Inside Story

Believers, doubters and disbelievers

Books | Transcendence, meaning, social purpose: religion has gripped a remarkable range of thinkers, says Janna Thompson

Janna Thompson 20 April 2016 2872 words

Although writer Marcus Clark considered Christianity to be moribund, he retained a belief in God. Detail from “Marcus Clark at 20,” John Kinmont Moir collection/State Library of Victoria.

Australian Religious Thought  
By Wayne Hudson | Monash University Publishing | $39.95

When I was tutoring a philosophy of religion unit at my university, I often started the discussion by asking students if they believed in God. Many said that they didn’t believe in the God of the Bible but that they did believe in the existence of some kind of spiritual presence in the world. It was hard to know whether their spirituality was an inconsequential residue left by the death of religion or a stubborn refusal to leave it behind.

From the perspective of the philosopher and historian Wayne Hudson, my students were groping their way towards ideas that belong in the realm of religious thought. The first of his two aims in Australian Religious Thought is to demonstrate that religious thinking has been more prevalent in Australia than most people think. He wants to refute the publisher who told him that a book on this subject would be very short. His second aim is to argue that religious thought is not confined to the doctrines of churches or theological writings: it can be found in advocates of secularism, in the views of disbelievers and many social reformers, and in the beliefs of those who seek a spiritual path outside conventional religion. 

The themes into which Hudson divides his study are chosen to reveal the diverse material that makes up Australian religious thought. The first theme, disbelief, encompasses those who take a critical and sometimes condemnatory stance on religious tenets. By rejecting doctrines that they think are false or irrational, disbelievers distinguish themselves from unbelievers, who doubt what they would like to believe, and from nonbelievers, who have no interest in religious questions.

By including disbelief as a category of religious thought, Hudson might be accused of confusing religious thinking with thinking about religion. It would be odd to regard the militant atheist Richard Dawkins, for instance, as a religious thinker. But the disbelievers that Hudson features are people with a religious background or religious concerns who moved into disbelief as the result of dissatisfaction with religious dogma or ecclesiastic authority, or because they thought that the true meaning of religion was better pursued in an alternative framework.

The author Marcus Clarke, for example, thought that Christianity was moribund, and attacked official religion and conventional ideas of God in his best-known work, For the Term of His Natural Life; nevertheless, through most of his life he retained a belief in God and a hope that the true aim of religion could be achieved through the betterment of humankind. Ada Cambridge, a novelist and wife of a clergyman, wrestled with doubt and came to believe that organised religion got in the way of proper appreciation of earthly joy. Alfred Deakin, one of the fathers of the Australian Federation, became a spiritualist and a member of the Theosophical Society in his search for a religion compatible with science. Patrick White rejected conventional Christianity on aesthetic grounds but retained a belief in the sacred within ordinary life.

Hudson’s second theme, sacral secularity, attempts to capture those thinkers who find a sacred mission in secular affairs. He is at pains to point out that the secular has had many different meanings in Australia, and that secularists don’t necessarily exclude religion from the public realm. Some of those who advocate secular education do so because they think it best serves religious ends or because they don’t want education to be dominated by the clergy of any church. Some sacral secularists dedicate themselves to political and social causes because they believe that service to others is the best, or only legitimate, manifestation of the religious impose.

Henry Lawson, for instance, thought that the essence of Christianity was humanism. A true Christian, he said, is “one who is sorry for most men and all women and tries to act to [this creed] to the best of his ability.” William Lane, a labour activist and the founder of a utopian community in Paraguay, regarded socialism as the true realisation of religion and believed that communism was “part of God’s Law.” Some sacral secularists take a sociological view of religion as a force for binding people together in a community; others think that God’s plan is working itself out in the secular world.

Sacral secularists are not generally interested in reforming religious doctrines or organisations. Religious liberals, on the other hand, see the reformation of their religion as their objective. Some of them take issue with the doctrine of the trinity; some, like the novelist and feminist Catherine Helen Spence, doubt the divinity of Christ and argue for the existence of a non-supernatural religion. Some want to reform the church or supplant it with a different form of worship. Charles Strong, an influential minister in the Scots Church in Melbourne in the late nineteenth century, wanted to return to a primitive form of Christianity without hierarchy or dogma.

While disbelievers, liberal reformers and sacral secularists often have philosophical or theological opinions, Hudson treats separately religious intellectuals for whom religious philosophy or theology was central. Among philosophers he singles out are William Ralph Boyce Gibson, a professor at Melbourne University who used Husserl’s phenomenology to provide an account of the presence of God in human consciousness; Max Charlesworth, a Catholic intellectual influenced by existentialism; and Kevin Hart, who has used the philosophy of deconstruction to gesture towards a transcendent God who can’t be represented in thought. Theologians in Australia have opinions on the role of the church, the reformation of church doctrines, the relation of Christianity to other religions, and the concerns of feminists.

