November 30, 2006
Australians are religiously laid back, more inclined to be spiritual than enthusiastically religious, likely to view God as rather distant, somewhat easy to get around and of particular interest in emergencies.
But there are challenges. Religion is a hot topic. Our politicians admit to being religious, although none claim to be born again, like politicians in the United States. What is happening? Where will this go?
Migration and conversion have changed Australia's religious profile. Migration has brought Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and other groups in large enough numbers that there are now more Buddhists than Baptists, more Muslims than Lutherans, and more Hindus than Jews.
Conversion, or denomination switching, has brought a great increase in Pentecostals and other vigorously religious Christian evangelicals.
Religious difference has been both the cause of and associated with the resurgence in religious practice around the world and even in Australia.
When we were all Christians and basically Anglican, Catholic and Uniting, religion did not make much difference. Now there is much more diversity and the Australian "we" includes Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Scientologists. In this context religious identity is being declared in various ways from clothing choices to political choices; from entertainment choices to friendship choices. Increased religious diversity has revealed that religion does make a difference.
Overseas events have thrown religion into the spotlight as various groups claim religious legitimacy for their actions. Again the spectrum is broad, from religiously inspired acts of violence, including terrorist attacks, to attacks on abortion clinics; from declaring opposition to stem-cell legislation to insisting on respect for dietary observances.
Australians have not responded primarily in fear, but by creating a plethora of network-generating interfaith activities and community building associations at the local and state level.
Religious resurgence is not so much a retrogressive step into a past that did not exist as much as totally postmodern ways of taking religion seriously.
Just when many thought religion was a dying phenomenon that would not make it into the 21st century, mega-churches sprang up. Churches filled with youth, and energising forms of worship I refer to as spiritual aerobics. These cannot be dismissed as shallow calls to return to the past, but are active engagements with the world of today with forms of message delivery that are strictly postmodern and keyed into the receptors of young people.
Sit in a pew and listen to a sermon? Give it a rest. Be caught up in a surf of multimedia presentations, study groups and a well-resourced religious environment that cares. The multimedia systems of these churches would make most rock bands weep with envy.
But that is not all. There is also life in more traditional forms. Some seek more reflective, meditative and intellectually grounded forms of faith and spirituality. What does not sell is boring preaching, lazy sloppiness, lack of preparation and insincerity.
Spirituality takes many forms in 21st-century Australia.
Nearly 2 per cent of Australians, more than declared themselves to be Lutherans, Baptists or Muslims, took the time to write in a "spiritual" response to the 2001 census. Other major growth areas included pagans and witches, while the percentage saying they have no religion declined from 16.5 per cent to 15.5 per cent.
Australia's soul is alive and searching. Attendance at mosques, temples and other centres of religious and spiritual life is booming.
Australia competed for and won the bid to hold the 2009 Parliament of the World's Religions because of our religious diversity and the way that diversity is peaceably and productively managed and celebrated.
Australians continue to seek explanations that are grounded in more than the material and transient world. Australians are open to the spiritual, but less willing to tolerate patriarchal and patronising religious leaders and oppressive religious structures.
As we seek to take charge of our own health and are less likely to take without question the recommendations of medical practitioners, we are also much less likely to agree that "Father knows best" in our religious and spiritual lives.
As increasingly educated Australians we are demanding that our questions be heard, that our own journeys be validated.
All of this raises serious questions of religion and public policy.
How is Australia to organise medical services when some religious groups oppose fertility control and abortion?
How are the conflicting demands of religious groups for recognition and participation in civic events to be negotiated?
How is the host of a dinner party, or corporate function, to cope with the dietary regulations of vegetarians, vegans, as well as those of other religious groups?
Australia leads the world in providing opportunities for funding for faith-based education in schools. There is support to train Christian clergy, but what about Muslim imams, Buddhist monks and nuns, or the clergy of other groups?
The near future promises to bring more, not less, religious life, greater diversity and increased challenges to policy makers. The core drivers remain strong: a search for meaning in the contingencies of life, dissatisfaction with bare materialism and cold reason, and the human responses of compassion. The resurgence of religion is not an American plot. It is a genuine movement in the life of the Australian soul.
Gary Bouma is UNESCO chairman in Interreligious and Intercultural Relations – Asia Pacific. His new book, Australian Soul: Religion and Spirituality in the 21st Century, published by Cambridge University Press, is to be released next week.