QandA Episode raises questions about religion in Australia

Last night’s episode of QandA on the ABC featured a discussion about God in Australian life, culture and politics. Questions and conversations were wide ranging, and like in the real world, God’s talk wasn’t far away, although I suspect Easter had something to do with it. 

The program conducted an online poll, asking, ‘Should politicians still say the Lord’s Prayer at the start of each sitting day?’

Of course, conducting a poll on ABC today is like surveying AFL supporters and asking whether they prefer to watch AFL or lawn bowls?

The surprise wasn’t the 83.5% who said no to the Lord’s Prayer but the 13.6% who said yes. By the way,   if you’re interested to read what is a typical Christian view on this topic, take a look at this article. You may find the answer surprising.

Conversations among the guests were cordial and void of the spite that is sometimes present.  It’s not as though they were unified in political or religious agreement, but the Anglican Archbishop, Muslim Labor Senator, the Indigenous Academic, the young liberal, and the British journalist, went about it with a tone of respect and humility.

The online world is of course a different place. It’s like navigating the Australian bush,  with sharp teeth and claws ready to devour any dislikable opinion. Throughout the show, tweets were displayed on our television screens, selected by the producers. These pithy opinions played out a regular pattern: religion should stay out of politics, Churches should stay silent on the Voice to Parliament, and others citing with certainty what Jesus would do today! In contrast, panellist Anne Pattel-Gray and an Indigenous woman from the audience both called on Churches to be more proactive in speaking about the proposed Constitutional changes.

I want to address one question in particular which became the focus of the final minutes of the program.

The question came from audience member, Oliver Damian. He asked,

“According to the 2021 Australian census, those declaring that they have “no religion”, the nones, increased to almost 40 per cent second only to Christianity. David Foster Wallace said “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” Do you think these “nones” really ditched religion or have they just shifted to worshipping things that are much worse? And what does this mean for the soul of our nation?”

Andrew Neil answered, “Of course. Reality television, worshipping themselves, validating things they believe in…”

People took offence at Neil’s suggestion and defended their non-religiosity. 

I threw my hat in the ring and tweeted this,

“There are no religious free people. We are worshippers at our core”.

People were similarly offended. But should the nones take offence? It’s worthwhile exploring this phenomenon and further explaining the thesis that everyone worships.

First, we can’t escape religion.

Andrew O Neil observed on QandA how Christianity is declining in Western nations, including France and his own United Kingdom. Australia can be added to that list. While we can’t deny the trend, there are also counter trends. For example, the number of practising Christians living in London is increasing, and the number of evangelical Christians in France is also growing, with around 745,000 adherent today in contrast to around 50,000 in 1950. Then, of course, Christianity is growing at phenomenal rates in many other parts of the world today. What we view as dangerous, millions of people in Africa, Asia, and South America are discovering is good news. 

Australia’s nones may claim neutrality as though there exists a pure secularist mindset freed from any religious entanglements. Such a posture is framed by self-righteousness and it’s one that is already beginning to fray and lose its shape. 

We can’t escape religion. Built from a narrow bend in the Enlightenment road, we Westerners love to mock belief in God. Our hubris convinces us that the world no longer needs notions of heavenly realities and life to come. This world is all there is and there is no overarching design or purpose beyond that which we determine for ourselves.

The British historian, Tom Holland has demonstrated in his book Dominion that our culture is not the only indebted to Christianity, but Christian ideas remain t deeply embedded in our subconsciousness, such that they continue to direct and influence our moral categories and judgements today.

“If secular humanism derives not from reason or from science, but from the distinctive course of Christianity’s evolution—a course that, in the opinion of growing numbers in Europe and America, has left God dead—then how are its values anything more than the shadow of a corpse? What are the foundations of its morality, if not a myth?” 

In cities like Melbourne, we are creating drought like conditions for the garden. That is, we are trying hard to remove theological language and spiritual concepts from the public space, but killing off every blade of grass and every root is harder than we might imagine.

