Unbelief – Silence in the Valley of Meh

“I have a lot of beliefs, and I live by none of ’em. That’s just the way I am. They’re just my beliefs. I just like believing them. I like that part. They’re my little believies; they make me feel good about who I am.”- Louis CK

Beliefs matter. Not all the time. And what we say doesn’t always match what we do but our beliefs about the nature of world and our place in shape our actions individually and collectively. Therefore understanding those beliefs – our own and those of others – matters. And those beliefs can be messy.

For reasons that will soon become apparent, I want to hold off explaining my own beliefs.

As far as I know there has only been one book written about unbelief in Australia and that is Losing My Religion by Tom Frame. Published in 2009, I read it over the weekend with a mix of fascination and frustration. The author is both an academic and a former Anglican Bishop to the Australian Defence Force (some of these details matter). A significant amount of research and thought obviously went into this book and its mostly worth the effort. Lets work our way through the content.

Chapter 1 sets the scene. It introduces the concepts of “believing, behaving and belonging” as interrelated and also acknowledges that this stuff is… complicated. Working through exactly what other people belief is difficult business – answers on a survey do not necessarily reflect the spiritual life of the respondent. He’s not impressed with the beliefs of many Australians:

In my judgment, the culturally compliant strain of Christianity promoted in Australian does not compel people to grapple with ideas that will expand their horizons, nor does it oblige them to embrace lifestyle choices that might involve discomfort. Much of what purports to be Christianity in this country is a form of religious therapy whose aim is to make people feel better about themselves or help them gain more enjoyment out of life. The notion that religion is concerned with the reorientation of the world’s power structures, beginning with radical self-denial, would come as news to most Australians, both within and beyond the church. It is easy to be disinterested in the highly self indulgent religion often encountered here. A religion that disturbs individuals and disrupts society never evokes disinterest or indifference. (p. 15)

This chapter highlights the main structural problem with the book (we’ll come to the methodological problem later). The writer simultaneously pursues both social science and also theology. The book seeks to both understand and judge. These are activities that do not sit well together and too often the understanding is curtailed to get on with the judging. For instance, the questions that this passage evokes – How does therapeutic Christianity work? Why are people attracted to it? What value does it offer to people? Why might they see it as superior to more austere or disruptive forms of religion? – are lost. N.B. I often have sympathy with the author’s judgments but their swift enactment makes for a less engaging book.

Chapter 2 deals with definitions. Chapter 3 covers the role of religion and unbelief prior to federation including a lengthy discussion of debates around the role religion was to play in the Constitution. These debates matter because they are often resurrected in present-day arguments as to whether Australia is “Christian” or “secular” country. Chapter 4 continues the historical narrative to 2008, the subtitle being “The decline of religious belief”. The TL;DR version being:

From my own study of Australia’s religious history since 1788, I have come to share Patrick O’Farrell’s conclusion that ‘in Australia … what is most significant historically about religion is its weakness, its efforts to achieve some strength, its tenuous and intermittent hold on the minds and hearts of the Australian people, its peripheral or subordinate relation to their main concerns’. (pp.83-84)

Chapter 5 is an investigation in to the Census data and other data available around religious identity. It’s a thorough review of the data – and while care should be taken in interpreting it all, the overall trajectory is clear: Australians as getting less likely to identify with established religious institutions over time.

This first third of the book is excellent – perhaps because the social science receives more attention than the theology. The next three chapters – looking at the relationship between belief/unbelief and philosophy, science and theology respectively – lean more to the theological side of things. Their focus is ideas. Ideas are important. They matter. But they do not matter as much as historians of ideas think they do. Way back in chapter 1, Frame has cast doubt on the notion that non-belief (or much that passes for religious belief for that matter) is the product of theological reasoning or scientific research. So why expound at such length? One gets the impression of indulgence on the part of the author.

