In Defence of God

In Defence of God

Address to the Sydney Institute

9 November 2009

Ladies and gentleman,

I have often said that I aspire to be a Minister of State, not a Minister of the Church.

So it may seem unusual that this evening I have as the title of my speech In Defence of God.

I have chosen this topic for a number of reasons.

First, I believe that faith plays an important and constructive role in our own society. In the context of this speech I use the term God as an analogy for faith in all its forms.

Faith and religion have come under assault in recent times from several best-selling and high profile commentators. I want to respond to the challenge that they have posed to those of us who take a positive view about the role of faith in the advancement of humanity.

Second, as a Member of Parliament it is not inconsistent for me to be both a defender of secularity and a defender of faith.

I strongly support the separation of Church and State. In fact the beauty of modern Australian secularity is that we can have this debate on God and faith without fear of persecution, ridicule and violence. In practice secularity has many nuances.  I, for example, believe that Australia broadly has the right approach. Contrast this with a nation like France where secularity is taken to an extreme that I would contend actually limits individual rights.

From my perspective a secular society respects all faiths and accepts that no religious organisation should seek to impose its views on the functions of government.

Secularity does not mean that we should seek to diminish the role that faith and religion play in the lives of the majority of Australians.  Nor does it mean that the State should be precluded from supporting the work of religious institutions where they are contributing constructively to the community – be it in the provision of social services, education or welfare.

From time to time our Parliaments consider issues that require legislators to vote with their conscience.  Many parliamentarians, if not most, will form judgements based on their faith and the values that flow from their beliefs.  It is unrealistic to expect that any person can neatly quarantine their faith from their judgement, just as it would be unrealistic to expect a person to strip bare their decision making from the weight of their life experiences.

In that context I will outline some of the values that I derive from my own faith.

Third, I believe in a multicultural and therefore intrinsically, a multi-faith Australia. Therefore it is rather timely to discuss religious diversity both here and overseas.

I will also contend that the misuse of religion and faith can actually diminish our understanding of the good that is inherent in the message of all of the world’s great religions.

From the lips of commentators at the most benign end of the spectrum, to the hands of fundamentalists at the extreme, religion continues to be used in ways that no loving and forgiving God could possibly have envisaged or decreed.

The struggle to find meaning in our lives is one that is essentially individual and universal.  It is also timeless.

The farmer pondering whether divine intervention can deliver him from drought to the astronaut viewing the beauty of Planet Earth from space and wondering whether he or she is seeing the hand of God at work, has as much cause to reflect on the nature of our being as the Vatican scholar or the Buddhist monk living in a remote monastery.

The history of humanity is the history of individuals trying to establish an understanding of what life and death is all about.

For much of that history, poor levels of education and literacy did mean that it was the religious hierarchy that was the source of most religious doctrine. God filled a knowledge vacuum. If there was no obvious explanation then it was seen as God’s work.

Today individuals are more empowered and better able to determine their own core beliefs.  In Christianity, we no longer rely solely on priests to convey and interpret the word of God from an ancient and inaccessible language.

For me, religious experience should fundamentally be a personal one.

Some will find a home in the rituals and teachings of established religious institutions.  Others, as Karen Armstrong argues in her comprehensive work The Case for God, will look beyond the prescriptive approaches of those institutions to find God.

Last month, Christopher Hitchens opened the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Sydney Opera House.  A large crowd attended to, rather ironically, hear his words in a venue that normally rings to the sound of music so often inspired by faith.

His visit to Australia attracted widespread coverage, which is perhaps not surprising following the success of his bestseller God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  Many have been swayed by his indisputable eloquence and repartee.

Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have become the leading popular protagonists in the debate between religion and atheism.  Such is the power of their advocacy that they attract a band of followers that has the zeal of many of those that they seek to criticise.

In Australia they are perhaps tilling fertile soil because we do know that more and more Australians are rejecting religion in all of its forms.

