Reading the Saturday Age

It is predictable that, come the Easter Weekend, there will be a number of articles in the newspapers on religious matters. Interesting to read this year’s offerings in The Saturday Age (which arrived a day early yesterday).

The editorial (“Let’s not make a religion out of secularism”) starts off well, and ends well too. But it seems like it was written by two different people, because another emphasis entirely inserts itself in the middle to tow the editorial line.

Let’s look at the start:

THERE was a time when those who prophesied the death of religion portrayed what would follow that demise as a blissful era of tolerance, freedom and respect for the dignity of all. When the world had cast off its superstitions, so the argument went, the greatest cause of hatred and dissension would be removed. It has not happened. In part this is because, despite all the confident predictions, the death of faith is not in sight – not even in the avowedly secular West, and certainly not in other parts of the world. But it is also because the predictions themselves have taken on a particularly strident and belligerent tone. Religion of any kind, but especially the monotheistic faiths that were formative influences on Western civilisation, is routinely characterised by campaigning secularists as not merely false but as the root of all evil, too. Adherents of those faiths are spoken of at best with condescension and ridicule, and sometimes with outright hostility. Ironically, there is often an evangelical fervour in this anti-religiosity, which, by denying all intellectual and moral legitimacy to that which it opposes, has acquired some of the worst traits of the faith of past eras.

This lurid secular evangelism was evident in some of the presentations at last year’s Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne. More disturbingly, it can also be heard in some of the contributions to the continuing debate about religious education in Victoria’s government schools.

There isn’t a word there that I disagree with. When, against this background, the current “debate about religious eduction in Victoria’s government schools” is then raised, I found myself thinking: “Am I about to read a retraction, or perhaps (more within the realms of possibility) an softening of the “strident and belligerent tone” that this paper has taken in the past on this issue?”

Not a hope. For immediately the editorial changes “voice”, and adopts the very “strident and belligerent tone” of which the first paragraph complained:

This newspaper agrees that the present system must be scrapped: it is not the role of a secular education system in a pluralist democracy to proselytise for any particular faith, or to facilitate proselytising by others. Yet that is effectively what now happens. It is partly a consequence of the Education Department’s bizarre reading of the Education Act, which construes ”may provide special religious instruction” to mean ”must provide …”, and partly because pupils are not required to opt in to such instruction but rather are permitted to opt out. But mostly it is because the chief provider of special religious instruction, Access Ministries, regards its task as the imparting of faith, and in order to do so relies on teaching of untrained volunteers who consciously set out to proselytise.

It really is beyond belief that the two paragraphs were written by the same author. The editorial continues with the now familiar refrain that we should scrap Special Religious Education in favour of

a religious education curriculum whose content is not restricted to the teachings of any particular religion, and which would be taught by trained teachers whose aim would not be to make converts.

Again, the old “either/or” proposition, with strong emphasis on the “or” at the expense of the “either”.

Surely it is not too difficult to understand that the one need not require the exclusion of the other, and that a truly open and tolerant “secularism” would allow both? Even an eight year old child would understand this.

In fact, on the very next page of the same newspaper, an eight year old child shows that she does understand it. “Nicola Iser, Age 8” provides the “Saturday Reflection” (not available online), in which she says:

“I want to learn about all religions in the world – where, why and what does it all mean? And I want to lean a bit ech week like I do with my Christian education classes at school. I don’t want less CE, I want mor RE – all the religions with classes each week right up to year twelve.”

See? Nicola gets it. Why can’t The Age? It seems that the editors at the age are like Fr Bob Maguire, to whom Peter Craven refers in his op-ed piece
Believers or not, we should keep alive the story of Easter:

It was interesting to see Father Bob Maguire say the other day that he was all for broad comparative religious education because he thought it would militate against the kind of sectarianism that can lead to religious hatreds.

I wonder. Often it’s the immersion in one religious tradition that leads to an apprehension of another.

