Australia with 'no religion': In the aftermath of God

If census results are anything to go by, 'no religion' could grow to become our most popular religious identifier. SBS asks four religious leaders what this means for Australia.

Continuing the Christian faith

New Year’s Day in Sydney has a particularly post-religious air to it. In the first uncertain hours of 2017, you can still see evidence of the joy and carnage from the night before: a cluster of Maccas wrappers spilling out of a Martin Place bin; unknown stains on the pavements near Hyde Park; a street-sweeper washing away the broken glass and hangovers strewn down William Street.

But not far from the deserted CBD, in a part of town once synonymous with vice and sin, a congregation have gathered to renew their commitment to a spiritual life. The Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross has for years been a refuge for the tormented and forgotten. Today is no different.

Pastor Graham Long, a fixture at the Wayside chapel since the early 2000s, tells SBS how Kings Cross is still a complex place to live. And complexity often compels people to seek answers to life's big questions. 

"People are still reaching for the spiritual," says Long. "If you’re human, you can’t help but ask certain moral questions.”

One of those questions is what it means to lead a meaningful life in a modern, secular nation. According to 2011 Australian Bureau of Statistics data, the second biggest faith-based group in Australia identified as having ‘no religion, accounting for over 22 per cent of the national population (just behind Catholicism at number one). That's almost five million Aussies who technically don't subscribe to any religious identity. 

So what will Australia, and places like Kings Cross, be like with no religion, no spiritual answers to the questions we ask ourselves when confronted with issues of life, death and sin?

"There is a lot of anger at the church in relation to this issue. And it’s not over yet.” 

A recurring theme in Long's sermons is maintaining a spiritual life in the face of a world driven by what he calls "the will to profit and the will to power".

"There must be a more motivating power than self-interest," he says, in what sounds like an Australian-accented version of Liberation Theology. 

"We live in a place where people are given a productive value. But people are much more than that." 

Kings Cross has come a long way since it was a byword for crime, addiction and prostitution before the city was regenerated last decade. Long has said that affluence often brings a kind of spiritual death and lack of faith in people – but on disaffiliation with Christian churches, he points to another, more proximate factor.

“The Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse really has wounded the church,” he says, “in a very tangible way. I think people are right when they say the church has lost their authority to have the final say on ethics... There is a lot of anger at the church in relation to this issue. And it’s not over yet.” 

“But I do think there’s a baby in the bathwater,” Long says. “And it’s a baby worth salvaging.”

Long describes the fall-out from the Royal Commission as a building wave – “one that hasn’t crashed yet”. I ask him if there are other factors leading people to abandon organised religion. While his choir were singing You Are My Strength in church, dozens of people (mainly young Muslims) were being shot to death in an Istanbul nightclub by a man who would later be claimed a “foot-soldier of the global jihad”, or more accurately, a sociopath and an opportunist. 

“Yeah, I know what you’re getting at,” Long says with a hint of exhaustion. “The effect of this is people think ‘all religion is barmy – this is all in the name of religion, this is what it gives you’… The Australian reaction is, ‘we don’t need this shit’. And I get that. I do. There’s a lot of religion we could do without.” 

How to explore faith without exploiting it
At a time when religion is skewered and mocked freely, how do you investigate another’s faith without exploiting it?

He casts his eye towards a group of people who are usually found sleeping near an underpass down the road, who are this morning gathered to share some food after the morning’s sermon.

“But I do think there’s a baby in the bathwater,” Long says. “And it’s a baby worth salvaging.”

Spirituality on the street

Back in the CBD, secular life is in full swing again. Thousands of young, muscled and scantily clad kids are headed for a day of hedonism and bad music at Field Day, a roll-on from the carnage of the night before. They stream past the ANZAC memorial at Hyde Park towards the Domain, a place replete with sacred memories and religious sites that were almost extinguished from the Earth a little over 200 years ago. 

“And here,” he asks, casting his arms around at a street filled with drunk teenagers and imposing police. “Where is God in this place?"

Around the corner from the thudding music is a man disturbed, confused – and homeless. He has just been “stopped and searched” by the police for what seemed like an eternity. Unkempt and worried, he says he arrived here after the failure of the Arab Spring from the Egyptian city of El-Alamein, where nearly 70 years ago ANZAC troops fought a ferocious campaign considered a turning point in the Second World War.

The police search has left the man deeply unsettled. I tell him, hoping it might be some consolation, that people here consider his hometown a pilgrimage site now – hallowed ground, like Gallipoli and the Kokoda Trail.

“And here,” he asks, casting his arms around at a street filled with drunk teenagers and imposing police. “Where is God in this place?"

Keeping the faith, even when you're fed up with it
At a time when faith is at its least popular, Australian social commentator Tim Costello is urging us to hold onto it – no matter what our religion is.

Judaism versus secularism

The first day of 2017 is, incidentally, the final day of Hanukkah. Not far from St. Mary’s Cathedral is the Grand Synagogue of Sydney. The armoured doorway belies a welcoming interior, where the young Rabbi, Dr Benjamin Elton, awaits my questions.

We discuss how differing strains of secularism have, at times, placed Jewish life under threat of anti-Semitic ideologies - from the days of the Maccabean uprising to the horror of the Nazi regime.

How to be a Cultural Jew: “I worship Larry David instead of God and think bacon is delicious”
Comment: What does it mean to be Jewish? You might have a Jewish mum, go to Temple regularly and avoid pork? Nope. There’s a lot more to Judaism than you think, and often, it doesn’t even involve being religious.

