Dr Nick Herriman
First published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 15 December, 2012.
For a nation of non-believers, Australians are a very religious people.
As the 2011 census showed, Australians increasingly choose "no religion" on census forms.
Yet we - including those who disavow religion - revere and believe in the reality of many symbols which are largely a product of our imagination.
The digger is our most revered symbol, yet he is primarily the product of World War I correspondent Charles Bean and his imagination. As we know, he is a larrikin, blonde, tall country lad in search of adventure who is tragically caught up in a war. He proves his valour, even if only as cannon fodder for those stuffy English generals. Unfortunately, the digger is worshipped on Anzac Day, in spite of the effort by the RSL and members of the armed forces to remind us that actual people died in the war; not Australia's putative innocence.
The Australian farmer, as we have imagined him, maintains true-blue Aussie values while waiting for the next drought or bushfire, when he will undoubtedly respond according to principles of mateship. He may then lose everything but will rebuild. Meanwhile, the evil bank circles like a vulture, waiting to claim the farm that has been in the family for generations, but the bank hasn't counted on the grit and determination of the farmer.
The Aussie battler is one of those gods which can take male and female forms. Focusing on the latter, the battler's husband has died fighting in war, is off shearing, and the like. The wife is left with children and a crippling mortgage. Her principle is good old Aussie optimism - she will never give in.
Reporters from populist television current affairs programs come across apparitions. The most famous revelation occurred in the 1990s with Pauline Hanson. The battler also revealed herself in Schapelle Corby, a surprising choice because she was childless and unmarried. Anyway, she's a battler and that, aside from the fact she was pretty, is how most people know Corby is innocent. She will return to our shores one day, but what about the fate of the deity we know as the Aussie battler? Perhaps her place in the constellation of gods peaked during the Howard years and is now on the wane, being threatened by the yummy mummy, who is attractive, sexy, outgoing, devoted to her hard-working husband and cute children.
In our pantheon, Working Class Man might be the grandson of Digger. He is white, hard-working, simple and apparently not quite as productive or industrious as the Asians. This puts him under threat, but luckily the Asians are somehow not as genuine or authentic as him, so they still have a lot to learn. Generally, Working Class Man god is also disappearing, which is a shame because he was honest.
The noble Aboriginal is among the most revered of symbols. We see him every time there is an indigenous footy player. He may drive a new car and watch TV with a microwave dinner, but when he plays football his killer hunter instincts are revealed. Each time he scores we get shivers down our spine because we see millions of years in this great Southern Land.
We are so moved by the presence of these gods, perhaps Australians should be considered the most spiritual people in the world.
Yet, while it might seem unpatriotic to say this, the way we worship these images seems a little ridiculous. Perhaps we should have little shrines where we can worship our Aussie Farmer and the rest. Then we could see them for what they are: symbols through which we create reality. We should stop looking for evidence of them and rather see that their existence is a matter of faith. At the moment, we keep mistaking them for actual people, causing unnecessary confusion.
Dr Nicholas Herriman is a lecturer in Anthropology at La Trobe University. You can listen to his podcast 'The Audible Anthropologist' on La Trobe on iTunes U.