Much is made of the decline of religion in Australia’s public life. In the 1990s, it wasn’t unusual for families to attend church at Easter and Christmas, even if they were not regular parishioners, as a sort of tip-of-the-hat to rituals past. Whilst undergoing our gradual and deliberately engineered unmooring from all things prior, there was comfort in attending Christmas carols in the neighbourhood, even as these once-holy days became distorted by commercial incentives and the desire to expand them beyond their traditional remit. Efforts were made to make them universal, rather than particular, “Jingle Bells” replacing “Silent Night”, “Happy holidays” replacing “Merry Christmas”, reflecting our growing secularity. Nonetheless I expect Christmas will be around a while yet, for reasons declared by Dickens in The Pickwick Papers:
Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveller, thousands of miles away, back to his own fire-side and his quiet home!
The 2021 census data indicates for the first time that less than half the population identifies as Christian, and according to the National Church Life Survey, 13 per cent attend church weekly, which I admit was higher than I expected. Many of those who fill churches are recent arrivals. From the same organisation, statistics show that only those who declare themselves Pentecostal are regular church-goers; for the more traditional denominations, attendance, from which we might presume genuine adherence, sits at around 20 per cent. As a homegrown, organically-nourished phenomenon, conventional religious life is all but dead in Australia.
Despite a religious home, I did not grow up in a religious world, merely one coloured by its afterglow. I recall reading aloud the Lord’s Prayer at an assembly when I was in Year One, sometime in the 1990s, though this was the last time that sort of thing was part of public schools. For those who grew up in an earlier time, who remember the apocryphal Catholic nun who was perhaps a little tyrannical with the ruler, or watched the hypocrisy of religious leaders with an eyebrow raised, the departure of religion from the stage might not have seemed such a bad thing. The question that ought to have been asked was about what would replace it, a question that now appears to have a clear answer. We also might have considered the moral priorities of those who pushed so hard for the retreat of religious life from the public sphere, many of whom advocated a sort of public libertinism. Many were leftists, from whom too many of us hoped goodwill might be forthcoming, that we could satiate them with a stake in society without them wanting to gobble the whole thing up. In hindsight, laying a place at the table for people who wanted to poison everyone else in attendance was not wise.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Naturally, religion has not gone away, despite the increasing public rejection of Christianity. Westerners, keen to disdain their own traditions, dabble in watered-down versions of Buddhism, Hinduism, or anything that seems a little exotic. The joy of being “spiritual” in lieu of “religious” is that you can ignore the rules you don’t like, serving as a sort of justification for nearly anything, with yourself squarely in the middle. “You do you” is essentially the only commandment the latter-day yoga enthusiast need observe. How lovely, to have a creed that is entirely non-judgmental, which after all is the most highly regarded value in our time. Some should look up what Buddha had to say about venomous snakes, a far cry from eat, love, pray. If you’re on the outside rung—say, prison—there’s always Islam, which serves as a pre-existing framework for an anti-society populated by those who disdain what they perceive as Western effeteness. Islam, unitary in thought and uninterested in the dialectical intellectual tradition that dominates Western thinking, is unlikely to ever become predominant, for this reason if for no other. Where Islam has flourished, it has done so at the tip of a sword.
For many people who nonetheless harbour religious needs, the itch is often scratched via a sort of alchemic transmutation, whereby what was once considered political has taken on religious trappings. This is the void into which Marxism stepped long ago, a materialist religion that tugged the same heartstrings, and which has, at least in part, been co-opted by liberal principles. The hydra-like liberal-Marxist synthesis, which rears an ugly head whenever you hear somebody talk about equality, diversity, racial justice, the LGBT community, climate change—it’s always the same types, talking about the same things—is couched in religious language. It is theological as much as it is political, making claims about good and evil, even if they are moral relativists whenever it suits them. This is where, for many, the religious impulse has gone, and why the climate-change activist reminds one of a latter-day Solomon Eccles.
The rainbow lanyard, the eco-signature at the bottom of an email, the BLM tag on a bio: these are the equivalents of postmodern religious iconography. A firm belief in the perfection of various liberal and Marxist takes on matters of race, climate, sexuality, gender, power and so forth have taken on a religious significance, one that can no longer be called new, though seemingly reaching a critical mass. It’s why—much to the chagrin of the Ben Shapiro types—people in thrall to these shibboleths aren’t terribly interested in facts and logic. Ever tried to argue with a religious fanatic? You probably have, without knowing it. They are the opposite side of the same postmodern coin that produces the ISIS fighter—driven by the desperate desire for transcendence in an age that offers very little—though with varying degrees of zeal.
