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Religious harmony in Australia

Rodney Blackhirst
Email: r.blackhirst@latrobe.edu.au

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Matt Smith:

Australia, being a western first world country, has a population that is free to practice any religion they wish. This freedom comes at a price of occasional tension and intolerance. I'm Matt Smith, and this is a La Trobe University podcast.

Our guest today is Dr. Rodney Blackhirst of the School of Religious and Spirituality Studies at La Trobe University, and he explains Australia's diverse religious mix.

Rodney Blackhirst:

Australia's religious background starts with English settlement not taking into account here the many thousands of years of aboriginal spirituality, but it starts with the arrival of the English. And largely we had two groups of people originally, of course Australia was a penal colony and so you had the English overloads, the gaolers, who tended to be Church of England, the convicts tended to be Irish, and so they tended to be Catholic.

And throughout most of Australian history, up until the post war period or certainly the in 60s - 70s, you had that basic divide between the Church of England which was the establishment church in this country and the Catholics who were by and large the working class. And so that's how that sort of shape up through most of the 20th century.

Then of course, there was the end of the White Australia Policy and so you started to get much wider diversity, and then the arrival of Asians and people from the Middle East and so forth. Now, Australia is very ethnically diverse and consequently also very religiously diverse. Islam and Buddhism are rapidly growing religions, whereas the Church of England and the Catholic Church are now in decline in Australia. And also American groups, American style Christianity, Pentecostals and those sorts of things. Recent arrivals and applying much bigger part in Australian religious diversity is now a very religiously diverse country. It wasn't previously.

Matt Smith:

Is there a lot of religious harmony or is there a tension? What is the current climate like?

Rodney Blackhirst:

I think by world standards says religious harmony; we don't see a lot of religious violence in Australia. Sometimes, we here some fairly vicious religious rhetoric but it doesn't usually translate into violence although this is different in different parts of the country.

It usually follows those ethnic lines as well. For instance, we saw the Cronulla riots in Sydney a few years ago. These were along ethnic lines, white Australians versus Lebanese largely. Of course, the Lebanese have a different religious background. Many of them do in anyway, Islam or different types of Christianity. And often religion elsewhere in the world can be an excuse for ethnic hatred and other forms of prejudice and discrimination. But by and large I think Australia is for its diversity relatively harmonious, although there are isolated incidents. There are attacks on Jewish cemeteries or synagogues or mosques and so on.

Matt Smith:

Is a lot of that to do though with the fact that in Australia there is quite a clear division between church and state.

Rodney Blackhirst:

Yeah. The people that established the Federation of Australia had a great foresight to include in constitution, I think it's Section 116 of the Australian Constitution, guarantees the separation of church and state. It says, the commonwealth shall not make laws making religion compulsory or anything like that. So Australia has very long and well established history of separation of church and state, much more vigorous in some ways than the United States where religion plays a much bigger role in politics than here.

Australian religious life is very muted compared to the United States. It's also a very different than in England where you had the establishment church. You had the Anglican Church, which was woven into the political establishment. Australia, being a new country avoided many of those things and very wisely I think, so I think that's right. Religion plays a role in politics in this country but not a really vital role.

Matt Smith:

With the religious freedom that we get and I suppose the same thing applies to the United States, how prevalent our cults?

Rodney Blackhirst:

When you do have an atmosphere of religious freedom where you're free to believe and do whatever you like within the scope of criminal law, inevitably you get fringe groups. Fringe groups and cults tends to be a by product of affluence as well, people have way too much time and money on their hands.

We have seen spectacular cults in Australia. Some are very dangerous ones, and also of course very benign ones. You have the people who by and large believe in fairly weird things but otherwise don't cause any trouble for people.

On the other hand, there's also groups who are quite dangerous and attract the attention of law enforcement. I've seen a number of such groups. And also there's an increasing tendency towards that I think in Australia. This is just a by product of religious diversity. As the traditional churches break down, people tend to be looking for meaning in other forms of spirituality often some such people will prey to groups that are out to exploit or which are positively dangerous.

Matt Smith:

Where does a cult stop and a church start? What's the difference between the two there?

Rodney Blackhirst:

The difference between a cult and a church, I guess is always open to debate. Such a group as scientology, for instance, will be condemned by some people as a cult, as a dangerous and manipulative cult. They claim to be a church in various ways, have established some sort of legitimacy amongst some people. There is a big grey area for what's Orthodox, what's normal and who decides when you have an open slather sort of religious freedom system. That's a very tricky question. So there's no ready answer to that. There are cults within established churches and outside of a established churches and very often it's in the eye of the beholder.

Matt Smith:

Many modern churches would have this belief that they're all about religion and faith. But what is the reality whether they maybe stray into being a business or even a political influenced movement sort of thing?

Rodney Blackhirst:

Yeah. With any church, or any organization really, you really do need to keep an eye on the money and where the money goes and who controls the money, and where the money is invested and so on. We see in this district in central Victoria for instance. We've seen over the years many sort of fly by night churches. They're American style churches. They come into the community. They attract a following usually of young people.

