Are Our Beliefs (Or Lack Of) A Barrier To Progress?


Today’s guest post by An Idle Dad:

As the number of people describing themselves as No Religion in the census increases (from 18% to 22% over the last 4 years) and people describing themselves as Christian drops (between Australians 25-34, only 49% selected Christian) will our beliefs, and lack of, become a barrier to progress? With other non-Christian religions not picking up the slack, No Religion will, eventually, become the largest ‘religious’ group on the census. Atheism will win the religion ‘war’.

So why aren’t I happy? For one, I don’t have a problem with Christians and see no reason to ‘fight for Atheism’. Religion or no religion is not an indicator of goodness, or values, or anything really.

More importantly, despite assumptions to the opposite, I think this shift is death to progressive policy in Australia for the next fifty years.

Why? Because I believe that multicultural countries are more progressive than mono-culture countries which are more progressive than dual-culture countries. Australia will be a dual-culture country for the rest of my life.

Multiculturalism is when there is a single dominant culture and many minority subcultures. The dominant culture incorporates and sometimes absorbs many traits of the other cultures. These new ideas invigorate the social patchwork but allow the dominant culture to maintain comfortable and much-loved ideals.

Mono-cultural countries, while they don’t progress as quickly forward as multicultural societies, still absorb ideas from outside their society and once those ideas gain a foothold, they progress – sometimes with surprising ease. Take Spain, a country uniformly Catholic, which has had legal same-sex marriage for over half a decade. Ideas – even new ones – are accepted far more quickly when the opposition doesn’t see the change as an attack on their culture, but a progression of it. A fair and lawful Catholic society moving to a being a fairer, lawful Catholic society. Easy.

However, when you look at any dual-culture country or region in the world – Pakistan-India, the Middle East & Israel, Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo – you don’t see progressive politics. It’s hard to promote the middle-ground when any attempt to do so is classified by your political opponents as betraying everything your very own culture stands for.

Australia was multicultural for decades following the Second World War. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, our culture took huge, confident steps forward. We were a ‘grown up’ country. Minorities were minor, assimilation was viewed as guaranteed. Plus there was oodles of great new food to try. We were a country hiding behind Britain’s cultural skirts no longer. Pizza TV ads had Asian men dressed in Dryzabone jackets and Akubras saying “Strewth” – Italia mixed with Asia mixed with Aussie bush. Strewth, indeed.

It may be popular to paint ourselves (and allow others to paint us) as dumb, drunk and racist, but Australia leads the world in two areas it should be very proud of – the highest percentage of cross-religious/cross-cultural relationships and the highest percentage of inter-racial relationships. That’s a lot of acceptance and a lot of progressive love.

So what happened? Our watershed moment hit in 1996 – Christian dominance dropped below 75%, non-Christian religion crept over 5% and ‘no religion’, after remaining around 10% for decades, began its surge – increasing 30% in five years. 1996 was the year we switched from being multicultural to dual-culture. 1996 was also the year progressive politics died in Australia.

Up until 1996, the major parties dismissed the undercurrent of discontent – it was a minority: unorganised, unfocused and without representation. One Nation changed that. That short, bright flame focused of all the rage and split conservative politics in two. The reaction was predictable. Conservative parties shifted right to recover their base. The Coalition captured the mantle of ‘defender of the realm’ (that the Far Right had given themselves), a mantle reinforced by the truly seismic events of September 11 2001, and the political football of ‘boat people’ – ‘the others’ waterborne invasion by the north.

As how we viewed events around the world became tinged with religion, so too did Australian politics. Now the rising rate of non-Christians in Australia will mean that every progressive social idea will be seen as an attack on Christian culture. And Christians are now motivated by political factions to be organised and to vote in clear blocks. Kiss progressiveness goodbye.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but it will be. The irreligious of Australia could produce a stated set of secular values, most likely some that tie very closely to Christian values, and develop the “three C’s” – community, culture and continuity. But none of that will happen either – because it would, of course, be viewed as a betrayal of Atheist culture in progressive political circles. Both sides are hamstrung by the politics of dual-culture.

Of course, politics often doesn’t really matter, as the marriage stats mentioned earlier prove. Australia is an accepting, tolerant society. However, when it comes to key social issues progressing politically, it’s deader than dead.

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  • John James

    Yeah, I’m not sure about this…at least about the Christian vs Non-Christian duopoly.

