REV DR PHILIP HUGHES
According to an Ipsos poll, reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, 63 per cent of Australians agreed with the statement that ‘religion does more harm than good’. The survey was run in 23 countries and only one country had a higher proportion of people who agreed with the statement: Belgium. Opinions were similar to Australia in Spain and Germany.
It was noted that the survey covered adults 16 to 64 years of age. So, the survey did not cover the 20 per cent of adults 65 years of age and older who, surveys tell us (Hughes and Fraser, 2014), have more positive feelings about religion.
Nevertheless, the Poll rings true to other survey findings.
The level of confidence in religious organisations has been in decline for many years, but particularly since 2001. This has been measured by a number of surveys, such as the International Social Survey Program which is run by the Australian National University. In 1998, that survey showed that 68 per cent of the population had some or much confidence in religious organisations.
In 2009, 53 per cent of the population had that level of confidence. I suspect confidence in religious organisations has continued to fall rapidly.
Several factors in this lack of confidence are evident when one looks at other responses to questions in the same surveys.
One factor is the experience of terrorism. According to the 2009 International Social Survey Program, 75 per cent of Australians believed religion contributes more to violence than to peace. Today, as in the past, many wars and terrorist activities are justified in the name of religion, including the atrocious situations in Syria and Afghanistan.
At one level, this should not be a surprise. Religion has always provided the strongest justification for people’s actions, and people of power have almost inevitably turned to religion to justify their actions. At the same time, religions have often promoted intolerance of people who have different views.
Another factor in the lack of confidence is the issue of sexual abuse. Many people have felt let down by the abuse that has occurred in religious organisations, organisations that have held themselves up as moral leaders.
However, I believe that the cover-up in religious organisations in the name of seeking to protect the reputation of those organisations has had a greater influence on the levels of confidence than the abuse itself.
The major factor in confidence in organisations is whether people feel that organisations operate primarily in the interests of its clients or in the interests of the organisation itself. Confidence levels in banks are low because people feel the banks are generally more interested in making profits than serving their customers. The cover up of sexual abuse has convinced many people that religious organisations are more interested in protecting their reputations than serving people.
It is likely that this lack of confidence is exacerbated by the debate over same-sex marriage.
A fundamental value in Australia, as a pluralist society which values the freedom of the individual, is tolerance –allowing people to live as they want to live, as long as it does not harm others.
The opposition to same-sex marriage among many religious organisations is interpreted as indicative of intolerance.
Many Australians are asking on what basis should religious groups impose their moral sensitivities on others? The main reason given by religious organisations for opposing same-sex marriage is that it could lead to restrictions on religious freedoms. This is certainly interpreted by many as another example of religious organisations seeking to protect themselves, at the expense of the right of same-sex couples to marry.
The positive contributions that religious organisations make to society through, for example, welfare, education and health, is not being well told. An organisation, under the name of SEIROS, has been formed to do solid research and tell something of that story. The Uniting Church is represented in that organisation. Following some research and analysis, its first public statements are expected in 2018.
The people who know best the positive contributions that religious organisations can make are those who experience the support and nurture of churches in their local communities, through which they find meaning and purpose.
However, since just 15 per cent of Australians attend a church monthly or more, 85 per cent of Australians have little or no experience of that.
Philip Hughes is a Uniting Church minister and was a senior research officer with the Christian Research Association for more than 30 years.