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Outgrowing Religion

Humans will outgrow religion, it is said. Of late a throng of commentators have proclaimed that it is time for societies to put childish ways aside and emerge as post-theological grownups. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism declares that as a society matures – as it becomes wealthier, healthier and politically more stable – there is a trend towards atheism. With record levels of national prosperity and recent census data showing that Australians are, in many ways, not practitioners of their Christian heritage, is it to be expected that Australia will throw off its pre-pubescent Christian heritage and emerge as a ‘mature’ secular nation?

The first obstacle to the formation of such an atheistic society seems to be the will of the Australian people themselves. Hugh Mackay’s recent book Advance Australia… Where? states that while only 15% of Australians now go to church in any regular manner, the trend of decline has halted and there is strengthening interest in diverse forms of religious expression among Australians.

But even if the people of Australia were to believe that Australia’s religious heritage was merely an infantile national stage soon to be outgrown, to what would we grow? What would a society unshaped by religious values and beliefs look like?

Even if a society wanted to ‘outgrow Christianity’, says Habermas, it would struggle to know where to go next

A foremost German political philosopher, Professor Jürgen Habermas argues that religious thinking must be at the centre of any rational attempts to create a just and humane society. He states that the values held dear in our world (human rights, social democracy) spring from Judeo-Christian thinking, and that to suggest that there is an alternative to the justice of the Old Testament and the love of the New Testament ‘is idle post-modern talk’. Even if a society wanted to ‘outgrow Christianity’, says Habermas, it would struggle to know where to go next. Indeed many who decry religion as an immature basis for a society nonetheless share the hopes of a Christian – that love will reign, a time of peace will come and humanity will fulfil its potential. Such a social vision has not moved on from Christianity, it has simply borrowed the story and changed the names.

It seems that there are aspects of religion that thoughtful people feel they must outgrow. There is an urge to mature beyond the Christian moral framework, but it has provided the principles of justice, love and other-person-centeredness that we hold dear. There is an urge to outgrow the metaphysics of Christianity, with its belief in a personal God, an incarnate Son of God, a Holy Spirit and a heavenly realm. But these are the very teachings from which the social vision, accepted as good, emerges.

It seems unlikely that Australia will outgrow religion soon, but Australia does need to mature as a nation. This maturity will be reached when Australia is peopled by thoughtful Australians who have taken the time to form a view on Christianity, given its significance to Australian life. Even if these mature thinkers eventually decide Christianity is but a useful delusion, they will at least have made this decision through genuine enquiry, not through preconceived and untested hearsay. They may, of course, decide that it is not a delusion at all, that these teachings of Christianity – so fruitful in providing a basis for society – might also be true.

This is a condensed version of Greg Clarke's 2007 Smith Lecture

Greg Clarke is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX)

Kate Wilcox is a CPX Intern