Decline of Christianity is a Loss for Everyone


It may not be fashionable to say so, but the way we live is unimaginable without a Christian cultural foundation. Amid all the evident social trends none is more significant than the truly seismic collapse in religious belief, especially in Christian faith. Doubtless, many will welcome this. Indeed, why should any of us have the “assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen”, given – as we now know from a myriad of official reports – that the successors of St Peter have been guilty of the most appalling human betrayals. Even if there was once a Nazarene who said to his friend “you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”, surely it was an impossible hope to think that any human institution could last millennia, especially when it has so often fallen so far short of its ideals. But lest we merely note this as just another one of the many interesting contemporary social trends, let’s consider the centrality of Christian inspiration to Western civilisation; and ponder the impact on the institutions and the attitudes we value, if the underlying religious convictions that created them are rapidly fading away.

Fifty-three years back, in 1971, 87 per cent of Australians identified as religious, and overwhelmingly as Christian. Now it’s just 54 per cent. And here’s the really striking feature: only five years ago, 52 per cent of us identified as Christian. Now it’s just 44 per cent. That’s an almost 20 per cent decline in Christian belief in just five years. Some of that will be people who don’t worship regularly anymore and feel fraudulent in ticking the religion box even though their faith is still with them. For others it represents a clear rejection of organised religion. Five years back, only 30 per cent of us identified as having no religion. Now it’s 39 per cent. That’s a 30 per cent leap in just five years, making no religion the fastest-growing “creed” in the country. Why does that matter? It may not be fashionable to say so, but the way we live is unimaginable without a Christian cultural foundation. Our democracy, for instance, rests on the notion that everyone is equal in rights and dignity, something that’s come down to us through the Christian gospels. It was on this very principle, as an example, that I rejected the idea of a race-based body in our Constitution in the form of the Indigenous voice to the parliament and it was disappointing to see some religious leaders support it because it’s an anathema to the fundamentals of Christian faith.

Elsewhere in our culture, our justice system rests on the notion that we should treat others as we’d be treated ourselves; again, something that’s come down to us through Christian teaching. Our sense of community too rests on the notion that we should “love our neighbours as we love ourselves”. It’s a commandment that lies at the heart of our volunteerism and philanthropy. Then there’s the not insignificant matter of what religious organisations contribute in terms of social uplift. Beyond a values-based education, they run an abundance of health and community services. To reference the largest Christian denomination, the Catholic Church, as an example, there are 80 Catholic hospitals across the country and 25,000-plus aged-care beds in Catholic nursing homes, as well as social welfare bodies and charities with a broader Christian inspiration – from the Salvation Army, to the St Vincent de Paul Society, to Anglicare, to Lifeline, and Alcoholics Anonymous – all organisations that are generally thought to be serving Australians well, however discredited the zeitgeist might find the faith which inspires their good works.

For several decades, Christianity has been giving way to other religious and cultural traditions. The federal parliament might still start with the Lord’s Prayer but only after an acknowledgment of country. Christian beliefs and Christian representatives are routinely mocked and ridiculed in the public square (the witch hunt against Cardinal George Pell was only the most extreme instance) in a way that other faiths (Judaism perhaps excepted) never would be. And this can be expected to intensify, given that most schools are now not only indifferent but often hostile to Christian faith, and often ignorant too, to Christian knowledge. Rightly, young Australians are taught to respect the Dreaming stories and Indigenous spirituality. But how many would be readily familiar with any of the Bible stories other than the Christmas one, despite their centrality in our culture? How many would understand the significance of Easter, except as a holiday with too much chocolate? Of course, faith is a matter of spiritual conversion that can’t be learnt like a lesson, but any Australian who’s not at least familiar with the gospels is culturally impoverished, even if not always spiritually worse off.

The Centre for Independent Studies’ Peter Kurti says census data on religion in Australia would “come as no… surprise” for those who’ve been “following these figures”. The data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics reveals 39 per cent of Australians identify as non-religious. Tellingly, the last census data revealed that mental illness is now our most prevalent chronic health condition (ahead of arthritis and asthma) and doubtless this owes much to the decline of the beliefs that gave the lives of our forebears spiritual comfort and purpose. As an imperfect Christian myself, who doesn’t always agree with the teachings of my faith, I don’t claim to know how an increasingly God-less society might be re-evangelised; just that there’s so much that we’ll miss when it’s gone, as individuals and as a society. It’s worth noting another key feature of the census, the fact that a larger proportion of our population is born overseas than in any other developed country. More than 50 per cent of us are now foreign-born or have at least one foreign-born parent – and that’s much less, these days, in the UK or New Zealand, and increasingly in India and China.

It goes without saying that professing religion doesn’t make anyone a better person. Still, in their own ways, every faith calls us to be better. Religious or not, Australia remains a wonderful country and the best place in the world to live. But there’s plenty to work on if we are to stay that way, and much we should protect.

Source: Peta Credlin is the host of Credlin on Sky News, 6pm weeknights.

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