Dr Kevin Donnelly: Don’t write off Christianity

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Dismissing two millennia of faith because of Census statistics and anti-Christian commentators, would be a fundamental mistake writes Dr Kevin Donnelly. PHOTO: CNS

Despite the sins of its members, the Christian faith is far greater than opinion polls in the news

It shouldn’t surprise, given the 2021 census results concerning religion, those critical of Christianity and the Catholic Church have used the fall in numbers to suggest religion is moribund and no longer relevant to Australian society.

With newspaper headlines like “Abandoning God: Christianity plummets as ‘non-religious’ surges in census” (Sydney Morning Herald), “Losing our religion as Christianity plummets” (The Age) and comments like “Australia’s rapidly changing population is more godless (the Guardian) it would be easy to conclude religion is in its death throes.

In the same way the report of Mark Twain’s death was premature (Twain replied “the report of my death was an exaggeration) it’s also true that religion, Christianity and Catholicism, are still powerful and significant forces in Australian society.

While the numbers identifying as Christian have fallen significantly over time and now sits at 44 per cent, the reality is 60 per cent of older Australians still identify as Christian and it should not surprise, given the concerted public campaign telling Australians not to tick the religious box, numbers have fallen.

Leading up to and during the week of the census, groups like Humanists Australia and staunch Christian and anti-Pell critics including Tim Minchin, on television, radio and social networking sites, told young people, in particular, to tick no religion.

What critics ignore, as detailed in recently released Christianity Matters In These Troubled Times, is Christianity underpins and nourishes Australia’s political and legal systems, our way of life and much of Western civilisation’s art, music, language and literature.

Concepts like the right to liberty and a commitment to social justice and the common good, as detailed in Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, are derived from the New Testament and Jesus’ admonition to “love thy neighbour as thyself”.

As the Bible states “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus”. To listen to Rachmaninov’s Vespers, to admire the stained-glass windows of Chartres Cathedral or to contemplate Michelangelo’s Pieta is to sense the divine and to soar with the angels.

the reality is 60 per cent of older Australians still identify as Christian

Christian virtues and religion’s ability to engender a sense of the spiritual and transcendent are vital for human flourishing. Also ignored by secular critics is without Christianity Australia’s education, health, welfare, aged care, social welfare and charitable services would collapse.

Christian schools educate approximately 34 per cent of Australian students, charities like the Salvation Army and Vinnies serve countless thousands of the nation’s most disadvantaged and Christian aged care and hospitals are an essential part of Australia’s social fabric. In emphasising what the census tells us about religious beliefs secular critics ignore what the 2021 snapshot tells us about Australian society more broadly. Of particular concern is out of a population of just over 25.5 million there are 8 million Australians described as having a long term health condition.

Top of the list, ahead of asthma and arthritis, is mental health where just over 2.2 million Australians describe themselves as suffering some form of anxiety and depression. While Covid-19 may have contributed, to have so many, especially young people, at risk is an indictment of a society where so many lack resilience and the ability to find a more lasting and enriching sense of solace, strength and comfort.

While Christianity is not always a panacea to experiencing loss, fear and anxiety, as suggested by the Christian mystic St Teresa of Avila: “Let nothing disturb you, Let nothing frighten you, All things are passing away: God never changes. Patience obtains all things. Whoever has God lacks nothing; God alone suffices”.

Also of concern is the fact the number of single parent families in Australia has reached one million with 75 per cent of single parents being women. Common sense suggests, supported by research, two parent families are one the foundation stones of a stable and flourishing society and the best place for children to be raised.

There’s no doubt those professing to be Christian, since the time Jesus worked on this earth, have committed grievous and unforgivable sins, ranging from the corruption of medieval and Renaissance popes, pogroms against the Jews to paedophilia. At the same time there is much to acknowledge and praise about Christianity and to celebrate and defend.

The author of The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, when explaining the millions killed and starved under communism and fascism argues the reason is “Men have forgotten God. The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century”.

While the numbers have diminished, religion is still a vital element in Australian society and the lives of the faithful and with God’s grace it will continue.

Related:

Census: atheism on the rise
Dr Kevin Donnelly: One front in a much larger battle