Hudson uses his last theme, post-secular consciousness, to discuss thinkers who are secularists in rejecting conventional religion but who retain ideas of the sacred. Some find the sacred in nature, some in the sensual and the passionate. Some draw an inspiration from process philosophy as a form of evolution that reaches towards a higher form of existence; others look to science or psychoanalysis for a new interpretation of the sacred. Charles Birch promoted the idea of a value-laden universe, and environmental philosophers like Richard Sylvan, Val Plumwood and Freya Mathews argue that nature has a value in its own right. Peter Read thinks that the value to Aborigines of their land is the key to a superior view of the sacred.

Hudson’s survey proves his point: a lot of religious thinking has indeed taken place in Australia, and many Australians who are celebrated for their secular activities have been influenced by religious ideas. He gives some thinkers more attention than others. He has a lot to say about philosophers of religion and presents some of their theories in detail, but feminist theologians get only a passing glance. He is interesting and informative about those he labels disbelievers, but not so attentive to most of those in the post-secular camp.

Hudson’s conception of religious thought is inclusive but there are obvious gaps, the most glaring of which is his failure to include Aboriginal views about their law and land. Hudson is well aware of this deficiency but thinks that Aboriginal thought needs a separate treatment – one that challenges the very idea that it can be squeezed into a traditional conception of religion. He does discuss attempts by non-Aboriginal scholars to take account of Aboriginal spirituality, however, including the pioneering work of Max Charlesworth.

Aside from his venture into post-secular ideas of the sacred, the religious thought that Hudson discusses is almost all Christian or critical responses to Christianity. Indeed, most of the religious thinkers he features were Protestants. This emphasis is partly explained by his focus on the development of religious thought among settlers and non-Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia up until the late twentieth century. These Australians came mostly from a Christian tradition, and Protestants of one kind or another were for a long time the dominant religious voices in the colonies. Up to the time of the Second Vatican Council, most Catholics adhered to doctrines laid down by the Church. Australian Jews, Hudson says, were not much inclined to engage in religious thought – perhaps because of their more precarious existence as a minority group.

Hudson says that he is not interested in thought that merely reflects or applies conventional doctrines. This statement is intended to explain why he largely ignores the religious ideas of Jews, Muslims and Buddhists in Australia, and perhaps it also explains why he gives B.A. Santamaria, one of the most influential religious figures in Australian history, only a passing mention.

Readers are likely to wonder whether there is anything especially Australian about the religious thought that Hudson discusses. Many of the thinkers he includes were born or educated overseas, and most were oriented to the work of European philosophers and scholars, and took part in European controversies. This is especially true of Australian theologians and philosophers of religion, who participated in an exchange of views with theorists overseas. The fact that they happened to be located in Australia made no discernible difference to their views about religion.

Of course, a cosmopolitan outlook does not preclude the existence of an Australian school of thought. Australian philosophers in the mid twentieth century developed a materialist metaphysics that is still identified in the philosophical world as Australian philosophy. Some Australian theologians and philosophers of religion gained an international reputation but their ideas did not come together into a common, distinctive outlook on their subject matter. 

Those religious thinkers who found their mission in reformist activities often got their ideas from overseas, but used them to engage with social issues in Australia. They formed movements and founded publications concerned with the issues of the day. The Catholic Worker wrote about workers’ rights as well as opposing communism and criticising capitalism; from an Anglican perspective, the Morpeth Review dealt with current affairs as well as theoretical issues.

Whether any religious thought is truly Australian might be interpreted as a question of whether living on this continent brings forth a new religious impulse. Some have concluded that the influence of the Australian environment on religion is destructive. The Bulletin writer Alfred George Stephens argued that the spirit of Australia – “the undefined, indefinable resultant of earth and air, and conditions of climate and life” – undermines religion because it breeds a utilitarian and sceptical outlook. Marcus Clarke’s dismissive view of religion might have been influenced by the brutality of Australia’s convict origins.

Most attempts to point the way to religious thought that is truly Australian focus on understanding and adopting aspects of Aboriginal spirituality. Convinced that Aboriginal culture was primitive and inferior, most religious thinkers took a long time to recognise the complexity of Aboriginal law and to appreciate the nature of the relation of Aborigines to their land. Some theologians have now begun to work towards the integration of Christianity with Aboriginal ideas of the sacred. Other religious thinkers believe that Australian hunger for spirituality can only be satisfied by incorporating Aboriginal sacred experience into our cultural heritage. Hudson points out, however, that few of them have any deep acquaintance with Aboriginal language or culture.

