RELIGION IN AUSTRALIA
Like most countries in the western world the practice of religion in Australia is an entitlement under law and many Australians practice a variety of different faiths throughout the country. Although a new society by much of the world?s standard, Australia has the oldest continuous belief system known to mankind that can claim a heritage that dates back 60 000 years. That is the religion of the country?s original inhabitants, who have maintained a belief in the ?dreamtime? throughout their long and compelling history on the continent. But the religion that has most dominion over the Australian soul is Christianity and Australia has roughly equal numbers of Catholics and Protestants, along with Eastern Orthodox churches, Copts, and other Christian minorities. Technically speaking, Catholicism is the largest denomination, but there are more Australian?s practicing Protestantism. Judaism is also a prominent religion in Australia and there has been a Jewish presence in Australia for as long as there has been a Christian one, with many urban Jews being transported to the Australian colonies with their Christian neighbors. Even Islam (that is seen by most Australians as a late comer to the country?s religious scene) dates back to the 1850?s when camel trains were used to open up the interior and there is compelling evidence to suggest that Muslim traders from South East Asia could have been in contact with North Australian Aboriginal families during the late Middle Ages. Confucianism also has a colonial history. Chinese miners brought their beliefs to the ?Great South Land of the Holy Spirit? when they were seeking gold in Bendigo and Ballarat, until they fell afoul of the Anglo-Celtic majority who accused them of illegal and culturally inappropriate work practices. This lead to a campaign throughout the late 19th century (sometimes violent) to ban Asian people from entering the country, but many Chinese, Japanese (pearl divers on Australia?s north west frontier), and Malay trading communities survived this downturn in their fortunes. Today, these communities are looked upon favorably as a source of tourism and evidence of Australia?s multicultural history.
But, Australia became truly religiously diverse in the last 60 years with the influx of six million migrants from around the world who were escaping troubles in their homeland to make a new life in the country. Refugees from South East Asia (primarily Vietnam) brought Buddhism, and Sikh?s from India brought their faith, starting communities throughout the country with the largest of these being on the northern coastline of New South Wales. While other people brought from their home country local variations of their faith and now practice these religious beliefs and customs in this country the way they were forbidden too in their own. Australia is truly a religiously diverse country that caters for many people and their beliefs, philosophies, and cultural codes in relative harmony (when judged up against other countries).
Nowadays it is possible to find believers in the world?s major religions in almost any suburb in the country and it is common for many Australians to see temples, mosques and other places of worship in the neighborhood where they live. It is also common to come across a variety of newer spiritual movements in Australia, with many Aussies adopting a more convenience store mentality when it comes to spirituality. Not necessarily opting for the faiths they were born into, but choosing a synthesis of eastern and western religious practices and anything else that ?wets their whistle? spiritually speaking. Whether this new approach to spirituality has the same community building ability as its predecessors remains to be seen, but it does fit with the postmodernist mentality of placing importance into and onto those things which the individual finds important. And Australia has followed the rest of the western world and Europe in particular in doing this.
Roughly two thirds of Australian?s claim a nominal adherence to Christianity and the largest non Christian group in the country is Buddhism, not Islam as many Australian?s believe. There are a half million Buddhists throughout the country (and between 230 and 500 million worldwide) and many Australian?s have converted to the faith since the end of the Vietnam War. While one fifth of all Australian?s claim no faith at all, preferring to be called, agnostics, atheists, non-religious, or humanist and rationalist or simply be referred to as a non-believer.