As the book of Ecclesiastes puts it, 

“God has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” 

We are wired to believe in God. Searching for meaning and hope beyond blood and brain, and behind the molecular and physics is instinctive. 

While the amassing nones like to claim autonomy, and a sense of epistemic and moral maturity, in blowing off God, they are, in fact, still relying upon posits or values instilled in us via the Christian God. Hence what we have today is not less worship, but rather a distorted worship.

Indeed, to rid ourselves of Christianity is to uproot basic societal goods such as notions of equality, forgiveness, and tolerance. All these things and more find their origins in the God of the Bible.  That is not to say that the atheist doesn’t have a moral framework, of course, she does. But these ethics have a Christian vein running through them and even when they don’t,  they are ethics created in opposition to the Christian God. 

Second, everyone worships.

Everyone worships. Worship does not necessitate a higher being or god of some description. Worship isn’t limited to temples, churches, prayers and choral music. Worship is about giving oneself to a person, object or idea. Worship means giving credence to and sacrificing for the cause that your heart most desires.

The Bible itself doesn’t reduce worship to acts of prayer and song that are contained within a religious ceremony and building. While there is a particular emphasis on communal worship (whether it is at the Temple or church), the language of worship extends to all of life. For example, Romans 12:1

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship”.

As both the law and Jesus teach, 

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Luke 10:27)

Not only is worship an all-of-life attitude, but it is also often centring on areas of life that might surprise. Timothy  Keller has made this powerful and somewhat disturbing observation about American politics in recent years,

 “They have put the kind of hope in their political leaders and policies that once was reserved for God and the work of the gospel. When their political leaders are out of power, they experience a death “

As philosopher Dr Christopher Watkin notes in his best selling book, ‘Biblical Critical Theory (an idol is a Bible way of describing substitutes for God), 

“Any idol engenders this sort of dogmatic totalitarianism because it becomes, within creation, the ulti-mate measure of what is good, drawing a line down the middle of the created order and classifying some of its objects, impulses, and values as unmitigatedly good and others as unrelentingly evil. This is the lot of those who “have sup- posed that the Final Good and Evil are to be found in this life” and so “with wondrous vanity . . . have wished to be happy here and now, and to achieve bless- edness by their own efforts.”

The only way to escape this totalitarianism is to have an object of worship that is outside the created order. Any idol on the creature side of the creator- creature distinction will lead to a situation in which some thing or things in the world are pursued in an unqualified and undiscerning way, and other things (whatever gets in the way of or stands opposed to the chosen idol) will be denounced or loathed in a similarly dogmatic way” 

The convinced naturalist or materialist isn’t without gods and idols, they simply take on a different form. Dr Watkin again, 

“These idols have their own cultic rituals, argues Richard Bauckham, namely the advertising that mediates to us their values and desires. Adverts are not sell- ing objects; they are selling us ourselves, repackaged and dependent on the aura of this or that product to graft onto us a borrowed identity”.

Worship is an act and attitude of thankfulness, adoration, and love. It’s something we all do from the Internet to work, from the shopping centre and to the church. The only question is, who or what are we worshipping? Who or what are we giving our lives to?

Indeed, the ancient gods of Molech and Artemis may have changed their names, but their insatiable desires remain with us. We label them with sociological terms such as self determination and expressive individualism. 

The worship of gods can be oppressive and problematic. The worship of self is arduous, stifling, and egocentric, for it means that everyone else and everything exists to serve me. We can’t deny the fact that religion is responsible for all kinds of heinous activities throughout history, both as a distortion of religions and sometimes as a result of faithful adherence to religious beliefs.  It is also the case that our godless counterparts have been proud participants in what is called sin and evil.

Australia may be trying to move away from Christianity, but we can’t easily distance ourselves from the cross: that symbol of Divine love, justice and mercy. We do, after all, acknowledge Good Friday as a national public holiday. 

For all our advancements and developments, we haven’t found a substitute for the cross of Jesus Christ, and neither do we need one. If Jesus should die for my sins and then defeat death on the third day with his resurrection, surely that should at least cause us to consider, does my religion or lack thereof, offering this kind of freedom and new life?