The Australian Census is the best measure that we have of these things.  In 2006, 18.7% of the population described themselves as having no religion.  At the time of Federation over a century ago, only 1.4% of the population described themselves in this way.  With the exception of 2001, the Census data shows a continuous trend of more and more Australians rejecting religion in the 108 years since Federation.

Of those that do describe themselves as having religious affiliation, there is strong growth in the non-Christian religions.  In the ten years between 1996 and 2006, those of non-Christian faith grew from 3.5% to 5.6% with, perhaps contrary to some popular perceptions, Buddhism being the major beneficiary of this increase.  The increase in the percentage of Australians who follow Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism can be generally explained by immigration patterns.

Of the Christian faiths, those that are achieving the highest growth in the actual numbers of devotees are the Pentecostal churches followed by Eastern Orthodox churches.  However, again this is generally at the expense of other Christian faiths.  To put it simply, the Christian pie is not getting bigger, but it is being sliced differently.

These trends have led some to despair that we are on an irreversible track towards a Godless or faithless society.

While the trend has been consistent, obviously it would be premature to declare that the age of faith is coming to an inevitable end.  For a start, we should not overlook the fact that seventy percent of Australians do describe themselves as having religious affiliations.  Whether this continues to decline during the course of this century will depend on forces that are both within and beyond the control of the organised religions.

I often reflect on why it is that Christianity is losing rather than gaining adherents in Australia.

In The Case for God Karen Armstrong argues that there has been a significant shift in the way in which all three of the great monotheistic faiths have interpreted their scriptures – be it the Torah, the Bible or the Holy Koran.

Her hypothesis is essentially that as religious leaders have sought to find their way in the rationalist world that rapid scientific advancement produced, they resorted to a more literalist interpretation and defence of the scriptures.  She argues that before the Age of Enlightenment the Old and New Testaments were regarded as allegorical texts and able to be interpreted according to the age in which they were being read but that this has fundamentally changed.  As one of her book’s reviewers, Mark Vernon, summarised:

“the theological point for us now is that an error took hold soon after the Renaissance.  This was the conviction that religious truths could be proven by reason, tested by evidence and timelessly captured in a text or doctrine.”

I do think that one of the reasons why Christian faith has declined in the Western world is because of the reliance placed on a literal reading of the testaments by church leaders.

Such an approach has tangled the Christian faith in a confusion of contradictions.

By encouraging literalist analysis of the Bible many churches have inadvertently invited people to question the validity of a faith that seems to be based on questionable facts or outdated prescriptions.

I recently read the transcript of the cross examination of William Jennings Bryan in the famous Scopes Trial of 1925.

The State of Tennessee had sought to outlaw the teaching of evolution in its schools.  When a teacher, John Scopes, deliberately flouted this law he faced trial in what became one of the highest profile battles between evolutionists and the supporters of Biblical creation up until that time in US history.  The prosecution was assisted by serial Presidential candidate and one of the giants of Democratic politics, William Jennings Bryan, who was called to give evidence himself`.

What followed was the humiliation of Bryan and his literal interpretation of the Bible by Defence advocate, Clarence Darrow as he sought to argue the historical truth of Genesis and other books of the testaments.  That Adam and Eve were really the first humans to walk the Earth just 6000 years ago; that some 2300 years before Christ all living things apart from those saved by Noah were wiped from the face of the planet and that Jonah was really swallowed by a fish or a whale.

From my perspective Bryan’s most damning words were;

“I believe in creation as there told, and if I am not able to explain it, I will accept it”.

Now there are some that will with great conviction, even to this day, argue that all of these things were so. In fact a number of fast growing evangelical Christian churches in Australia take a literalist approach to the scriptures.

While most leaders of the older churches, if I can use that term, have moved away from such a position I would argue that there is still an alienating literalism that pervades many faiths and Christianity is not alone in this regard.

Those of you who are political junkies will be avid watchers of the West Wing.