    I think if you look at the major policy debates going on in Australia at the moment, religious views aren’t really dominating the debate – even the Gay Marriage debate is not divided between Christians and Non-Christian, or the Religious and Non-Religious. From what I can see, Christians seem to be equally divided about their support (or lack of) of Gay Marriage.

    I actually think the emergence of social media, and the 24 hour news cycle, is a greater impediment to progressive governance than any demographic shift in the Australian population. I think it is becoming more difficult to articulate progressive legislation because it is far easier now than it has ever been to run obstructive and untruthful campaigns against new ideas. When you are alone in spruiking a new idea, but are faced with a seemingly infinite number of dissenting voices, it’s difficult for the truth to rise above all the bullshit…

    I do agree that mono-cultures can manifest change easier than us-and-them cultures – and maybe Australia has become an us-and-them culture – but I would argue that this divide isn’t a religious one, but a political one.

    • An Idle Dad

      While Christians are on both sides of the debate, both political parties are pursing the Christian right who are dead against any progressive policy.

      This would be more difficult if they couldn’t express progressive policy as an attack on Christianity. Atheism is a loose, unaffiliated group of voters spread across the political spectrum.

      Politics win by focusing on the low hanging fruit. The Christian Right is that easy fruit.

      Do you honestly believe Gillard’s stance against gay marriage is anything other than politically motivated? Honestly?

      • John James

        Gillard’s a dope – yes, her views on gay marriage are politically motivated, but considering that the majority of voters want gay marriage, she has clearly chosen the wrong horse to ride 😉

        • An Idle Dad

          This is where you are wrong. People rarely vote for progressive policy but often vote against (if fact, people often vote against their best interests to defeat progressive policy).

          The Coalition cannot politically embrace progressive social policy, without losing their right voting flank to extremist parties. Labor is torn on the issue, because they know if they embrace the progressive policy first, unites the right voting flank under their political opponents.

          This would not be possible if Atheists did not exist as the boogyman. I’m not condoning this, I’m just pointing it out.

  • Whippersnapper

    Interesting piece, Idle. I’m not really convinced that the rise of Atheism is going to reduce multiculturalism. I think Australia can be diverse and multicultural with wide opinions and social reforms, without the majority of the population subscribing to a religious faith.

    I for one, welcome the shift away from Christianity, as I think it is the opposite of evolved, to rely on a bundle of stories written thousands of years as a basis for, well, anything, unless for historical research. I read something the other day, that as many as 83% of Americans identify as being Christian. I am relieved this is not the case in Australia and relieved that the number continues to go down and down here with each census.

    • An Idle Dad

      Hi Whippesnapper,
      I think you’ve misread my piece. I’m not saying Australia won’t be diverse because of Atheism, in fact I say our diversity and social progressiveness will increase regardless.

      I’m saying politically, we’re in for years of polarised struggle where all progressive ideas will be used as wedge issues for political gain, with the political gain being claiming a Christian block vote.

      This is not the fault of Christianity, nor the fault of Atheism. This is a trend that will be seized on and used for politics.

      • Whippersnapper

        Sorry, Idle, I should have been more clear. I should have said:

        a) I don’t believe culture and religion go hand in hand and Australia is in a more unique position both culturally and politically than any of the countries you identified in the dual culture example; and

        b) I think the current political climate is a unique cluster f*ck due to the very tight split of the majority federal government irrespective of the situation you have anticipated, being the obvious shift back to the extreme right by the Conservative parties, etc. I was a teenager for most of John Howard’s reign but I don’t recall him as every being as cray cray Christian and conservative as Tony Abbott is.

        BUT that more so has to do with the fact that socially progressive ideas are more “on the agenda” now than ever. I think Howard was socially progressive by introducing the baby bonus. I see his stance on gun control being a socially progressive thing to do (though most would argue with me here and say that it was not social progression, but crime control) I don’t think (and this may be wishful thinking) we will ever see a Coalition leader as conservative (basing his conservatism on religion) as Abbott again.

  • Melissa Savage

    This is a really interesting piece. I don’t know if I agree or disagree with the main thrust of it but it sure as hell made me *think* and I love that.

    I am interested to see how this plays out, as people on both sides feel attacked and therefore reinforce their most radical existing beliefs. I expect that we will experience a few more migration waves (and are in the middle of a couple now) and I hope that this might cause some shifts in our culturally ingrained ideas, but that could be wishful thinking.

    Thanks Idle, this was great! Challenged my thinking big time.