Hudson wants to demonstrate that religious thought has played a much greater role in Australian history than most people suppose. But the significance of the radical, critical and reformist ideas that he discusses depends not only on their quantity or quality but also on their effects. How influential were the ideas that he discusses? Some Australians made notable contributions to theology or philosophy of religion. Some have had an impact on the life and thought of their contemporaries. After being kicked out of the Presbyterian Church for his heretical views, Charles Strong established his own church in Melbourne, which for a time attracted 1000 members. Unitarians, Christian Scientists, spiritualists and other alternatives to conventional religion have had a presence in Australia.

But Hudson admits that new ideas about religion primarily had their impact among well-educated people. It’s likely that most religious people in Australia had little knowledge of these developments and little interest in their disputing of orthodoxy. The real challenges to the doctrines of established religion came not from the religious thinkers that Hudson features; they came instead from feminism, the gay and lesbian movement, and campaigns for voluntary euthanasia and the right of women to choose abortion.

Hudson also thinks that social movements are often inspired by religious ideas, but this raises the question of what counts as religious. Hudson’s definition is vague and unsatisfactory: religious thought, he says, either falls within religion in an organisational sense or is related to organised religion. “Relation to religion in an organisational sense is crucial,” he writes. What counts as organised religion he leaves unexplained. Moreover, many of the ideas he discusses, especially in the section on post-secular consciousness, have no obvious relation to organised religion. Those who believe in the intrinsic value of nature probably don’t regard themselves as engaging in thought that has anything to do with conventional religion. Those whose disbelief takes them far away from orthodox doctrines have only a historical and critical relation to the religion of their earlier days.

In Australian culture more broadly, the term “religion” suffers from inflation. My local newspaper used to have a section titled “Religion” featuring the outpourings of fanatical followers of their AFL team. The Australian Oxford Dictionary allows that your religion can be the thing you are devoted to. Although Hudson sometimes lapses into this overly inclusive concept of religion, he is generally careful to ensure that thought described as religious has at least a whiff of the sacred or spiritual in it. Nevertheless, his failure to produce a satisfactory definition of religion leaves the reader wondering whether all the ideas he describes have enough in common to come under the label of religious thought.

Their commonality, I’d suggest, has to do with problems faced by organised religion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – problems that motivated thoughtful people to look for a new way of maintaining values that they regarded as essential to personal or social life. The advance of science was a challenge to Christianity, as was biblical scholarship that questioned the narrative of the Gospels and the divinity, or very existence, of Jesus. Individualism and consumer capitalism undermined the solidarity and way of life of communities that had been united by religious belief. A growing acquaintance with other religions challenged the certainty of church doctrines.

The thinkers Hudson describes as religious were people who took these challenges seriously but refused to accept the stance of those who aimed to replace religion with a scientific worldview that left no room for the sacred. These opponents of scientism were reluctant to accept a reduction of the world to a collection of physical particles and forces, or humans to a contingent product of evolution who had no hope of finding a meaning for their existence. They refused to give up the idea that their lives had a spiritual dimension, and they wanted a community that could dedicate itself to a mission higher than increasing the gross national product.

Those who faced the challenges to organised religion and did not want to give up the transcendence, meaning or social purpose that religion had provided went in the directions that Hudson describes. Some attempted to reform the doctrines or theology of organised religion to take into account science and biblical scholarship. Some turned away from religion to personal life or consciousness as a source of spirituality that was immune from scientific reductionism. Some found their sacred mission in the goal of improving society and humankind and some located sacredness or irreducible value in nature.

In nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Australia, most of these searchers for the sacred were familiar with the ideas of organised religion. They had a religious, mostly Christian background and even those who came to disbelieve made use of the ideas that were part of their religious heritage. In the later twentieth century, the connection between organised religion and what Hudson calls post-secular consciousness became tenuous or non-existent. Hudson is not so foolhardy as to claim that all of our ideas about value are basically religious. But those who search for meaning or spiritual values in a world dominated by scientific ideas and economic preoccupations have a common cause, whether they are religious in a conventional sense or not.

It is this quest that brings together the views discussed by Hudson under the somewhat misleading label “religious thought.” The same refusal to give up on the existence of spirit or the sacred was exhibited by my students when they answered my question about their religious beliefs. I am not a participant in this spiritual quest, but after reading Hudson’s book I found myself agreeing with the historian and former Jesuit Greg Dening: “The language of religion is a mysterious language. I doubt, however, that it should be dead.” •