Review: Losing my religion

Losing my Religion examines and seeks to explain the rise of unbelief in Australia

In his new book, Losing My Religion: Unbelief in Australia, Tom Frame proposes seven reasons for Australians increasingly abandoning their faith in God. They include (not in any order) the growth of non-religious community organisations, the collapse of sabbatarianism, the decline in religious tokenism, the impress of scientific views (which seem to exclude God), the more open discussion of atheism and agnosticism, together with the seemingly reactionary nature of many churches and their often debilitating theological disunity. Of course, this is only a summary and it should be pointed out that all of these factors (and their subsets) are persuasively elaborated throughout the book.

Losing My Religion tries very hard to be even-handed and yet it is difficult to think of its being reviewed impartially. Although Frame is quite explicit (though not proselytising) about his own Christian convictions, he clearly makes a sustained and sincere attempt to understand the “other side” of the argument.

Indeed, he goes well beyond this by examining in some detail the nature of Australia's religious belief throughout the 221 years since 1788 (though he doesn't consider the millennia before that). He talks of the difficulties traditional Christianity had in the early days of settlement, its buoyancy in the years leading up to World War I, its zenith in the 1950s and early '60s and its apparent decline over the past three or four decades. He emphasises that the Christianity which Australians seem more recently to have rejected was never as deep as it should have been anyway; that it often served more social and/or worldly purposes than those which Jesus of Nazareth appears to have had in mind.

In addition to analysing the answers given to the “religious question” in censuses carried out by the Australian colonies and, later, by the federal government, Frame has also widely consulted writers of letters-to-the- editor and, more recently, bloggers on the internet.

As a historian, Frame is more than aware of the shortcomings of the evidence he is working with. Writers of letters to newspapers (let alone bloggers) are not always typical of the society they live in. Fillers of census forms are not always honest with themselves or their interlocutor. One doesn't really know how many readers certain key books written from either side of the debate actually had — or exactly what their impact would have been on their readers' beliefs.

Despite these difficulties, Frame, in Parts I and II of Losing My Religion, has constructed a convincing narrative. He is careful, too, about putting these Australian developments in the wider context of European and American theological movements and the impact of Darwin's The Origin of Species.

In Part III, Frame considers the implications of all this and, at the end, even risks a few predictions about belief and unbelief in Australia over the next few decades. He, somewhat despondently, surmises that in “conflating secularism with atheism, the Australian state will eventually become anti-religious and lose the affections of those who retain religious beliefs. This will lead to a loss of social cohesion and further fragment the community.”

Of course, to “anti-theists” (such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and their Australian equivalents) this will be no great problem. They already point to religion's being a divisive factor in society and would relish the state's realising that secularism necessarily involves atheism and nothing less. Frame strongly contests the views of these anti-theists and is hardly impartial here; nor would one expect him to be. Anti-theism, that form of atheism which positively advocates the destruction of religion, is seen by Frame (and many others, including this writer) as essentially equivalent to the religious fundamentalism it denounces. Both lack the civility and fair-mindedness which Frame sees as essential to any sort of productive debate.

And, of course, Frame is happy enough to admit that the ill-will has not always been one way. He admits that the Christian church has much to answer for in its long-lasting persecution of atheists (and other “heretics” and “apostates”) but he doesn't see why the anti-theists should want to replicate that mistake.

He doesn't, however, rush in to disapprove when he quotes the Roman Catholic psychologist and commentator, Ronald Conway, as saying: ” … (Australia) has more than its fair share of metaphysical morons who assume that the last word to be said about the religious quest is their failure to see its relevance”.

Unlike many of his co-religionists, Frame has made a serious effort to understand this Australian indifference and suggests a number of reasons for it

Such statements are really just ad hominem name calling. They leave the anti-theists equally free to respond that the morons in this case are, in fact, Conway and his metaphysicians. Everyone is hurt to some extent by the failure of others to see the relevance of something he or she considers crucial but that is just something we have to put up with. Of course, the issues of what (if anything) happens to us after death and what constitutes a well-lived life are hard to be indifferent to but if some (or many) choose to remain uninterested in these topics, so be it.

Unlike many of his co-religionists, Frame has made a serious effort to understand this Australian indifference and suggests a number of reasons for it. It's significant, however, that throughout this investigation he has not changed his viewpoint. Nor have the atheists, agnostics and others (for the most part) changed theirs.

Importantly, Frame says in his Preface: “I do not expect that Losing My Religion will lead atheists to be more reticent about their objections to theism or, in answering objections to theism, that my words will lead agnostics to belief.” This is probably the case but the book nevertheless forces those of us who can be loosely classed as “non-believers” to consider our position — and perhaps rehearse its evolution.

As an agnostic, I'm impressed by Frame's generosity in quoting the Archbishop of Chieti-Vasto, Bruno Forte, when he says: “… non-belief is more than a label … it is the fruit of the (non-believer's) experience of suffering and struggle with God and of their being unable to believe in Him. True non-belief is not a facile denial with little effect on the person concerned.”

It is this respect for the sincerity of the opposing view that characterises Frame's work throughout. He is impatient with the “anti-theists” (as they are with him) and is determined to oppose them (politely) whenever the opportunity presents itself. This is as it must be.

One cannot help but be reminded, however, of the nineteenth century dictum about the three things never to be discussed over the dinner table: sex, politics and religion. Arguments about of any of the three can lead to pain, embarrassment and the loss of friends. Perhaps the whole point of the raging engagement between the anti-theists and the religious fundamentalists (two of a kind really) is to remind those of us in the middle (both Christian and non-Christian) of the importance of politeness and the possibility of what we may learn from each other, even as we go on continuing to agree on disagreeing.

Geoff Page is an award-winning Australian poet and self-confessed agnostic.