When we discuss old constitutionalist touchstones, like the separation of church and state, we have no equivalent etymology when it comes to describing that which has become the prescribed religiosity for many: for those things outside conventionally-defined religion, things that have less organisational and doctrinal structure, but that make absolute claims nonetheless, and have wormed their way into our public life. We are closer than we think to the sort of religious strife that made seventeenth-century Europe the place it was, that led Oliver Cromwell to state that “necessity hath no law”.
The decline of institutional Christianity is no new phenomenon. Everyone likes to quote Nietzsche, who called the game in the 1880s and went looking for the Overman instead, or Marx, with his discussion of opiates. Certainly we are a long way from the Crusades, from a Christianity that even has a language of self-defence, let alone attack, against assaults mounted from all sides; assaults prior to our own time often mounted, it must be said, in good faith, at least in the nineteenth century. Great apologists arose to rally around the cross, but many share the disadvantage of writing for an audience already convinced; few atheists read them outside of academic interest, and I do not think many are swayed by argument when it comes to matters of the soul, any more than dry arguments move matters of the heart.
Nonetheless, it was the intellectual assault that proved the most damning, long before Freud and those others drew up plans to undermine the thing supposedly in the name of maximising human happiness. Carlyle ostensibly abandoned the faith after reading Gibbon, but never quite escaped the tug of theism, reserving his loathing for “all manner of System-builders and Sectfounders”, yet always couching his critiques in ambiguity. Bertrand Russell, who argued that the history of Christianity was enough to discredit it, might be answered by suggesting that the history of anything ought to discredit it, and that we should thus believe in nothing; from the crooked timber of humanity and all that.
Human beings believe in things that are unfalsifiable all the time—perhaps, the most important things—and we are more like Russell’s chicken, victimised by a belief in induction, than we care to admit. Besides which, if the information revolution has proved anything, it is that we are not logic engines, and that the proliferation of knowledge has in no wise ended human ignorance. If anything, people are more prone to clinging to orthodoxies in the face of epistemic uncertainty, even if those orthodoxies pretend to question everything whilst actually questioning very little. That is why so many “free thinkers” have predictable positions on everything. When it comes to what happened to the remnants of the Christian telos, Chesterton spelled it out:
The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.
The old virtues have indeed gone mad, and have only become madder. This is why we have endless calls for tolerance untethered from justice, for forgiveness without repentance, for total equality without regard for merit. In sum, we’ve wound up with a moral schema that recognises very little beyond the individual’s sacrosanct choice, which according to today’s liberal ethos is the other highest good, next to the enforced non-judgment others must observe when it comes to that choice—very fitting, for a consumer society. In a post-Christian vacuum, these are the virtues that have inherited the earth, though nobody could call them meek.
With a governing ethos like this, any religion that makes absolute claims has no place in public life, and this is why the liberal dispensation has had such trouble folding foundational religious belief into itself. It would much rather make the usual claim: we’ve moved past these things, because all history is ascending; it’s only upward and onward from here, and we ought to leave childish things behind—unless you’re talking about non-Western traditions, because semi-modernised Muslims make useful foot-soldiers when it comes to that path of ascension, which involves extinguishing the prior, at least when it comes to our particular context. One imagines the rest of the world is next.
Naturally, our secular quasi-religious public life is more than happy to make absolute claims for itself, for example about the primacy of its own schema, which is why many of the churches have gradually fallen into lockstep, abandoning their foundations. Some have become very busy and attentive adjutants to the postmodern religiosity we’ve wound up with. Judas betrayed Christ for thirty pieces of silver, which might seem a king’s ransom compared to what many modern churches have wound up with: falling attendance, the collapse of public respect, and a minuscule, neutered voice when it comes to the affairs of the nation.
For this they can blame themselves. I grew up in the 1990s and 2000s, when the Protestant church scene was all about adopting the scales for pop songs and making the lyrics Christian, turning “worship services” into concerts, in the name of capturing the youth market, for lack of a better term. If you wish to act on the senses, as everything else does in our jacked-up, hyper-real world of noise and screens, then you must expect a shallow purchase. You also must realise what you are in competition with: a world that does it better than you. If you turn the act of worship into a purely Dionysiac affair, then you’ve put yourself in competition with MDMA and the trance scene. “Peace, love and unity” is the call of the latter; how different from “peace be with you”, to those who would rather not think too much about these things? Many of the youth groups and similar movements, transplanted straight from the North American revival scene, fizzled out as the 2000s went on, and those exciting, charismatic starts to the faith very often ended up as atheism factories. There’s a parable about seeds that springs to mind, though in that case, the sower didn’t throw them all into a moshpit.