Precisely. Learning a religious tradition deeply enables you to have a standpoint from which to understand or appreciate other religious traditions – both in the way they are similar and the way in which they contrast.

But then, when the Editorial reaches it’s final paragraph, it seems as if the keyboard has been handed back to the author who wrote the opening paragraph, and we get the following:

Abolition of the public holidays associated with the principal Christian festivals of Easter and Christmas does not seem to be on anyone’s agenda, however secular they may be or whatever faith they hold. So while Victorians are enjoying this Easter long weekend, it is worth taking time to reflect on the fact that the secular state arose from the agitation of those who were trying to establish freedom of religion, not to ensure freedom from religion. Not only would it not have occurred to them that religion should be banished from public discourse, they would have regarded such a notion as a new form of tyranny. As indeed it would be. Whatever the future of religion may be in this secular nation, even those who adhere to no faith should acknowledge how much of their own world view derives from the faith of earlier centuries. The notion that all human beings are equal in rights and dignity now seems inherently secular, but it first gained currency in a world in which the vast majority believed that all people were created in the image of God. That belief gave the idea of human dignity a political impetus it has not lost, for believers and unbelievers alike. We should not let our children grow up in ignorance of how the world came by that idea.

That paragraph could have been written by Pope Benedict himself. Again, I haven’t got any argument with it at all. If only whatever the first author wrote in between the first and the last paragraphs had been saved from the circular file and allowed to stand without the editor-in-chief butting in with his ten cent’s worth in the middle.

(As a footnote, one other piece worth reading in The Saturday Age this weekend is Barney Zwartz’s well considered reflection on whether the spate of natural disasters we have been experiencing are a reason to give up on God: “The meaning of suffering”)

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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7 Responses to Reading the Saturday Age

  1. Matthias says:

    Thanks for this david. i think you should write a letter to the Editor and include in it what you have written here.
    Blessings to all readers of this blog for this Easter and HE IS RISEN.

    • CG says:

      Is it ABC policy now to ignore Christian events in news bulletins? Yesterday I listened to the 8 am and the 6 pm news on ABC radio and in neither case was there any mention of Easter. Whereas this morning at 7 am four minutes were devoted to ANZAC Day news. This really brought home to me how totally secular a society I am living in.

      • Schütz says:

        Not quite sure which TV station we tuned into last night – it could have been Channel 7 – but it had a terrifically positive wrap up on the easter services, covering Orthodox, Anglican, Catholic and “Planet Shakers”. We were impressed. But perhaps the fact that we were impressed is simply because (as demonstrated by your ABC experience) our expectations are so low.

  2. Stephen K says:

    I don’t know, David. Part of me says you’re right when you say that an immersion in one religious tradition can make one appreciate others, but the other part of me says, only sometimes: a lot of factors come into play, style of immersion, personality, life experiences etc. and let’s be honest, judging by the stridency of cries for orthodoxy in some places, and all that often goes with it, you’d have to concede, an immersion in one tradition doesn’t always or necessarily lead to the sort of appreciation you have or allude to. On the other hand, I do know where Fr Bob Maguire is coming from and what he’s urging, and I can’t argue with that.

    The other point I’m a bit wary of is the tendency to conflate “secularism” with “aggressive atheism”. I can readily reconcile private religious conviction and freedom with public non-denominationalism, which underlies the re-assessment of public funding of religious instruction in public education.

    • Catherine says:

      Stephen K, another great post from you. I couldn’t agree more that personality, life experiences, style of immersion influence how one responds to people of other religions. These factors determine how people live their faith generally. One factor in the decline of religious bigotry is arguably the poor religious instruction Christians have received since the 60s which has led to people thinking all denominations are equally valid. I think it is a terrible shame that generation x are poorly educated catholics but one good thing that has come out of it is that the catholic/protestant antagonism has greatly declined.In the past I think the Church made a mistake in making a such a fuss about catholics attending other denominations services or having mixed marriages, as it made the non Catholics feel like second class citizens. I think the number of catholic bigots would be small amongst the general population of generation x and Y, but there would be higher proportion of bigots in the older generations and the uber orthodox sector of the Catholic church.

