Australian Soul: Religion and Spirituality in the Twenty-first Century by Gary Bouma

(Cambridge University Press; Melbourne, 2006)

“‘A whisper in the mind and a shy hope in the heart’ is a phrase used by Manning Clark to describe… a key characteristic of the ANZAC psyche or spirit… ‘A shy hope in the heart’ aptly expresses the nature of Australian religion and spirituality.” (p2)

Gary Bouma reviews qualitative and quantitative material to construct a sociological picture of Australian religion and spirituality which are accompanied by some observations and reflections.  He identifies several changes in Australian culture which have marginalised religion in it’s institutional forms, which to some extent has suited institutional Christianity by freeing it from the bonds of nominalism and an inherited negative associations with English colonial rule.

“The origins of post-1788 Australia have set the pattern for a distinctive Australian religion and spirituality:  low to moderate levels of participation in organised forms of religion and spirituality, individual responsibility, distrust of organisations – especially those associated with the Crown – and the expectation tht formal religion will be organised by professionals for ordinary people while they must tend to their own spirituality.” (p.45)

The move to the margins has enabled some elements of traditional Christianity to take up more critical positions against the State and others to ignore the State and develop their own self-contained, religious-social world.  Bouma sees some signs of religious rejuvenation within this.   However, the decline of ‘British protestantism’ has given way to an eclectic and anti-institutional approach to spirituality.

“The future of religion may be upbeat, but that of a particular religious organisation that may once have been central to a society but is now missing the trend may well be less rosy.” (p.205)

The cultural shifts which Bouma identifies as having most impact on the role of religion in Australia are:

  • a move from a preference for rationality to experience (moving into a post-secular culture)
  • end of Empire and Colonisation as elements of Australian identity
  • hyper-consumer culture
  • multi-culturalism and thereby multi-faith
  • reinvention of family life

He identifies three key drivers in the evolution of religion in Australia’s future:

  • the need for “hope, and meaning grounded in a connection with that which is more than passing, partial and broken.” (p.205)
  • increasing diversity
  • faith based education producing “a cohort of religiously articulate young people who have a much more developed sense of their spirituality than previous generations.” (p.206)

Christian Research Association – 2 recent releases

Spirit Matters:  How making sense of life affects wellbeing by Peter Kaldor, Philip Hughes & Alan Black, (Mosaic Press; Melbourne, 2010)

Shaping Australia’s Spirituality: A Review of Christian Ministry in the Australian Context by Philip Hughes et al (Mosaic Press; Melbourne, 2010)

These two publications examine social research into spirituality and religion  in Australia.  The first is the write up of a 2002 ‘Wellbeing and Security Survey’ which had a sample size of about 1500 Australians (conducted through Edith Cowan, Deakin & NSLC).  The second is an extended discussion prepared for the CRA 2010 National Roundtable conference on ‘Shaping Australia’s Spirituality’, which includes research from the 2009 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (conducted through ANU) which had a sample size of about 1700 Australians.  The two surveys are not exactly comparable due to variations in the survey questions, but there is enough evidence to suggest that the results back each other up, and that the patterns of spirituality and religiosity described in 2002 are continuing within Australian culture.  Shaping Australia’s Spirituality also draws on research from several other projects and census data.

To GROSSLY over simplify, here is my nutshell reflection:

  • Just under half of all Australians would be happy to call themselves spiritual, religious or both.  What is meant by those terms however, varies a great deal!  Less than half of this group would walk into a church building.
  • The other half of Australians are happy to say they have no religion, but only around 15% of this group intend this as a definitive statement about God or metaphysical realities.  That is, most people who have no religion do so because they don’t care or don’t know enough about it.

Take a look at this helpful table from Spirit Matters: (hope you can read it!)

There have been three perspectives on Australian religiosity and spirituality in recent years, each with a slightly different interpretation of our culture.  Gary Bouma (my old Sociology lecturer!) thinks that there is a ‘low temperature’ culture of religion which is still influential in the Australian psyche.  David Tacey thinks that there is a kind of spiritual revolution going on where Australians are rejecting religion but not spirituality.  Tom Frame argues that most Australians are predominantly secular.  Shaping Australia’s Spirituality suggests that there is evidence for all three perspectives!

This table is derived from the 2009 survey: (please have a giggle at my scanning skills!)

The CRA mob have some helpful suggestions as to where to dig deeper.

  • There is significant interest in a spirituality which connects with nature and grapples with the ecological crisis and may also have it’s roots in the experience of being Australian.  This extends across various categories in the spiritual and/or religious grouping.  If the church grapple with the earth story in a meaningful way, they may yet have a contribution to make to the Australian story.
  • Gender, ethnicity and age are all significant factors in mapping Australian spirituality/religiosity.  For example, the majority of atheists are men over 60.  The majority of ‘fundamentalist’ religious believers are over 70 and/or from a recent migrant population.  Young people (under 30) express more interest in spiritual things than their older counterparts, but simultaneously emphasize the need to create one’s own synchronistic meaning and also express the greatest amount of indecision as to what they believe.
  • The capitalist market approach to life has well and truly infiltrated the Australian cultural expressions of spirituality and religion.  This gives the church two options:  adapt; or define itself as counter-cultural.  Both approaches will gain some interest from some Australians, but counter-cultural sub-groups will by definition be marginal in society.
  • The broader social changes to community formation affect the way that spiritual/religious communities are formed.  Generally speaking, they fall into being either 1. close knit sub-group communities formed around a non-religious social grouping like ethnicity.   2.  networks of friends/family/acquaintances who are gathered by specific events or connections.

My questions:

  • What are the options for a market spirituality approach that remain authentic to Jesus’ vision for humanity?
  • What are the options for network communities of faith that remain authentic to Jesus’ vision for the church?