They require of their members the paying of tides so that you have to give say 10% of your income to the church each week or something. And they become very wealthy very quickly. They buy property. And then all of a sudden they shoot through. They leave people in the lurch. This doesn't happen so much with the established churches. The established churches of course are very wealthy in terms of property. They own prime real estate all over the place.

But the more fleeting by night sort of churches can very often be run by shysters who are just manipulating and ripping people off. That certainly happens. On the other hand, there are plenty of what you might call fringe groups that are economically or financially very clean as a big diversity in that.

Matt Smith:

You said before that there were some recent surveys. Can you tell me about that?

Rodney Blackhirst:

A recent survey of opinions about religious groups found for instance that about 50% of Australians and slightly less than that in central Victoria had reservations or didn't trust Muslims. Interestingly about a similar number or about 40% of people had reservations and didn't trust Jews as well. So, that these are obviously very entrenched sort of opinions.

Those sorts of surveys are not surprising I guess given media exposure to various conflicts in the world. Certainly to extremist groups of various sorts in Islam say, make life very hard for moderate Muslims. Also, there are obviously certain problems with immigration for the settlement of Muslims in this country. A lot of people have suspicions about it or resentment about it. They suspect that some groups want to take over the country and impose Sharia law and so forth. You know, this sort of fears. The surveys tell us that there is certain amount of fear in the community.

Matt Smith:

Is that in some ways a fear of the unknown because I kind of assume that with those religious groups that you mentioned, they mostly be in the major cities they wouldn't get far out this. Is it mostly just you know, you're afraid of what you don't know?

Rodney Blackhirst:

I think it is. My observation is that certainly the case, and that the more that Australians have to do with other religious groups, Muslims, Buddhists and so forth, the less they fear them because they realize that the vast majority of Muslims are just ordinary people who want pretty much the same as other people. Vast majority of Muslims are just like that and the same with Buddhists and Jews and others. And the more that you have to deal with those people, the more you realize that.

Whereas certainly in central Victoria, in Bendigo, for some reason or other it has a very, very Anglo-Irish demographic profile. It even missed several waves of immigration. It does even a lot of Italians and Greeks in central Victoria. The waves of immigrations most of them have settled as you say in big cities. So that has left rural Australia very Anglo Saxon. It's not surprising that such people don't have much to do with these migrant groups and fear the unknown as you say.

Matt Smith:

In an age where we've got a lot of religious freedom where you no longer have to stay in the faith that you were born in with, where usually you were born into a religion for life. How is that sort of thing played out amongst the population? There's a few religions that have a history of you know going and converting other cultures. But how does it play in Australia?

Rodney Blackhirst:

Yeah. It's very interesting that up until say 1970s, as you say most people would stay within the religion that they were born into. Even if they didn't begin life particularly religious, what you found with people is that as they marry and have kids and so forth, they still want their kids to go to catholic schools and etc. so that there's continuity between generations. But that continuity starts to breakdown around about the 1970s. It becomes much more fluid and people start to move around.

Often they move around within a particular religion. Say Christianity, they might have been born into the Anglican Church but they decide to shop around and they go to Pentecostal Churches or Methodist Churches or some of the various other American style churches. When you go to those churches, you found they're full of young people. And then you go to establishment churches and you found they're full of old people largely. There's a real age difference within the establishment religion in Australia. And then these people look might conversations from one religion to another.

There's an increasing population of that too. Buddhism attracts large number of converts and Islam too in Australia and in United States and throughout the West. That's the other side of the fear of these new religions or supposedly alien religions. There is, in fact, a large number of people that converts to those. Often the conversations aren't long lived. You'll also find a lot of people laps back into the religion which they're born.

Matt Smith:

There's a lot of people that don't choose any religion at all when religion doesn't have a large part to play in their lives. Is religion important to Australia?

Rodney Blackhirst:

According to all the surveys, Australians are sort of surprisingly religious. Although compared to Americans, they're religious beliefs are somewhat muted. They don't tend to wear on their sleeves and they tend not to be very public about it. But nevertheless, they're still quite religious. Although, there's a solid group of people who are agnostic at least and don't have any real religious commitment. Then there's always a solid 10% or so of people who are actively atheist and who are actively hostile to religion.

So you've got maybe 20% or so of people who are indifferent and then you've got a 10% who are hostile. The rest of them if you ask them they'll tell you that they have some sort of religious belief or some sort of religious affiliation and yet, I don't know, there's only a relatively small number of people who are really engaged with some religious organization.

Matt Smith:

That's all the time we've got for the La Trobe University podcast today. If you have any questions comments or feedback about this podcast or any other, you can send us an email at podcast@latrobe.edu.au. Dr. Rod Blackhirst, thank you for your time today.

Rodney Blackhirst:

OK. Thank you.

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