(UNSW Press; Sydney, 2009)
Losing My Religion has been out for a while and there are plenty of reviews around. If you want to know more of what is actually in the book I suggest Geoff Page (Australian poet and self-confessed agnostic). I’m going to respond to it with my own thoughts – so this post is more about me than Tom Frame!
I have been bemused by the preoccupation with Atheists of late. As a single mother of small children I don’t watch TV news or listen to news radio and I hardly ever get to pick up a newspaper. Most of my interactions at the time of the Atheists convention in 2010 were with other school and kinder Mums and pastoring a church in a time of transition. I would have missed the event if it had not been for the extraordinary public response from Church. Tom Frame recognises that social research reveals most positive atheists are men aged over 60 years and this is definitely reflected in my experience. In fact, the Atheists convention was just as bewildering to my friends as our discussions on Christian attitudes to sexuality! However, with these same girlfriends, when I raise the experiences of prayer, meditation, grace, love, forgiveness and a spiritual power for living through the difficult years of early child rearing, we can talk for hours! Spirituality is part of the conversation just as is swapping strategies about how to get the kids to eat their vegetables and sleep in their own beds!
So what is going on? Is this a gender divide or a life stage divide? Are Gen Xers rejecting atheism just as they are rejecting institutional religion because it is overly rational and irrelevant to our lives? Are women more in tune with the emotional and intuitive aspects of believing in God? Is this experience limited to me and the friends I attract? The social research is revealing an increasing number of ‘spiritual but not religious’ Australians, and those in their 30s and 40s are more represented in these categories. It is also true that middle class Australians (of which I am undeniably one) are more into religion and spirituality than working class Australians who, unless they are from a recent migrant population, are much more likely to tick ‘no religion’ on any social survey. Are my friends simply indicative of a particular Australian cohort?
The spirituality I encounter in my non-religious peers is not interested in argument. We are primarily interested in what gets us through the day, keeps our marriages in tact (analysing the ones that don’t stay in tact!), things that help us grieve the aging of our parents and, above all, whatever enables us and our children to be happy. By in large, any experimentation with attendance at a local church does not provide for those things and instead seems to promise more burdens on depleted supplies of time and energy! If we are a cohort of Australian spirituality, then the church is not where we find solace (and yes, I bravely include myself in this declaration).
Tom Frame focuses on unbelief from the perspective of the conscientious intellectual objector, but neither does he dismiss the existence of my cohort it is just not explored fully in the book. For many Australians belief has simply become irrelevant and unnecessary. There is no denial of faith required. There is no defense of faith required. It just is what it is and if it helps you live better well and good. The most frequent response I receive when I declare my occupation as an anglican priest is – “Wow, good on you!” People are interested. They want to know how my personal spirituality functions. I have often said that I love living where I live because my lifestyle as a radical follower of Jesus is honored for what it is without fear or favour – just as the lesbian couple with IVF children are respected for their lifestyle and integrity and the recent migrants are welcomed even though we find them less comfortable because of the language barrier.
If the church’s response to unbelief in Australia focuses on intellectual argument to the exclusion of exploring new types of connections with fellow spiritual travellers, the church will slide further into obscurity. The numbers of spiritual but not religious are on the rise, and the numbers of dogmatic atheists will continue to decline with the fragmentation of Enlightenment Rationalism as a cultural paradigm. Similarly, if our faith communities functionally require a complete investment of time, energy and relationship to the exclusion of other neighborhood, family and friend networks, the church will attract only those who are interested in an approach to spirituality and religion that retreats from the wider culture to create an alternative world. Whilst this might be biblical justified (Jesus followers are sojourners in a strange land), it does not make for easy entry for spiritual seekers and I fear that they may miss out on the depths of knowing Jesus – the most blessed source of life and love and hope.