15th April, 2012
via The Age
It is a mark of our civility that we are free to believe in God – or not.
IT IS not the place of this newspaper to adjudicate on the existence of God. That is a question beyond the remit of even the most ambitious investigative reporting. We can, however, endorse with a clear conscience the presence in Melbourne of the 2012 Global Atheist Convention, which opened on Friday night.
This is not, as some might have it, because it furthers a perceived secular agenda of this organisation. Nor is it that the convention will tip some tourist dollars into the state’s coffers (although we note approvingly that it comes at considerably less cost to the taxpayer than the formula one grand prix). No, the major benefit of this ”Celebration of Reason” is the injection of intellectual capital it has provided.
The past week, since the much touted, albeit slightly underwhelming, encounter between Cardinal George Pell and leading atheist Richard Dawkins on the ABC’s Q&A program, has been alive with debate as both sides put their case. And while not all of it has been as polite as one could hope, with one commentator describing Mr Dawkins as a C-list celebrity boxing above his weight, it all has value.
Said value is not that we might, by process of argument, prove or disprove one case or another, but that it focuses attention on the question. Australians as a whole are casual about the matter of faith: in the 2006 census, 18.7 per cent of us said they had no religion, but only 0.16 per cent labelled themselves atheists.
Similarly, a 2009 Australian National University survey found that 47 per cent of Australians believed in God, but only 16 per cent believed there was no God. That suggests that a lot of people are slouching on the fence, uninterested in being identified as part of a church but at the same time unwilling to take the next step and say definitively that nobody’s home upstairs.
It’s the sort of relaxed and comfortable approach you might expect in a country where there have long been few, if any, consequences for choosing a given faith, or even for rejecting them all. Those who grew up from the 1970s to the early 2000s had lives free of religious discrimination and intolerance in a way inconceivable in many parts of the world, or even in the Australia of 60 years ago. Even now, when the rise of radical Islam, the resurgence of fundamentalist Christianity and even the arrival of the so-called New Atheism have sharpened awareness of religious difference, there is an admirable willingness to live and let live.
Not caring about the answer to the question of faith and not asking it are two different things, however. Belief or non-belief are fundamental to an individual’s world view. On one side, there is the offer of an answer to the age-old question of ”why are we here?”. On the other, as articulated by Mr Dawkins, there is the view that ”the question why is not necessarily a question that deserves to be answered. ‘What is the purpose of the universe?’ is a silly question.” A robust public debate on such intangibles is good for the mental health, and hopefully inspires people to think more deeply about their own personal beliefs and why they hold them.
Knowing where one stands on these issues, and why, is important, and becoming more so. Religion is anything but a spent force in the world: whether in the Middle East, the Deep South of the US or the mountains of Kashmir, it is a potent driver of both personal actions and international politics.
Locally, churches still occupy a favoured and powerful place in public life, while issues such as gay marriage and the teaching of religion in schools show that for all this county’s relaxed secularism, faith matters.
It is admirable, though, that our society can host an event as potentially provocative as a conference on atheism. It speaks well of our civility and tolerance, as well as our right to freedom of religion. For that reason alone, we are glad to have the godless among us.