Although Australian?s do have a reputation for being sacrilegious and irreverent, Australia has a sectarian history that is old as European civilization in Australia itself and dominated social life for 150 years. This is one of those areas in Australian history where the reality of Australia and the ?myth of Australia? are at odds with each other. The myth emphasizes the sacrilegious nature of Australians (particularly Australian men) while the reality of Australian history paints a picture of a deeply sectarian and religiously observant society. Australia at one point was a battle ground for two of the country?s major religious groups. Catholics and Protestants struggled against each other trying to implement their own vision on the new country. It was during ?World War One? that the tensions between Protestants and Catholics came to ahead when the debate over military conscription (many Protestant?s supported conscription many Catholic?s did not). Australia had lost many of its young men at this time on the battle fields of France and many in the country begun to wonder if it was worth all the sacrifice. Also the Catholic communities had a strong Irish component and were supporters of republicans and nationalists in that country who were trying to create their own state free of British control. This lead to riots in the streets of many of Australia?s capitals, although the Protestants were in a position of cultural ascendency at this time, it was the Catholics and their allies that one the conscription debate. It was common for much of Australia?s history for Catholics and Protestants to shop at their own stores and give their own people preferential treatment in the search for work. This continued for most of the 20th century until an influx of non Anglo-Celtic migrants made Australia home. It can be argued that that Australia?s sectarian problems were solved by this group of new arrivals because it gave Aussie?s someone else to be worried about. Although in time this would be resolved as well. It can also be argued that each major religious and/or cultural group that makes its home in Australia suffers the same period of uncertainty until Australian?s work out whether they like them or not. Italians and Greeks were the great ?others? in the 60?s and 70?s, while Asians lived through the hysteria of the 90?s when every Asian person was suspected of being a drug dealer of some sort. Now it is the Islamic communities throughout the country that are being judged and are the object of suspicion, fear, and hatred. But Aussies eventually get over it and new religious groups are accepted into the community and in time are viewed as part of the multicultural mainstream. This seems to be the Australian way. Australians always struggle in their initial acceptance of others but eventually come around and find something else to be concerned about whether it is economics, international issues, whaling, soil depletion in the Murray-Darling basin or whatever. The simple fact, that problems are often resolved when it turns out that new people in the country simply want to get on with the matters of living and raising family and not undermine the culture for their own ends wins out and in time are seen as just like us (whatever that means).
This brings us to a look at some of the religious groups that are in Australia. Each one is given roughly a paragraph and is not exhaustive by any stretch of the imagination. So if you want to develop a more informed opinion on religion in Australia then you are going to have to do the research yourself (ha ha sucker). Australian libraries that are administered by all three tiers of government in Australia are a good place to start and you will find what you need from these fine institutions. Also, the web and your AA Education Agent could help point you in the right direction.
Although Christianity is Australia?s largest and most diverse faith with at least 64% of the population having a nominal adherence to at least some of its theology and teaching, Buddhism is the second largest faith in the community and has a good reputation with most Australians as being peace loving and law abiding. Australian Buddhist?s tend to come from South East Asia originally, escaping that region when the nationalist movements in those countries eventually wrestled control from domineering Western powers and set up communist states that disavowed the practice of religion, regardless of whether it was a local variant or a faith with its history rooted in the west. Also many Australian Buddhists settled in the country at the height of the ?counterculture? movement when young middle-class baby-boomers were re-examining their own cultural traditions and finding them wanting of that little bit more that they felt that they needed. This openness to Buddhism helped Australian Buddhists ease into Australian society and led to the generally positive view of Buddhists by most other Australians.
Islam, on the other hand has met with a certain level of fear and hostility due to issues in and outside of the Australian culture. The jury is still out on whether Australians will accept Muslim people in the country and view them as part of the larger Australian community. But there is reason to believe that with continued communication between Australian Muslims and the rest of the community this rift should be mended. Islam came out of the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century and was based on the revelations of the Prophet Muhammad that he allegedly had during his life. Islam is on the one hand quite a simple belief system, centered on the ?Five Pillars? and on the other hand, quite complex, having many different theological and philosophical schools that have interpreted the Hadith and the Koran differently. There are two (major) types of Islam, the Sunnis (the majority of Muslims) and the Shiites who live in and around Iran primarily. There are also many mystical groups in Islam like the ?Dervishes? that were the focus of Oriental studies in the 19th century and these studies are the basis of much of what West assumes to be Islamic, and in this may be the Western world?s seeming inability to understand the Islamic world and what some Muslims are cranky about. Historically, Islam and Christianity have had a long tradition of mutual antagonism and this lays the foundation for much of the present mistrust between the two groups. Although many Muslims and Christians are nominal in their adherence at best, only going to the church or mosque when a relative dies or gets married. The Fundamentalists of both of these faiths have viewed their present problems in a cosmic light and see the conflict that has erupted between Christians and Muslims in this world as being a microcosm of a larger battle that is fought in the ?spiritual realm?. And for that reason can be quite unrealistic and very difficult to deal with on a reasonable level. Although modern issues about the present poor political position of much of the Islamic world is just as much of a cause as anything else. But, many Australian Muslims have shown a desire to engage with the rest of the Australian community and this should be applauded.
