As Christianity continues to decline, we should focus on how we can develop a society that respects all points of view.
Religion is in rapid decline around the western world, even in the reputedly more religious USA. According to the Pew Research Centre, the percentage of people in the US with no religious belief rose from 16 per cent in 2007 to 23 per cent in 2014. According to the British census, the percentage of people with no religion in England and Wales rose from 14 per cent in 2001 to 25 per cent in 2011. Similar trends exist in most western countries. As we know in Australia the percentage reporting no religion went past 30 per cent in our last census.
The social role of religion, and Christianity in particular, is also changing. In a country like Australia, Christianity has been well and truly displaced from its central role as a source of meaning and purpose. It no longer provides the framework within which issues are discussed and decided. Instead, it is just one of many belief systems people may consider adopting.
Not just the critics of Christianity, but its defenders, emphasise its decline, as Greg Sheridan does in his new book God is Good for You. He goes so far as to write that Christianity’s decline is so rapid that “Australia is about to become, if it has not already become, a majority atheist nation.”
While these developments are usually presented in terms of the decline of religion in societies around the world, the story of how Australia and other societies are changing makes more sense as one of rise rather than decline. It is the rise of alternative paths to meaning, especially humanist ones, which sees people feeling less need to explore Christianity.
Humanism is the major alternative to religion. It is the view that, as there is no convincing evidence to justify belief in supernatural or extra human sources of meaning, we must rely on our human potential and capacities to develop meaning in life. Our potential for such things as love, sympathy and reason helps us find a path to meaning and purpose and to develop answers to questions of ethics and politics. Building on our potential for such things as love and sympathy to develop good relations with others, combined and balanced with some degree of self-realisation (human fulfilment, self-actualisation, call it what you will) provide a humanist path to a fulfilling and meaningful life. Humanism supports the right of all people to the maximum liberty and opportunity to seek fulfilment consistent with others having the same rights, and is intrinsically committed to supporting the rights to freedom of belief and conscience of all people.
Humanistic ideas have been contributing for centuries to a long and gradual cultural change in western society. This change has seen the idea that each person can find a path to meaning by fulfilling their best potential become a central concept. In a general sense, our culture today (in words if not always in fact) promotes the dignity of the individual and supports individuals in finding their own paths to meaning and realisation. As this transformation has occurred Christianity has lost its central place and has become just one possible approach amongst the many people can choose from, rather than the overarching framework against which all concepts are measured.
This new culture is still a work in progress, rather than a finished product, and is beset with many problems. For the purposes of this essay I’ll call it the “fulfilment” culture. This culture, despite its many flaws, represents a tremendous step forward from what went before it. Under its umbrella, a broad range of philosophies and lifestyles have a place. Likewise, the development of this culture has been accompanied by a series of battles to expand the lifestyle and belief choices available to people, to liberate victimised minority groups, and to establish the dignity of all human beings: a battle that is still going on.
Sheridan writes to defend Christianity. But he writes from a narrow perspective where he seems to think the only choices we have are Christianity (or some other religion) or atheism. He refers repeatedly to the “religious faith” of atheism, and points out how hollow and empty atheism is as an approach to life.
I agree about the hollowness of atheism. That’s why I prefer to call myself a humanist rather than an atheist. Humanism is an outlook on life and offers a path to meaning that is supported by evidence of our potential for love, sympathy, reason and so on; atheism is simply a word to indicate lack of belief in religion. Whilst I am an atheist my belief system is a humanist one.
By not seriously considering, not just Humanism, but the wider fulfilment culture, Sheridan’s book fails to address the appeal of nearly all of Christianity’s rivals. I can agree that Christianity offers more in the way of a path to finding meaning than atheism, but that proves little. Humanism also offers much more of a path to meaning than atheism by itself, and is based on evidence rather than faith. That is just one of the many reasons why I prefer Humanism. In failing to address the paths to meaning that have arisen to displace Christianity, Sheridan does not just weaken his own argument, but misses the chance to address many of the actual conditions that are driving its decline.
The focus on presenting the case for Christianity in a way which implies that other non-religious value systems (except atheism) do not need to be considered also does not send a message of respect for those beliefs. Because of the episodes of intolerance in Christianity’s past I think it is important that those who seek to defend it try to do so in a way that shows respect for differing points of view.
In terms of what I have called the fulfilment culture, I think we are facing a period where the defence of various viewpoints is starting to blur the line between asserting the right to express oneself and the right to discriminate against others. As Christianity continues to decline, Sheridan has charted it is important that we focus, both religious and non-religious, on how we can develop a society that respects all points of view. Fundamental ideas, like love and truth, are something that all of humanity should be encouraged to explore; they should not be seen as the exclusive province of any one ideology.
Greg Sheridan, God is Good for You: A defence of Christianity in troubled times (Sydney: Allen & Unwin).
Lyndon Storey is President of the Council of Australian Humanist Societies and a committee member of the ACT Humanist Society.
Greg Sheridan will be discussing his book at AIIA VIC on 20 September 2018.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.