Remember when the census was all about the Australian Bureau of Statistics collecting important statistical data? It’s a while now, since in recent years the national inventory has been weaponised by born-again atheists in their battle with believers. Or, rather, with believers of the Christian faith.
Agnostics have no belief one way or the other as to whether there is a deity. Most atheists keep their views about religion to themselves.
Then there are a few militant atheists who – like the religious preachers of old – want to convert believers to their cause.
Writing in the Nine newspapers last Sunday, Caitlin Fitzsimmons reported that the Rationalist Society, Humanists Australia, the Atheists Foundation of Australia and some other organisations have kicked in $50,000 between them to the Census 21: Not Religious? Mark No Religion campaign.
Now there are a lot of wealthy atheists in the land and $50K is not a lot of money to contribute to a cause. However, it seems to have done the trick in this instance.
Nine newspapers on Sunday carried a report of the Census 21 campaign – complete with a photo of ex-Anglican Alison Sharp preaching her secular sermon outside a church, no less. Note that the photo shoot was not undertaken outside, say, a mosque.
In theory, the Rationalist Society and others want to increase the number of Australians who declare no religion in response to question 23, which asks: “What is the person’s religion?”
The category “no religion” comes first – followed by Catholic, Anglican (Church of England), Uniting Church, Islam, Buddhism, Presbyterian, Hinduism, Greek Orthodox, Baptist or Other (please specify). Note there is no specific reference to Judaism – despite the fact Jews have been practising their religion in Australia since 1788.
Before the 2016 census, the likes of the Rationalist Society campaigned unsuccessfully to have the “no religion” category first in the list.
However, five years later, its supporters are still not happy.
On Saturday, musician Tim Minchin put out the following tweet: “Aussies! If you are not particularly religious, please tick #NoReligion when you fill out #Census21. Vid explains why I think it matters. Xxx @Humanists_Aus.”
This was accompanied by an at-times inarticulate video that began “excitingly, I just want to say something about the census”.
In his evident excitement, Minchin claimed the way the question on religion was paraphrased “it inclines people to tick a, you know, choose a religion kind of based on their cultural affinity or on their parents’ faith or grandparents”.
This suggests Minchin believes that his fellow Australians are so stupid as to be unable to answer a simple question without his sometimes inarticulate advice.
Minchin’s (verbal) secular epistle concluded: “So if you’re not particularly religious yourself, tick no religion on the census and encourage your friends to do so, so that we don’t end up in a situation where our currently very religious government gets to use the census to justify religious privilege in their policy and funding decisions. Peace.”
If Minchin really wants peace he could go back to his composer’s desk and leave the verbal battles to others. In any event, what is the evidence that the Coalition government is “very religious”?
One-time ABC identity and author Adam Spencer weighed in with this instruction: “If you are born into but don’t believe, if you don’t regularly go to worship, if you don’t believe in an interventionist God, if you are only ‘culturally’ connected to a religion, mark ‘No Religion’ on the census.”
It’s not clear what a so-called “interventionist God” has got to do with anything. You can believe in a faith without expecting that a divinity will intervene in the world.
But Spencer’s own non-divine intervention is yet another example of a member of the intelligentsia believing their morality is superior to everyone else’s morality and taking it upon themselves to tell those they regard as lesser mortals what to do.
A specific, if unacknowledged, target of the Census 21 campaign is those who mark the census box “Catholic”.
In part this is a manifestation of anti-Catholic sectarianism, which has been prevalent, to a greater or lesser extent, in Australian society since European settlement. And, in part, it’s a case of atheists attempting to take advantage of the fact there are many of what are called lapsed Catholics or cultural Catholics in Australia – as there are in many Western nations.
In recent days Nine newspapers have published a column by Monica Dux, the author of Lapsed: Losing Your Religion is Harder Than It Looks … (HarperCollins/ABC Books). The heading in both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age referred specifically to Catholics in relation to the Census 21 campaign.
Dux began her piece by complaining about a family friend who went to a Catholic school in the 1940s and soon abandoned the faith of her fathers and mothers. But she baptised her children and sent them to Catholic schools. According to Dux, this is a matter of shame.
For her part, Dux told the ABC Radio National Soul Search program last Sunday that she junked Catholicism at around age 16.
It’s not at all clear whether anyone really cares about the spiritual life, or lack thereof, of Dux. But she, too, is lecturing others and telling them to “think about whether to baptise your children or send them to a Catholic school”.
And Dux reckons that cultural Catholics are hypocrites if they do not mark their census form “no religion”.
In his address to The Sydney Institute in 2012, the agnostic Lord Bragg (nee Melvyn Bragg) reminded the audience that the likes of Isaac Newton and William Shakespeare believed in the teachings of the Bible and the New Testament.
Florence Nightingale was a committed Christian. And Malcolm Muggeridge remarked that during his time in India he had seen many a leprosy clinic set up by Christian churches but never one established by the Rationalist Society.
If Australians want to identify with such beliefs and traditions as those above, they would be well advised to dismiss the secular teachings of today’s preachers in atheist clothing.