Judaism is the oldest and most respected of the non-Christian faith groups in Australia, and there has always been a Jewish presence in Australia. Australia?s first governor-general was a Jewish man (Sir Isaac Isaacs) and the country?s military leader in the First World War was also a Jew. Jewish people have made a lasting contribution to business, academia, and art in Australia. They have always been people who have worked well with others in the community, and the only time when some Jewish people came into conflict with other Australians was when they supported Germany and her allies during World War 1 (not that they could not disagree with other Australians in a country that claims to be a democracy and therefore should be respectful of minority opinions even if they disagree). Apart from that, Jewish people have always been a positive influence in Australia. Australia does not have much of a history of anti-Semitism and this led to a significant wave of Jewish migration after the Second World War, and now Australia has the largest population of post holocaust Jews outside of Israel.
Judaism dates back 5000 years to the bronze-age and is credited with being one of the building blocks of western civilization. The influence of Judaism and Hebraica on the West is incalculable. If Greece represents the psyche of the West, then Judaism is the soul and/or spirit. Christianity and Islam get much of their inspiration from Jewish sources. Judaism in its most basic sense is a set of rules and is highly ethical with a shadowy understanding of the afterlife where God is viewed as the God of the living and not of the dead, and it is ?better to live like a dog than die like a lion?. Of all of the three great monotheisms, Judaism is the most materialistic and views life in the present as being a reward in and of itself. Most Australian?s probably have little association with most Jewish people although they are generally viewed positively. Even present issues surrounding politics in the Middle East and the state of Israel do not cause to much tension for Jews and other Middle Easterners living in Australia, who are overwhelmingly respecting the laws and institutions of the Commonwealth.
Sikh?s are a relatively new group to Australia, although they have come to the attention of the rest of the community because of their building projects on the northern coast of New South Wales and their distinctive style of dress. The building of Sikh temples and the growth of Sikh communities around these places of worship has lead to the development of a local tourist industry that has many people coming from other parts of the country to ?seek? wisdom from the Sikhs. Like Christianity , Buddhism, and Islam, Sikhism also has a revered figure who is the inspiration of their faith, that is centered around the idea of social justice for all people regardless of whether they are believers in Sikhism or not. Many Sikhs began migrating to Australia in the 70?s and now you can find Sikh men and their distinctive headwear in all capital cities of the country. There are Sikh communities in all of Australia?s capital cities. But, because of that distinct (often a dark blue) head dress worn by Sikhs and the fact that Aussies aren?t very good at being racists, many Sikhs have been confused for being Muslim and have become the focus of an anti-Islamic backlash in some of the major urban areas of Australia. This has lead to attacks on international students in Melbourne and Sydney in particular, and even tension with Lebanese people who have attacked Sikhs as well. Many Hindu students from India as well have also had to deal with negative stereotyping by some Australians and this has led to increased division between Indian and Australian individuals who have acted out of their ignorance and stupidity.
During the last ten years, Australia has had some difficult issues to resolve in relation to ?tolerance? of other people. Even people who are seemingly similar to what Australian people are used too and view as appropriate. The Islamic, Sikh and Indian communities have felt the butt of negative Australian stereotyping. And Australia has had to deal with serious negative stereotyping itself from media outlets from around the world (primarily India). But in spite of these problems, Australia remains one of the most socially cohesive societies in the world where it is possible to meet good people of all faiths and non-faiths who have a commitment to the development of Australia as a religiously tolerant country. Australia remains one of the most successful multicultural societies in the world that has brought six million people into the country in the last 70 years with a high degree deftness. Australia remains an excellent destination for people who want to experience the best of the planet in a country that is renowned for being safe and tolerant of other people and their cultures, although from time to time the country shows its dark side, but this will also be resolved in Australia by increased self awareness, cross cultural communication and education.