I have long felt that there was a general attitude to religion in Australia that I couldn’t quite understand. I think that as a Christian and a religious person, I’ve noticed and cared more about it than others might have. If I had to simplify, I have felt that perceptions of religion in Australia are both increasingly critical, while also apathetic. In a sentence: “You do you, just don’t involve me.”
Before you read on, I feel it’s important to note that religion is deeply personal. It is not just about what happens when we die, but it’s also about how we choose to live. Whether someone has been religious all their life, or if their faith is a new-found faith, that faith is often a major part of their identity and worldview. Discussions about belief can therefore hold an enormous amount of weight to individuals, making it incredibly important to be cautious when having these conversations. I am going to do my best to look at religious autonomy in a way that is considerate to both those with and without religion, but I acknowledge the limits of my own knowledge, and I cannot come to the conversation unbiased, as I do hold the Christian faith.
There was a sentence that a group member wrote in a recent assignment that stuck with me. The student was referring to the partner organisation we were working with and said something along the lines of, “(The company) can no longer rely on the lay Catholic mission message it formerly associated with in an increasingly agnostic and multicultural contemporary Australian context.” The reason this stood out to me was not because this comment was misplaced, but rather because it was a broad claim that, in all honesty, holds its truth.
In 1966, 88% of the Australian population identified as Christian, and 0.8% said they had no religion. Yet, 50 years later in 2016, only 52% of the population identified as Christian, and 30% of people claimed agnosticism.1 As it was phrased by the controversial Australian Lamb ad in 2017, the fastest growing religion in Australia is that of having no religion.2
Moving away from statistics, I feel that there is an increased expectation in Australian society for agnosticism to be the norm. Just as one is innocent until proven guilty, you’re agnostic until proven religious. And, when religion is brought up in conversation, the subject is typically changed swiftly, as it is seen as contentious, plagued with assumptions and stereotypical images as portrayed in the media. In broad strokes, being religious is seen as being traditional and conservative, and typically associated with some level of bigotry or intolerance. Of course, I have mainly experienced this phenomenon from a Christian perspective, however I would be hesitant to say that other religions do not suffer similar negative assumptions.
The attitude towards religion intended to be considerate and peaceful can end up leaving you feeling isolated and unheard.
You do you, just don’t involve me. They smile and nod, hum and say,
“Of course, yes, it’s important to you, but can we not talk about it here?”
“Now isn’t really the time.”
I feel like I have experienced this conversation time and time again. I try to be open and honest about my faith and what I believe, speak up when I feel convicted; yet it feels like each time I do, the room gets a little colder as perceptions about me shift. Nuance is removed, individuality is eroded, and further attempts at sharing religious experiences are met with scepticism and discomfort.
Of course, not every experience is the same. I’ve had incredibly deep and challenging conversations about religion with friends in the past. But these conversations are with people who have seen who I am, what I care about, and the way I act. It reminds me of a concept often talked about in church: the idea of a spiritual bank account. Essentially, the more you get to know someone and open up to them, the more they are able to know you and open up to you.
Thus, it becomes easier to have conversations about faith with friends that I often see and spend time with. But, with a group of relative strangers at uni who don’t know me as well, we don’t have that spiritual bank account, making it harder to open up and be honest about something that feels so deeply personal, and often, controversial.
So, what’s the solution? How do we encourage religious diversity and freedom in a culture that is increasingly agnostic? How do we speak about religion without acknowledging the deeply personal feelings tied to religious discourse?
Whatever side of the conversation you’re on, the most important thing is to pay attention to others in that conversation. Pay attention to body language, tone, and other non-verbal cues to make sure that you aren’t making the other party feel unsafe or unheard.
The truth is, sometimes, religious discourse is a sensitive topic. In order to avoid discussions becoming toxic and harmful, all parties involved need to maintain a level of empathy and care for others in the conversation. If you can see that the subject is negatively affecting someone, move the discussion to safer common ground.
Besides making sure people are comfortable, the next most important thing you can do is keep an open mind. I know that it can sometimes be confronting, but remember that meaningful conversations are a two-way street. If you’re not engaged with what the other person is saying, they are more likely to shut down about the topic. When people think about speaking about religion, it is so often framed by the idea of the ‘religious debate’. However, if we really want to build a culture of diversity, inclusion, and religious freedom, we need to hold non-argumentative conversations about religion.
No matter how different your beliefs are, hear the other person out. Seek out common ground, and try to understand their perspective. Give yourself the chance to open up to someone about your religion and you might be surprised with what comes out of it. You might not end up changing your mind, but maybe you’ll understand them a little more.