Chapter 9 kinda brings us back on track again. The first half of this chapter is an attempt to gauge what makes up objections to theistic belief by analysing the 500 online comments relating to three articles in the Australian about religion, atheism and agnosticism. The themes identified are unsurprising. Then the author briefly reviews two books (This I Believe and I Believe This) containing the beliefs of 200 prominent and not-so-prominent Australians. These get short shrift which is a missed opportunity. The online comments are likely to be from a minority of individuals motivated to comment on the topic (the small minority of passionate atheists and agnostics), at least the comments in the books emerge from a range of views. This chapter highlights the methodological problem hinted at earlier – the lack of primary, qualitative research. The book is extensive (nay, exhaustive) in its deployment of secondary sources but the voices of everyday non-believers (as opposed to public commentators) are absent. I agree with Frame that the majority of Australians are unengaged with religious institutions. They live in the Valley of Meh. What this book lacks are voices from that valley.

The judge-y thing arises again towards the end of the chapter (“Tolerance or laziness?”) however this is partly redeemed with a spray against ANZAC Day commemoration services (pity Frame if his heresy is uncovered by the NewsCorp inquisition). At the same time, I wonder why this consolatory religion is so very bad.

Chapters 10 & 11 see the return of theology. This time the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are wheeled out along with some local equivalents. I agree with Frame’s labelling of them as “anti-theism” and a discussion of them in a book about unbelief seems inevitable. As Frame has already noted, atheism is a niche activity in Australia so I’m not sure why they deserve 2 chapters.

This authorial choice echoes an ongoing issue with the public discussion of belief and unbelief in Australia. The For God’s Sake debate is an example of this (although any “religious” edition of Q&A will also fit this model):

  • First of all, it’s framed as a debate. We put fighte-, er, speakers in different corners.
  • We pick an atheist (probably a scientist) along with a Christian (a Protestant and a Catholic if you have room), then a Muslim, then maybe a Jew. Mostly Buddhists and Hindus don’t get a look in.
  • We let them have at it while we chow down some popcorn.

This adversarial model works well for the anti-theists (I suspect that Christopher Hitchens greatest fear was not death or disgrace but rather having no one to argue with). But it is also attractive for Christian public intellectuals. They loathe the tepid apathy of the Valley of Meh but debating its members is rather like wrestling jelly. One suspects that this situation is to the benefit of all concerned. Indeed, one reason why atheism seems a bigger deal than it actually is would be that Christians have given it that status. For example, the Centre for Public Christianity has 92 articles on “Atheism” compared to 19 on “Islam” and 8 on “Miracles”. What this conflict does not do is engage with the bulk of Australians beyond providing intellectual spectacle.

OK – back to the book. Chapters 12 and 13 run together and concerned with the role of organised religion in the public sphere and the extent to which that role is perceived as legitimate by other actors and by the public at large. Let me say that here I agree with Frame that religious groups should have the right to contribute to public debate. It is neither desirable nor possible to eliminate religious actors from politics. However politics is a bruising business. And if a religion becomes entangled with politicians then politicians will demand their due. The anodyne civic religion centred on national rituals that Frame excoriates elsewhere is a likely to be a demand of such entanglements.

The final chapter outlines both the trends the author expects to unfold and the actions that the Church needs to undertake in order to be successful. The proposed solutions do not necessarily align with the research in the rest of the book. Frame’s vision for the Church seems to be one after his own heart – committed, intellectual, somewhat austere. However the points where Australian engagement with Christianity have been strong (the late 19 century, the period immediately after WW2) have been marked by the public deciding that the Church gives them something that they want that they cannot get elsewhere (respectability in the first instance, stability and spiritual order in the second). Will the market for austerity be as strong enough to sustain the Church? A doctrinal rigidity appeals to the likes of George Christensen – but then can Frame’s Anglican tradition compete with the likes of the Antiochian Orthodox Church in that respect? Or are other options available?

Now to come clean to my own beliefs. I was raised in an evangelical branch of the Baptist Church in the UK in the 70s/80s/90s. Hence I know my way around a Bible (and I can speak in tongues at the the drop of a hat). I no longer participate in organised religion nor believe in a supernatural god but have many friends and family who do. I do not think Christians (or other participants in organised religion) are stupid. Neither do I think religion is likely to disappear any time soon. People want satisfying answers to where they come from, why they are here, what they should do, who they should be with and what happens to them when they die. Satisfaction with an answer is not related to its truth. I disagree with the anti-theists in that as religions are human creations, they reflect us – insightful, beautiful, confused, destructive. And also worthy of engagement.

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