“I think the Australian version of secularism, which derives much from the UK’s tradition, has the right balance," Dr Elton tells SBS.

"You see elsewhere – in France, for example – a more militantly secular approach, which I find to be profoundly illiberal. That kind of muscular secularism, where a Muslim woman can’t wear a headscarf, or a university student can’t wear a crucifix, or a Jewish man can’t wear a kippah – that, I think is very destructive.”

“I think the Australian version of secularism, which derives much from the UK’s tradition, has the right balance."

Islamic thoughts on the rise of atheism

It is an oft referred to statistic in certain circles that Islam is the fastest growing religion in Australia. While more and more people becoming Muslims globally, it is not the case here (that honour is taken by Hinduism). But there is, of course, no group of adherents - and no religion - more over-exposed in public discussion than those who follow the many varieties of Islamic thought.  

By the time I reach Dr Abdul Rahman Asaroglu's office in Western Sydney - he's the president of the Auburn Gallipoli Mosque Association - the live updates on the massacre in Istanbul – which killed 39 people - have faded from the news cycle. By the time you read this, perhaps, the event has also faded from your memory and been replaced with another news story on Islam? 

A non-Muslim in a Muslim country: How I remember Malaysia
Comment: The gentle, inclusive Islam of Sharon Verghis’s childhood in Malaysia remains one of her strongest and more enduring memories.

It seems timely that I ask Dr Abdul Rahman about his take on the rise of atheism, if that is what “no religion” on the census indicates. His response is a patient and considered one.

“You might see fewer people at mosques, but that doesn’t mean people don’t believe in anything,” Dr Rahman says. “When death seems all around us – and in times like these, it does - people want to be closer to God… they might say they have no religion, but they do want to believe in something.”

He says the growing demographic of people who appear to subscribe to a secular way of life isn’t something that should be feared. I ask him what this means for our political model.

“If we are all serving the Creator – however you understand it – then we are serving the community. And that’s what religion should do."

“The social infrastructure of Australia is well received and should be cherished,” he says. “You see in autocratic systems a fear of the other (…) Turkey tried the French model of laïcité and it didn’t work. It created tensions between communities. I think Australia has it right with this model of secularism. Nobody wants hatred and chaos. It’s the law of the country that should be regarded as sacred.”

His core message is one that is often drowned out in the acrimonious discussions over the place of religion in public life.

“If we are all serving the Creator – however you understand it – then we are serving the community. And that’s what religion should do."

Faith in politics: Australia's first Muslim MP
Ed Husic is known to some as 'the minister for basketball', to others as the first federal MP sworn in on the Quran. He became the first ever Muslim frontbencher under Kevin Rudd. What next for an outspoken Gen Xer with a friend on the wrong side of parliament?

An Orthodox ruling: God loves everyone

A short train ride from the city, another story of endurance is being remembered at the Russian Orthodox Church in Strathfield. Here on the weekend after New Years Eve, families have come to mark Eastern Orthodox Christmas at St. Peter and Paul’s Cathedral. The faithful here are surrounded by light.

It's a reminder of how religion can maintain the bonds of a community, an attendee tells me. The resident archpriest, Father George Lapardin, agrees. Last Easter, fire swept through three Orthodox churches in the English-speaking world – one in New York, another in Melbourne, and one in Sydney. It was never established if the fires were deliberate, or linked.

“But things endure nonetheless,” Lapardin says. “This feast is a reminder that the coming of Christ is about forgiveness.”

“The message of today is that God loves everyone. He’s like a parent – he can’t help but love.” 

On the rise of “no religion” on the census, however, the archpriest is less forgiving.

“You see, atheists do have a religion – ‘no religion’. They spend their lives trying to disprove the existence of God. In the Roman empire, the most feared god was the emperor. If no religion becomes the majority, the state will become God.”

The archpriest, echoing Rabbi Elton, is not fond of the Richard Dawkins/ Christopher Hitchens strain of secular thought that rose to prominence in the 2000s.

Perhaps it is the Orthodox Church’s long adversarial relationship with the Communist governments that ruled Russia in the Soviet era, which suppressed all expressions of religion. In 2008, the cathedral laid to rest one of the final members of the Romanov dynasty, who arrived here in 1945 after living in exile in Britain following the Bolshevik Revolution. 

“The message of today is that God loves everyone,” Bishop George says. “He’s like a parent – he can’t help but love.”

“Even those who tick ‘no religion’?” I ask.

The bishop grins ruefully. “Yeah,” he says. “Even them.”

Shaun Micallef's Stairway to Heaven

Shaun Micallef's Stairway to Heaven (episodes one to three) is now available to watch on SBS On Demand.

Explore spirituality
The world's most obscure religions
From motorcycle shrines to Prince Philip being hailed as a god of the South Pacific and alien deities, the world’s religions come in a rainbow of hues.
Faith and polygamy: which religions permit plural marriage?
Polygamy is taboo in Western society and Christianity but other cultures and faiths permit plural marriage.
Australians have a complex, yet peaceful relationship with religion
Although Christianity is still the dominating religion in Australia, it's becoming increasingly popular for people to either subscribe to minority faiths or have no religion.
Gaining my religion: 'I don’t have a god, or even a faith but I cling to the spiritual'
A confirmed agnostic reflects on a lifetime of being outside of faith, looking in, and discovers a sort of serenity. Though it could be something he ate.