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Monday, January 08, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Let's have faith in society and keep God out of it

By Pamela Bone

Far from a minority group, the non-believers of this world are fed up with the assumption that moral virtue is reliant on the constant influence of religion in contemporary culture

I WAS annoyed to find that all the copies of Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation were sold out (the bookshops have ordered more). According to its publicity machine, the book is a "bold challenge" to the influence religion has on public life in the US.

Notwithstanding that 44 per cent of Americans allegedly believe the second coming of Christ will occur within the next 50 years, it has been on the New York Times bestseller list for weeks.

Another surprise bestseller over the Christmas period was Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion. A range of anti-religion books are soon to be published: Atheist Manifesto by French philosopher Michel Onfray; Against Religion by Melbourne philosopher Tamas Pataki; Have a Nice Doomsday by American writer Nick Guyatt. The one I am most looking forward to is Christopher Hitchens's God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

It may be that the Australians who've bought up all the copies of Harris's book merely want to reinforce their opinions of how stupid Americans are. Then again, it may be that in Australia, as well as in the US, people are looking at the nightly mayhem on the television news, making connections, and wondering how religion can still command the respect it does.

These books are giving courage to the rather large minority of people - even in the US, 12 per cent of the population doesn't believe in God - who have no religion and who have been bluffed and intimidated for too long by the convention that religious beliefs, however harmful or absurd, should not be criticised.

Despite the wishful thinking of commentators such as The Australian's Paul Kelly, religious belief is not growing stronger in Western countries. Yes, worldwide, religion is growing because religious people tend to have many children: children who are then indoctrinated with the beliefs of their parents (some call this child abuse). But in countries where people are encouraged to question faith, the intensity of religious belief has been waning for years. People might express an association with a particular religion, but it doesn't affect the way they live their lives.

That is why in Australia only 40 per cent of couples getting married choose a religious ceremony (of brides born in Britain, only 25 per cent wanted a religious ceremony last year, while of brides born in Lebanon, 82per cent did, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures). Even more telling is that while Christianity regards suicide as a grave sin, opinion polls show that more than 70 per cent of Australians want legislation to allow voluntary euthanasia.

This does not stop religious folk rising in indignation against the "atheist evangelists", as they describe writers such as Dawkins and Harris. Dawkins is as much a fundamentalist as the Islamic extremists, they claim. He is the man who "hates God". This is nonsense, of course. Dawkins is far too sane to hate an imaginary figure (unlike the writer Kingsley Amis, who when asked if he was an atheist is reported to have replied, "Well, yes, but it's more that I hate him"). And none of the above writers has called for believers to be killed. It is also rather unfair, given that Christian evangelism has had such a long and unimpeded run.

I don't claim to speak on behalf of all non-religious people, but I think I can safely say that a lot of us - the one-quarter to one-third of Australians who either believe God does not exist or admit they don't know - are fed up with the assumption that in order to have a good society you have to have religion.

Non-religious people are fed up with all the talk about the emptiness, the barrenness and lack of meaning in "secular society". It may surprise religious people to learn that our lives are not empty. Some people might need to believe in an afterlife in order to find meaning in this one; others don't. Some might need to believe in a creator in order to be awed by the majesty of nature; others don't. Some might believe in something higher than themselves and call it God; others believe in something higher than themselves and call it humanity or nature. It makes no difference to how morally they behave. Everything good in religion can be had without religion.

I don't need to talk about the harm religion does: read the books. But the fact is that the most peaceful, prosperous and healthy countries in the world, as judged by the UN's annual Human Development Reports, are the least religious. These are countries - Australia is one of them - in which religion is not banned or suppressed, but it is also not promoted by the state.

That is why Labor leader Kevin Rudd's comments about the need for religious thinking to be brought into political decision-making should be viewed with dismay. Rudd is, of course, entitled to his beliefs, but it would have been more responsible, when asked about his religion, to insist that it is a private matter. Even John Howard does not wear his religion on his sleeve the way Rudd does. Howard is religious only in the way most conservatives are religious.

Rudd is popular now - a pretty, clever drover's dog would be popular right now - but in the longer term he is at risk of alienating progressives. He has already given us a hint of the direction of his beliefs in his opposition to therapeutic cloning for stem cell research, apparently counting the rights of three-day-old human embryos more important than the rights of children with cancer. The majority of Australians support therapeutic cloning.

Religion is not a reliable guide to morals. It would be better, as the former bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, argues in Godless Morality (which may be the best book on the subject), to leave God out of it and find good, human reasons for the decisions we make.