      As we all know, some people operate out of a notion of “God is Love” and others operate out of more of a fear of God/punishment and an emphasis on sin, which personally I feel can: be psychologically unhealthy, lead to people being very judgemental and in vulnerable individuals lead to debilitating scrupulosity.
      Now having being raised by hard line orthodox catholics who had no trouble accepting church teaching, yet were very ecumenically minded and non judgemental of anyone, I know that it is possible to be a strict catholic and be able to see that life is not black and white. However, I have met orthodox catholics who throw their gay children out of the house and write them out of their wills and make jokes about running down Hasidic jews with their cars.

      My grandmother , who was a devout catholic married a jewish man, and always told my my mother, ” The catholics are always the worst”, as in the worse behaved people:).Growing up in the 40s/50s and having had to learn the catechism, my mother was worried about her father not going to heaven in primary school. My mother said she would deliberately get him to hear her recite her answers to to catechism in the hope of converting him, but her mother told her to leave him alone, pointing out that Jesus was Jewish and and not to worry because he lived a good life according to his lights.

      I really don’t know why people are gettig so worked up about religious instruction in state schools because these children are rubbing shoulders with other children of all denominations and of no religion at all. The period of time spent in religious instruction pales into insignificance compared to total school program and the most importance influences on a child’s faith are generally the parents.

      • Stephen K says:

        Yes, Catherine, I think you’re right in all you say, and your point that formal instruction represents only a small portion of the much wider formation children absorb in schools is important to keep in mind. Your story about your mother getting her father to hear her catechism reminds me so much of my mother telling her uncle his departed wife wasn’t in heaven because she wasn’t Catholic!

        This topic raises some questions, I think, at the psychological level. One is, to what extent can one really ever understand other people’s religious perspectives and experience in what I imagine is the empathetic sense necessary for that sense of community and universal (aka “catholic”) love at the heart of Jesus’ kingdom, if one insists on the “completeness” or “perfection” of one’s own religious truth? The way I see it, there’s a fundamental or recurrent flaw in this outlook that inevitably leads in many minds to an attitude of assurance of the complete possession of virtue. In this lies the root of a divisiveness of spirit between religious adherents of comparable sincerity.

        Of many stripes, I’d add. A sense of exclusive rightness and religious superiority can be found in lots of places. But, for Catholics, the pitfall for this, I think, may lie in such things as reliance on apologetics about continuity, historical provenance and apostolic transmission. Books like John O’Brien’s “90 Common questions about the Catholic Faith” with their billboard-like cartoon illustrations: “Catholic Church founded in 33 AD! Lutheran Church not till 1517! Etc.” spring to mind.

        Quite apart from my sense that this sort of approach – and the particular convictions that directly stem from it – impedes the sort of brotherly and sisterly love which we’re challenged to act out, I think it keeps spiritual thinking from maturing and going beyond the level of externals and appearances. Perhaps only people of profound religious insight and spiritual life – those that across religious boundaries would be called saints – have arrived at properly managing a juxtaposition of religious certitude and “other-understanding”. If this were true, what would it mean for how one ought to frame discussion of faith, and its instruction, and related issues in a pluralistic world?

        I guess, Catherine, this is the age old question of “what is truth?”

      • Schütz says:

        My mother said she would deliberately get him to hear her recite her answers to to catechism in the hope of converting him, but her mother told her to leave him alone, pointing out that Jesus was Jewish and and not to worry because he lived a good life according to his lights.

        At some point I should blog about Pope Benedict’s comments re conversion of the Jews in his latest volume of “Jesus of Nazareth”, but it seems that your Grandmother was on the right track. The Church does acknowledge that God does not turn a blind eye to those who “live a good life according to his lights”, but the real reason for hope in his salvation is God’s committment to his chosen people, a committment that did not end with the coming of the New Covenant.

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