Of religion and Australia: we must not succumb to historical amnesia

Simon Smart reviews Roy Williams' new book Post-God Nation? at ABC's The Drum.

If Christianity indeed fades into a distant misty past for most Australians, there is a real fear there will be nothing with which to replace it. Our historical ties to religion are too strong to simply dismiss, writes Simon Smart.

Kazuo Ishiguro's latest novel The Buried Giant is set in post Roman Britain. A fragile peace exists between the Britons and the Saxons, in part due to a mist that has descended over the land, rendering its inhabitants strangely forgetful. They have a vague awareness of episodes that have taken place in their past but are unable to access those memories.

“For in this community the past … had somehow faded into a mist that was as dense as that which hung over the marshes. It simply did not occur to these villages to think about the past – even the recent one,” offers the narrator.

Ishiguro's mist serves as a motif that ultimately highlights the consequences of a people succumbing to historical amnesia. It's an idea to which author Roy Williams could surely relate. Williams says he wrote his latest book – Post-God Nation? How Religion Fell Off the Radar in Australia; and What Might Be Done to Get it Back On – because he was tired of being told that Christianity's impact on Australia was either negative or of little consequence. Any great nation has to know its history and Williams fears that Australians are losing a sense of theirs, especially when it comes to religion.

Perhaps that ought not be surprising. As Williams points out, whatever loyalty and commitment to Christianity that we once had is rapidly fading. In the first national census in 1911, 96 per cent of the population identified as Christian but by 2011 this had dropped to 61 per cent. Williams thinks probably only about one third of that 61 per cent have anything more than a vague cultural attachment to the faith, so the social significance of the church is a long way from what it once was. Williams writes that “Christianity seems to be perceived by more Australians than ever as implausible, undesirable or irrelevant”.

Williams has become adept at talking about this implausible, undesirable or irrelevant religion in public and getting away with it. His first book – a response to New Atheism entitled God, Actually (2008) – along with his assessment of the religious sensibilities of Australia's prime ministers, In God They Trust? (2013), were both well received in the media and bookstores around the country.

Williams was a one-time agnostic who leant towards atheism and became a somewhat reluctant convert at age 35. He is therefore aware of and sensitive to the objections to belief that some of his readers will harbour, and is able to write with an air of relaxed conviction that enables him to sound reasonable even to sceptics. Post-God Nation? is not a work of bald apologetics. Williams is fully aware of the failings of the churches and individual believers and is not at all uncomfortable acknowledging these. But, he argues, there's a bigger story to tell.

Williams is a former litigation lawyer used to marshalling detailed arguments, and he presents a spirited case that not only is our culture profoundly formed by the Christian story, but that the impact has been in the most part positive and is ongoing.

Williams not only competently relates Christianity's profound impact on the West but on Australia in particular, and this is the major contribution of the book. He is at pains to explain how the Jesus story is “ploughed” into our history, that “contemporary ways of thinking and patterns of behaviour are in vital respects anchored in the biblical understanding of the world”.

Our much loved sense of egalitarianism and equal rights with no one intrinsically of more value than anyone else, begins, writes Williams, not with universal suffrage in the 20th century, nor with the Enlightenment of the 18th century, or even the Magna Carta of the 13th century (as important as those milestones were), but with the Judaeo-Christian concept that every person is made in the image of God.

He lists other major influences: the achievement of Federation, the growth of religious and cultural pluralism, the establishing (via Britain) of our legal system, our education system, our interest in relieving poverty, multiculturalism – nothing less than our national character, claims Williams, was forged out of a Judeao-Christian heritage.

This lack of a religious sensibility matters because all people need to be equipped to handle the deepest questions of human life and existence, writes Williams.

The book also offers an extraordinary list of highly influential figures in Australian history and points out the way many, from explorers and scientists to novelists and prime ministers, were motivated by faith. Williams adopts a broad and generous definition of who he considers “Christian” and some will feel he is too quick to attribute motives to a religious bent, but his broad point is well made. None of this is intended to prove the truth of Christian belief, but merely to paint a historically accurate picture, with a posture that merely suggests that “maybe there's more to this story than simply fools believing in sky fairies”.

More seriously, Williams believes Australians are tone deaf to religious questions today. We struggle to make sense of things beyond the materialities of life and we flounder in constructing a language of grief, loss and disappointment. We distract ourselves from any serious contemplation of our mortality. This lack of a religious sensibility matters because all people need to be equipped to handle the deepest questions of human life and existence, writes Williams.

Is Christianity the answer? Not everyone will think so, but as theologian David Bentley Hart has argued, the great atheist Friedrich Nietzsche at least had the good manners to take the time to understand Christianity before despising it. Modern critics frequently do not.

If Christianity indeed fades into a distant misty past for most Australians, Williams fears there will be nothing with which to replace it. Hence his motivation in writing and his attempt in the latter part of the book to map out a plan for getting religion back on the radar in Australia. He may be overly optimistic that readers will think that's a good idea. But he does do a good job of illustrating why a society heavily influenced by Christian virtues would not, as popular wisdom would have it, be a dour, repressive and joyless existence, but in fact a place of human flourishing for people at every strata of society.

It's a utopian vision and Williams knows it. But he offers a challenge to pause before junking the religious enterprise altogether; to pay attention to our past in order to navigate our way through the fog of human struggle; to assess where we've come from as well as ask deep and penetrating questions about where we might be heading as individuals and as a nation.

Simon Smart is the director of the Centre for Public Christianity. He is the co-author with Jane Caro, Antony Loewenstein, and Rachel Woodlock of For God's Sake: An Atheist, a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim Debate Religion.

This article first appeared at ABC's The Drum.