You might recall that episode in which President Jeb Bartlett confronts a right-wing radio host who has led a crusade against homosexuality based on Biblical doctrine.  Bartlett wonders that if he were to form his views on homosexuality based on the prescriptions of Leviticus whether he should also be following the guidance of the Old Testament in relation to the sale of his daughter into slavery, whether he should be putting to death his chief of staff for working on the Sabbath, or what he should be doing about footballers playing with a ball made of pig-skin or his wife for wearing cloth made from different threads.

Those that seek to proclaim the prescriptions of the Bible selectively or literally provide an armoury of ammunition to those like Hitchens and Dawkins.  Laymen like myself struggle with the logic of such an approach.  And while debate rages about such matters, the true message of the scriptures – of compassion, justice, equality, dignity, forgiveness, charity and respect for other people – inevitably takes a back seat.

Hitchens and Dawkins go further than simply trying to pick holes in a literal or historical interpretation of the Bible and the texts and teachings of the other great religions.

They argue that not only are all religions based on falsehoods but also that religion is a malevolent force.  Again, in this they are supported by those across the globe who both now and in the past have used their faith to justify and explain suffering, war, cruelty and calamity.

It is a debating technique as old as discourse itself – to seek to define your opponents on terms that suit your hypothesis, usually by selecting the extremes, and then send in the wrecking ball.  It’s an approach that anyone in the Australian Parliament would find familiar.

I however do not accept that any of the great religions envisage a God or a divine force that sanctions the worst failings of humanity.  Religion asks of us to become better people – to choose a life of giving and compassion.

This “Golden Rule” is a thread that runs from Confucius to Christianity and from Buddhism to Islam.

For me this is the essential message of all faiths – that we should love our neighbour as we love ourselves.  As Muhammad spoke in his final sermon “Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you”. Or as the great Jewish rabbi Hillel put it “that which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”

The God of my faith is not full of revenge as the Old Testament would suggest with a literal interpretation. The God of my faith does not cause earthquakes or tsunamis as acts of retribution.

As Pope Benedict XVI identified in his recent encyclical letter Caritas In Veritate (Love in Truth)

“Love is God’s greatest gift to humanity, it is his promise and our hope.”

It is not a loving God that willfully inflicts pain and suffering. No God of any mainstream religion would do that if God’s love is real.

And let me be clear, the Holy Koran does not extol Muslims to bomb buildings.  God does not march off to war supporting one nation over another or the persecution of those of different creeds and colour.  My God does not discriminate against women, nor favour first born children over others.  And nor does God support one political party over another.

All of these things have been claimed as acts of God at various times in our history.  They provide easy targets for those that argue that religion causes harm rather than good.  However, they are not propositions that I believe have any foundation in the mainstream religions.

Many today look at the world and see one divided by religion.  This is inflamed both by fear of the unknown and views formed by the actions of fundamentalists.

There are some that wonder, for example, whether Islam and Christianity can peacefully coexist.

My own father migrated to Australia from the Middle East – the son of an Armenian father and a Palestinian mother.  Whilst Dad was a Christian growing up in Jerusalem his closest childhood friend was a Jewish girl named Judy Meyer. Dad speaks fluent Hebrew and Arabic. He taught me tolerance. He is very ecumenical for someone who lost his home to a war that was essentially based on faith. In Australia he found a home that tolerated diversity and shunned anti-secular behaviour.

Australia has embraced religious diversity. It must always remain so and as a Member of Parliament I am a custodian of that principle of tolerance. That is why it is always disturbing to hear people from time to time rail against Muslims and Jews, or even Pentecostals and Catholics. Australia must continue, without fear, to embrace diversity of faith provided that those Gods are loving, compassionate and just.

One of the great challenges for us all is to develop more understanding about those of different faiths.  If we are to peacefully coexist, as any proper understanding of Christianity, Judaism and Islam should allow us to do, then knowledge will be our greatest friend.

To judge Islam based on the actions of extremists and terrorists would be no different than judging Christianity on the actions of those who have over the centuries committed atrocities in the name of God and Christ.

