This Christmas, the real myth is that Australia isn’t religious

We may not be a “Christian country” but we’re certainly not secular. AAP/Paul Miller

It’s a debate we have every year. A school changes the words of a Christmas carol, or a council puts up a banner saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”, sparking debate on all sides. Are we too Christian? Not Christian enough? Festive feasts never fail to bring out questions about Australia’s religious identity.

In one sense, the label doesn’t really matter. It’s the reality that counts. But the debate does matter because people are not just making claims about what Australia is, but about what Australia should be. In other words, the debate influences how Australians define themselves, and so behave. We are social creatures and what others do and say matters to us.

How Christian are we, anyway?

Those who wish to deny Australia is a Christian country rightly point out that there has been a significant change in religious affiliation amongst Australians in the last 50 years, as well as a large influx of non-Christian migrants. There are often assertions from some that don’t pay enough heed to this reality.

Because of this change, many have difficulty with Australia’s Christian heritage, and its continuing influence. At the heart of this debate is Australian self-identity. What are we, if we are not Christian? We sometimes feel a lack of identity, especially in relation to other nations, without some sense of religious affiliation.

What many do to answer this question is to say Australia is a “secular” country. But what does this mean? Secular is not an easy term to define. What many mean by secular is non-religious. Some also use it in the sense of religious pluralism or religious freedom. Beyond that, the “secular” category becomes problematic.

To make the category “secular” work, one has to go through all kinds of mental gymnastics to separate religion from culture, and deny religion’s central place in it. In other words, secular has been used primarily as a negative doctrine to exclude “religion” from public life.

An example of a common way secular is used is: “But as we have become a secular country we have secularised our laws, to their betterment. Religion has its place in private lives but not in our public processes, and no religion should be part of our judicial systems.”

Reclaiming religion

The problem with most arguments against religion, and religion’s role in the public sphere, is that they based on an illusory notion of religion. Religion is constructed as some particular kind of entity that, by its nature, is foreign and inappropriate within the public sphere. But if one was forced to provide a consistent, trans-cultural definition of religion, one would run into serious difficulties. Famous atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens have this exact problem.

Religion is often identified with groups of people who hold common beliefs, undertake common activities and rituals, and have common scriptures, shrines, relics and values. But, this definition cannot be confined to what we ordinarily label religion as opposed to, for example, culture or nationalism.

For example, American nationalism can be defined as a “civic religion”. According to William Cavanaugh, “Carlton Hayes had identified the American religion’s saints (the founding fathers), its shrines (Independence Hall), its relics (the Liberty Bell), its holy scriptures (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution), its martyrs (Lincoln), its inquisition (school boards that enforce patriotism), its Christmas (the Fourth of July), and its feast of Corpus Christi (Flag Day).”

In the Australian context, we could identify our saints (the diggers, sportsmen), shrines (war memorials, sporting stadiums), relics (war and sporting medals), martyrs (Gallipoli soldiers), Christmas (ANZAC Day), inquisition (media enforcing patriotism around national days and achievements), and scriptures (Constitution) and so on. Thus, religion is not an absolute category, but can be used relatively to point out ways in which humans beings build certain types of community in certain ways.

History repeating

As a category, “religion” has been shown to be a modern construct of the 16th and 17th centuries. It came to denote a separate sphere from the state and the nationalistic ideologies that developed under the state. So labelling religion, and its expulsion from the public realm, served a certain “secular”, nationalistic purpose.

“Secular” and “religious” came to be used as relative categories, deployed for certain purposes. While state-mandated religions eventually declined, the “secular” category was increasingly used to exclude Christianity (and other like “religions”) almost entirely from the public realm.

But it is important to note that the first move towards a certain kind of (what may be called) “secularism” occurred under Christianity, which sought to separate the Roman emperors’ “religious” and divine claims from their political role, and subject the political realm to an objective morality and belief system beyond the emperor’s control.

The religion of the nation

Despite the “secular” rhetoric, we shouldn’t fool ourselves that religion has been excluded from public life. Faith and religion have not actually been expelled from the public realm, but have been replaced with covert forms of “religion” that function in the same manner as religions like Christianity or Islam.

For example, these other forms of “religion” in the West include nationalisms to which we must all pay allegiance, even believing in notions of the “nation-state” and giving our lives to it, and market capitalism that subjects all things to the dictates of commodification and commercialisation.

The worst form of this modern religiousity was seen in Nazi Germany with the worship of the Fuhrer and the belief in the Aryan race. Secularism itself, as it is combined with other belief systems like nationalism, relativism, atheism and rationalism, has increasingly turned itself into a religion which has certain beliefs and which structures our public behaviour.

Who are you calling “secular”?

The assertion that Australia is a secular country, not a Christian one, is a claim about the kind of religious and cultural identity that Australia has and should have. We can’t avoid these claims, nor can we avoid examining our culture for its “religious” foundation.

Whether we recognise it as religion or not, the kind of thing that we call “religion” – the beliefs, values and practices that guide our lives and unite us together – is at the heart of our cultural and personal lives. We may not have an explicit or consistent belief system like Christianity, but all peoples and cultures need to have some kind of system of belief to guide their shared understandings, values and practices. Though we are supposed to be in an age of “secularisation”, Australians continue to seek religious and cultural identity – from the tribalism of sport, the pride of the ANZAC, or the values of Christian education and heritage.

Coming back to our original question of whether Australia is a Christian country, I hope that we can give a more complex answer than one that naively affirms “secularism” and excludes religion. We shouldn’t believe that religion is confined solely to the private sphere.

We all want and need beliefs, rituals and values in which we can share, so that we can live together and know what it means to be human. This kind of religion is always central to culture. If we can see this, it will be easier to recognise and analyse how different belief systems – Christianity prominent among them – influence and form Australian culture and our personal lives.