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AUSTRALIANS AND THE CHRISTIAN GOD: An historical study, by Hugh Jackson
Religious belief and practice in Australia
AUSTRALIANS AND THE CHRISTIAN GOD:
While various commentators like to emphasise the shrinking numbers of people who are active Christians and the secular nature of Australian society, if you turn on the TV or radio, rarely a day passes in which a listener does not hear something about a religious group.
Furthermore, church attendance rates in Australia compare favourably with those of many other Western countries.
However, what do people really believe about God? Hugh Jackson, a retired university lecturer and author of Churches and People in Australia and New Zealand 1860-1930, explores the history of religious belief in Australia, with a particular focus on attitudes towards God and what could be described as orthodox Christianity, which believes that God has revealed certain religious truths.
Although there have been numerous studies on religious belief this is the first to survey attitudes of Australians as a whole, from European settlement to the present.
Jackson begins his study by examining the European intellectual ferment immediately prior to European settlement, namely the Enlightenment, and its impact on religious belief, particularly its Deistic tendencies and denial of belief in miracles.
Jackson argues that these ideas were popular amongst the social classes from which the early leaders of New South Wales were drawn.
For example, no provision for a chaplain was made for the First Fleet until the very last moment, and the authorities seemed to have viewed the role of religion essentially as a force to provide convicts, who were regarded as degenerates, with some sort of moral basis.
The behaviour of many convicts suggests that in this respect, it was largely a failure.
Indeed, Jackson argues that convicts, with the exception of Irish Catholics, were largely composed of urban poor who had lost contact with organised religion and for whom religion had little meaning in their lives.
This may account for the popular belief that Australia is essentially a secular society.
However, Jackson argues that this picture changed in the middle decades of the 19th century with the mass immigration of free settlers from the 1830s, which accelerated with the Gold Rushes of the 1850s.
Evidence suggests that religious practice peaked in Britain in approximately 1850, particularly with some Protestant denominations. It seems that religious practice peaked in Australia slightly later.
The following decades witnessed the rise of rationalism, accelerated in part by scientific discoveries and theories, particularly Darwin's theory of evolution, which challenged traditional interpretations of the Bible, and this was accompanied by a decline in religious practice by Protestants.
The theories of various thinkers who called Christian beliefs into question were widely reported, for example, in the popular press.
What emerged was an attitude which either downplayed the doctrinal elements of Christianity, or in some cases called for a non-dogmatic faith.
Such calls emerged even from those who were practising Christians, such as George Higinbotham, a prominent Anglican layman (Attorney General and Chief Justice of Victoria).
In relation to the educational debate, Jackson notes that many of those who advocated "secular" education were themselves practising Christians. He also observes that in 1895 Catholic bishops declared that the public mind had become hostile to the notion of revelation.
Interestingly, movements such as Spiritualism, which were extremely popular for a short period in the 1870s and 1880s in Britain, enjoyed a similar popularity and decline during approximately the same time frame as they did in Britain.
Decline in attendance
By the early 20th century, Protestant commentators were concerned about diminishing numbers attending church.
While many commentators point to World War I as a cause of the decline, Jackson argues that the trend was more of a long term one of gradual decline.
For example, from the 1870s onwards, there were moves for activities other than churchgoing to be permitted on Sundays.
However, Jackson notes that the Catholic Church did not mirror these trends. Instead of a decline, evidence indicates that Catholic church attendances gradually increased during the first half of the 20th century.
Similarly, Catholics seem to have been less affected by intellectual currents that challenged belief in God and in divine revelation. This situation was to change for the Church in the 1960s, with Mass attendance rates gradually (and still) declining.
Interestingly, some movements in the 1950s, such as the Billy Graham Crusade, sparked a minor revival.
Interestingly, in recent decades there have been religious revivals in some indigenous communities.
These have been associated with individuals freeing themselves of addictions to substance abuse and radically reforming their behaviour.
Another detail is the evidence Jackson offers which indicates there is a direct link between religious practice and belief, with belief in core Christian teachings such as the resurrection: belief in such core teachings declines significantly the longer one has been a non-practising Christian.
Australians and the Christian God is a fascinating study of religious thought and belief in Australian history and helps to explain intellectual and social trends that have shaped Australian society.
Unfortunately, the work contains some proofing errors; however, it is the product of thorough research, careful synthesis and detailed analysis of source material.
Although an academic study, it is very readable and accessible, a work that this reviewer found extremely hard to put down.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 28 No 1 (February 2015), p. 17
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