The brutality of the Crusades, the destruction of Constantinople, the persecution of Jews and homosexuals, the Inquisitions and the burning of heretics, the defence of Apartheid by Afrikaans churches in South Africa – these are not shining moments for Christianity and those of us who are Christians would reject that these were deeds properly undertaken in the name of our religion.

One of President Obama’s most impressive speeches was his address to the Islamic world at Cairo University where he noted that:

“…none of us should tolerate these extremists…. They have killed people of different faiths – but more than any other they have killed Muslims.  Their actions are irreconcilable with the rights of human beings…. and with Islam.  The Holy Koran teaches us that whoever kills an innocent – it is as if he has killed all mankind.  And the Holy Koran also says whoever saves a person, it is as if he has saved all mankind.”

These words, whilst lauded as profound and revolutionary for an American President, repeated the sentiments so often expressed with great eloquence by our own Prime Minister John Howard in the immediate aftermath of the horrific Bali bombings.

Yes we should be concerned about extremists of any faith.  Yes we should fight for human rights around the world.  However, to tar an entire faith based on the actions of those on the fringe is one that has no basis in a tolerant society.  As we look to regimes like that of the Taliban in Afghanistan before 2002 or to the human rights abuses in Iran, we should also reflect on the success of Islamic democracy and moderation just next door to us in Indonesia.

And within our own borders we must accept the right of people to follow whatever religion they choose, to wear what they want and undertake their own rituals of observance.  It always perplexes me that so many people worry about Muslim women wearing the hijab when for centuries and even in some places today, Catholic nuns dress in similar attire.

What is important is that the practitioners of any faith respect the rights of others and the freedom of every individual to determine their own faith.  Yes, we should condemn those governments that force women to cover themselves from head to toe whether it is their choice or not.  But we should not concern ourselves with people who make those choices themselves, as many Muslim women do.

For me, faith has and continues to be a positive force across the globe.

I argue this because, at its core, faith teaches us to respect others – to recognise the value of every human and to act accordingly.

Faith is the spring from which the compact that binds us together as individuals flows.

For us in Australia we owe our liberal democratic tradition to the understanding that comes from believing in the essential worth of every other human being.  It is the message of the Golden Rule, to love thy neighbour as thyself, and it is inspired by the understanding that we are all the children of God.

It is that respect for each other that drives us to believe in the virtues of charity, justice, equality and compassion.

In practical terms we see the value of faith in the work of individuals and religious-based organisations within our community. The most obvious example is the link between faith and volunteering.

The ABS survey Voluntary Work, Australia published in 2007 found that of those Australians who had been actively involved in a religious organisation in the previous 12 months, some 57 percent were volunteers, compared with 29 per cent of those who did not have such an involvement.

At its heart, faith has given us the values that are important to the overwhelming majority of Australians: a fair go; tolerance and respect, the importance of family and of making a contribution to the lives of others.

I credit the influence of the Jesuits, who were responsible for my school education, in instilling in me the virtue of public service.  It is why I am in politics and, I hope, in the service of those who elect me.  It is also why supporting charities like Sharity and the Humpty Dumpty Foundation, which raises funds for children’s hospitals around Australia and in East Timor, is an important part of my life.

A question in my mind is that if religious faith continues to diminish in the Western world, can we maintain those values that have underpinned our societies”

This is the real challenge.  We are a secular society and it is not the role of the state to proselytise on behalf of any faith.  This is as it should be.  People must determine for themselves whether to subscribe to any form of religious observance or belief.

Nor do I believe that religion is an essential prerequisite to developing a deep respect for the values to which I have referred.

I am conscious, for example, that one of the people who guided the development of my political values was the English philosopher, John Stuart Mill.  Mill was not raised in a religious household and his own views were probably agnostic, if not atheistic.  Yet here was a person who developed a set of values that guide many of us who describe ourselves as liberals to this day.

