Why bother with religion?


Talk for the Naturaliste U3A Annual General Meeting introducing my 2014 course on World Religions.

Ted Witham, October 25, 2013

September 11, 2001 was a day on which many people thought the world would be better off without religion. My wife Rae and I were going to St David’s Church in Applecross at that time, and the priest there, Kay Goldsworthy (who later became the first woman bishop in the Anglican Church in Australia) invited the whole Applecross community to a service of reflection on the Sunday afternoon following.

 

The church was packed. I had not seen so many people crammed into the pews for many years. It seems that we human beings on one hand want to get rid of religion, and on the other hand we can’t do without it.

 

We hear noisy atheists like Richard Dawkins claiming that it is child abuse to bring up children in a particular faith. We hear informed and respectful atheists like Phillip Adams on ABC radio making a more reasoned case against religion. But people still flock to hear the Dalai Lama. There are still more people in church on a Sunday morning in Australia than there are at all AFL games on a weekend – though I fear that may change soon.

 

I believe passionately that we need to understand religion if we are to understand what’s going in the world. I’m not sure whether we are in a good position in Australia to understand. While two-thirds of us ticked “Christian” as our religion in the last census, we would have to concede that for many of us that’s a heritage statement. We’re Christian in the same way that we are European. It doesn’t affect our daily lives very much anymore. We’re actually Australians. And as Australians, we’ve never been strong on religion. Many of our forebears came to Australia as convicts or free settlers, and not from the church-going classes. The attempts to force convicts in Sydney and Van Diemen’s Land to compulsory church parades probably made anti-church feelings worse.

 

At the absolute height of our church-going in the nineteen-fifties, maybe nearly 50% of Australians went to church every month. Now it’s down to between 6 and 10% depending on which survey you believe.

 

But to understand the US, we need to understand their enthusiasm for religion; how, for example, in a country that appears on the surface to be like ours, people murder doctors who perform abortions. We have strong contrary views about abortion, but not murderous ones. Those views can only be explained in terms of American Christianity.

 

Some Muslims say they want to establish a caliphate from Malaysia across the Philippines and Indonesia and the top of Australia. You’ve seen the scary maps. But do all one billion Muslims want this? Is this what the Qur’an teaches?

 

Up to one in six of the families in the Perth suburbs of Murdoch and Winthrop are of Chinese origin. Our second biggest trade partner – and growing – is China. Taoism teaches a certain way of bettering oneself, to become a noble, by being natural and harmonious, it’s called wu wei. It includes the “Three Jewels” of compassion, moderation and humility… and getting ahead by education. This strand of Chinese religion is very helpful in understanding how they think and relate to others.

 

The civil war in Syria and the ongoing conflict in Iraq is between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Australia has accepted 500 refugees from the Syrian conflict. We ought to know more about them than just the bare fact that they are Muslims.

 

There’s a propaganda war being fought between the hard-line Saudis who spend huge amounts of oil money to promote their Wahhabi view of Islam. They build mosques in India and pay Imams’ wages around the world. Al-Qaeda came out of Wahhabi Islam. On the other hand the government of Qatar funds the English-language news channel Al-Jazeera. Their aim is to challenge the spin of both Arab and Western governments as an expression of their faith.

 

Or propaganda closer to home is the Malaysian court last week upholding a government ban on non-Muslims using the word “Allah” for God. This ignores nearly 2,000 years of usage by Arab Christians, Jews and Hindus and probably 1600 years of usage by Indonesian and Malay Christians. “No,” the ruling Muslims proclaim, “the word belongs to us, and if you use it, you will serve a prison term.” Interesting times.

 

The course that I offer next year will run for just 1 hour a week for 12 weeks. This will be time only to scratch the surface, even if we restricted ourselves to the most populous religions, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and traditional Chinese religion. What I propose is to take one aspect, holiness, and discover with you what it means in eight or nine religious groups to experience holiness. We may find in the end that the idea of holiness turns out to be too Christian and western to do justice to some of the other religions, but it will give us place to stand and explore and not be overwhelmed, because otherwise there is so much to know.

 

Each week I will talk or show a video for 20 or 30 minutes and then allow you to discuss the ideas that have been raised. I will aim to be respectful but not uncritical of people’s beliefs, including my own. I am a convinced Christian, but this group is not an exercise to persuade you of any particular belief or idea – it’s an opportunity to help us be better informed and understand a little better complex and important happenings in our world.

 

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