Desiring to market Christianity less as a counter-cultural force, and more as something that’s cool and hip, was perhaps impossible to resist when it wasn’t quite obvious where our collective dalliances into permissiveness might lead. Though we might go a little further, and suggest that marketing God is what passes for evangelism now, in many of the Pentecostal denominations especially, which have those sky-high adherence rates. Many change their name every few years, to keep the brand fresh, aping the business world. Attacking churches-as-businesses is low-hanging fruit, though; somebody has to pay to keep the lights on. Nonetheless, when you look at the schmick video productions of churches like Hillsong, it’s hard not to raise an eyebrow. It’s a little like trying to use the One Ring against Sauron; it’s tempting, but the results are unlikely to be good.
Now churches have reaped their harvest, and have come to be regarded as wellness groups promoting a form of group therapy, peculiar subcultures for those who wish to self-actualise somewhere other than the mainstream, and places where the fringes gather. I knew a young woman who started attending church because her psychologist told her there were real serotonin-related benefits to religious faith—a brain hack, were the words she used—which struck me as a sort of contemporary Pascal’s wager: “I might as well, because I lose nothing but my Sunday mornings if this doesn’t work out”. This same woman held all the predictable progressive moral positions on all the issues of our time, as it seemed did many of the youth of her church. God, or rather, the concept of God, was merely a draught animal to be put to use pulling the plough, tilling the field, a field devoted to self-care and personal wellbeing. Mencken said that if the Protestants proved one thing about God, it’s that He is a bore. Looking at this functionalist approach to what ought to be the deepest and most profound questions of human existence, it’s hard to conclude that, while Mencken might have been wrong about God, he might have been right about many who profess to follow Him.
Further, the gospel that is preached in many Protestant quarters these days seems a far cry from the one that led most of the Apostles to meet grisly ends. Once, on a Christian camp as a teenager, I remember a minister who was not having any of the hysterical enthusiasm of the day. The Christian walk, he said, is hard. It is only going to get harder. You have not found a genie in Aladdin’s cave; this is the beginning of the journey, not the end. Most were not so happy to hear this. Many were infected by the present notion of the Good Life, which is the child of advertising companies, of the Coca Cola advert with a beach and soft lighting and happy faces smiling. The Good Life is to feel Good. It is to be Happy. It is to reach the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In short, it is about you. You’re going to be a History Maker. In this sense, the liberal schema conquered the Christian one, in some cases without anybody noticing. In America, they call it the prosperity gospel, but it needn’t be so overt, nor so material in nature. Many gave up on the Christian walk, because life remained difficult, as life will, for everybody. God was not Robin Williams in Aladdin after all, any more than that draught animal; nor faith those crushed seeds on the dance floor.
I read somewhere that all liberals are now leftists, all Protestants are now liberals, and all Catholics are now Protestants. Certainly, in the wake of Vatican II, for many this was a valid conclusion. A friend’s grandmother put it best, when she complained that all the Latin she learned was now for nought: that if the Pope can change his mind on this, why not on anything? This sudden diversion of the ship’s course, a departure from centuries of tradition, put a sword through the thing for a great many in the West, making it yet another expanse of shifting sands. The insistence, for many, was that ritual was a mere externalisation of that which should be internal, that one could go through the motions without it meaning a great deal: the same arguments mounted by the Quakers long ago. So, ritual had to be replaced by ruthless internalisation, and church-going turned into another exercise in navel-gazing, rather than something that might serve to connect one to something greater, or something past, through ritual; ritual being badly misunderstood, it seems. We might, if we follow the same logic, reduce kissing those we love to a mere external ritual. You needn’t be Durkheim to appreciate the role of ritual in determining the sacred from the profane, and that not everything, like some Platonic emanation, needs to happen in a purely rational world of disembodied thought for it to matter.
It appears that for many young Catholics the abandonment of tradition was exactly the opposite of what they wanted; they did not want guitar masses with mood lighting. They want Latin Mass, and Latin Mass, much to the consternation of Catholic authorities as much as secular ones, has been growing at rates unheard of in recent years. If they want a sort of Christianity even less tainted by the present mood, they find Orthodoxy. A close friend gave me a book by Father Seraphin Rose, an Orthodox figure from the 1970s, called Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future. It’s hard not to take his central point, that modern Christianity has succumbed to the striving of men today to find their own spiritual paths, and that whatever else they may be, they tend to exist in opposition to the Christianity of yesteryear. Part of the attraction to these varieties of the faith is an exhaustion with choice as much as with modernity; choice, rather than being the prime article of freedom, becomes a burden, like a lonely man trapped at a crossroad that branches in every direction. Many want something prior and beyond themselves, something not subject to mere whim, something that stands in opposition to the prevailing milieu, that isn’t merely all about them, and in these established and long-lasting doctrines can be found a sort of peace.
