminals and exposing those who covered up for them. Self actualisation is where it is at, folks! Trust me! (wink!)

Stephen Woods | 09 August 2010  


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