And while those of faith may be more inclined to undertake charitable work, I do not for a moment seek to ignore the work of the many individuals and organisations that contribute to society without a religious base – organisations like Doctors without Borders, the Red Cross and UNICEF.

However in a society where some are without religious belief, we all must encourage our citizenry to develop a deep understanding and respect for the social compact that underpins a strong and cohesive community.  If those values are not rooted in faith then they must be forged in similar principles.

A secular society does not and should not mean a valueless society.

I want to conclude tonight by talking a little about another phenomenon that I contend is a corollary of the decline of faith in our society.

Religion has, throughout human history, provided us with a stable reference point for our own lives. The human side of religion is exemplified by those who dedicate their lives to helping others. They often provide us with life inspiration.

In the past that inspiration has often come from the works of the saints, the mystics, the prophets and in the case of my faith, from the teaching and example of Jesus Christ.

Such individuals provided human guidance for followers of their time. They showed us what we can achieve when we lead lives that are good and filled with love, truth and charity.

They set an example for those with and without faith and, if we open our minds, people of different faiths. For example, Pope Benedict’s recent encyclical is an open letter to “all people of good will” and not just his Catholic flock.

Our challenge today is to search for those around us who set a life example. People must live lives that are real and honest. We should not praise and admire fakes and phonies.

I find it hard to believe that any prophet or saint was without fault or vice. Their lives were often marked with the constant struggle to overcome human frailty. That is very real.

If I reflect on society today, the stage on which such inspirational figures play is becoming crowded with new characters devoid of values. They do not encourage us to reflect on how we can make our own lives or those of others better.

The cult of personality is not new.  However I question the example that is set by the celebrities whose only achievement is a brand of perfume or a reality program on Foxtel.

I wonder if when such people become our role models are we in fact just diminishing ourselves.

From time to time in politics, we see a similar cult of personality.  Politics attracts people who can lead and inspire.  However for much of the history of western democracy, the values and policies of politicians have been as important as the personalities of their proponents.

Maybe it’s a result of the convergence in mainstream political beliefs – the absence of the great philosophical divide that once dominated our politics – or maybe it’s the nature of mass communications today – but the trend that I see in politics is one where personality is winning over the substance that should be at the heart of political life.

The danger is that we manufacture politicians in the same way that celebrities can be created.  Too many politicians seek to portray an image of something other than themselves.  Image is about spin and media management and not about the real person – warts and all. We should not be afraid to be real. We would do well to avoid confection. In short, no leader should pretend to be something they are not.

Sadly there is an expectation amongst some commentators that politicians will either tell a lie or live a lie. It is even encouraged by some. If I can use a personal example, one journalist wrote recently in disparaging terms of some remarks I had made on radio because I had been honest – he actually suggested it would have been better if I had lied. He and others are relaxed with a politician telling a lie. In fact, sadly, some politicians have been proud to lie. It is wrong and displays a certain lack of values. It also leaves the electorate bitter and cynical.

Be it in politics or the broader society, we face skilled practitioners in the art of spin.

However, deep down I think that most people can sense, over time, those who are fake. Australians have an ingrained ability to identify those that are fundamentally not being honest to either themselves or to others.

Community leaders in particular, must be real and true. Be it in sport, the arts, media or parliament, whilst confection may provide some short term superficial benefit, over the long term, a leader who is a fake will be seen to be a leader without values.

And so I return to my main point for the speech.

What we as a society must not do is allow our secularity to be a reason for ignoring those who are truly inspirational just because they are people of faith.

A believer and a non-believer can learn from those who have trodden this Earth inspired by their religion and dedicated to their fellow men and women.

Tonight I have sought to share my views on the importance of faith.  As a liberal, my view is that faith is not something that can or should be imposed by government or politicians.  It will however influence my words and my deeds.

A secular society imbued with the values that faith engenders will be stronger not weaker.

And Australia is all the richer when it accepts that the values that the great religions teach are the burning beacon of a just, fair and compassionate society based on truth and respect for our own humanity.