One problem with all of this is that it is another form of astroturfed tradition, of shopping to find something to suit one’s predilections: of choice, in short. Genuine existing tradition finds you, and if you’re like me, you’re unlucky enough to find yourself Anglican. In our scattered and kaleidoscopic world, the soil ruined by generations of enthusiastic overtilling, genuine existing tradition enjoys an infrequent existence, outside of sporting events and those holidays under constant siege. A person without tradition, who merely chooses what they like, can equally choose any other thing. Their belief is as transitory as fashion: a sort of reflection of how the irreligious postmodern behaves. None of this helps to create a person of deep conviction, a person living the examined life—a person committed to something beyond themselves, or at least, something beyond themselves that does not immediately serve them.
I cannot fault those I know, who attend these churches, as having anything less than the most iron-hard faith; they are the remnants of the Youth Group boom, the survivors of the implosion that seems perpetual within the charismatic movement. That same thoughtful Orthodox friend argued that what is true has a weight of its own, and that one must make do with what cleaves to truth, and when the Christianity of the West has abandoned truth, one must look elsewhere. He, and others like him, clung to the temple of their God, albeit in slightly different form, as the pillars toppled around them. If a restoration of Christianity in our country emerges, I would be unsurprised if it came from these quarters.
Perhaps, in the wake of scandals in the Catholic Church among others, we ought not be sad about the decline of organised religion, as many, I am sure, are not. Yet, from a purely utilitarian perspective, there seem to be tangible benefits to religious adherence, and perhaps my other friend, the one who advocated the brain hack, was on to something. The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski put it far better in his essay “Why a Calf? Idolatry and the Death of God”:
But religion, too, is unlikely to disappear, even if we do live in an age of idolatry in the sense that secular substitutes are so much more powerful than what the Church can offer. The cult of small, transient, temporal divinities which inevitably soon disappear, to be replaced with other idols, cannot satisfy the needs which religion answers: the everlasting need to live in a universe that is not devoid of meaning, a purpose-endowing universe itself endowed with purpose. Moreover, there is a hidden desperation that seeps out from the pseudo-prayers and pseudo-rituals centred on idols. Religious needs may not be experienced by everyone, but there is a reason to suppose that they are indeed an anthropological invariant and cannot be supplanted by scientific theories. If they were ever really extinguished, it would mean that the human race had ceased to be what it is and something else had taken its place—something we know nothing about.
For many Christians today, there’s an agony when it comes to managing the demands of the new pseudo-divinity that has emerged, one that intends subversion and supplantation. There’s a lot of cheek-turning, but that’s not how Christ behaved in the temple when he entered with a whip, nor how he managed the Pharisees. When clear and obvious evil is promoted, the moral response is not a lukewarm shrug of the shoulders, nor a collection of platitudes, and it is most certainly not a slow accommodation with defeat and dissolution, no matter how inevitable it may seem. Aristotle was right: it is immoral not to be angry when injustice is afoot. Forgive one’s personal enemies: but the enemies of God? As St Paul in his letter to the Ephesians notes, these enemies are not merely flesh and blood, but doctrines and ideas and principalities.
As a young man, the absence of a strong masculine spirit in the church was what sent me looking outside the tent. I wished for something to defend, and an adventure; a dragon to slay. One of the many frustrations of the postmodern world is the sense of trudging through knee-deep mud and swinging at phantoms. There’s a strong sense something is badly wrong, but for many it is difficult to name quite what it is, harder still to consider the correct response, and hardest of all to land a blow. The best most of us can do is to sharpen our moral and philosophical weapons and wait for the moment when the monster is at last in clear view, when its nature is no longer subject to debate, when its intents and purposes are clear. The prayer of the Christian today ought to be the prayer of David: “Blessed be the Lord, my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.”
Once one has known God, it is a lifetime’s work to unknow God, and this seems as true for whole societies as much as individuals. You may find, like Carlyle, that your thinking forever bends that way, which the uncharitable call magical thinking, or Freud’s “childhood neurosis”, or Catholic guilt. But perhaps we are not far from a variation on Anselm’s argument, that whatever is the greatest thing one can imagine is one’s God; and what can we say about the God the postmodern world has made for itself? Very little that’s nearly as charitable; it is that monster, a motley collection of temporal substitutes for God, gradually lurching into view. You can do a lot worse than the God of our fathers, though this is to mistake the whole thing; that you ought to choose like a doubting Pascal looking for a favourable wager, or a shopper seeking whatever matches your mood. Will, and the proper human exercise of will, is cheapened by the paradigm of shallow choice that now surrounds us. Christianity, properly understood, is as akin to falling in love as it is about arguments from the intellect. And, perhaps like tradition, God finds you, rather than the reverse.
Christopher Jolliffe is a frequent contributor. He wrote on “Liberalism with Marxist Characteristics” in the December issue.