Religion: it’s one of the most prominent aspects of society that has been practiced and carried through the centuries into modern times.
The 21st century has such immense knowledge that we’re now more aware and informed on the various types of religious beliefs today. An advantage yes, but also with its flaws.
Society has evolved so rapidly that everyone has divergent opinions on the topic. Religion is now such a delicate subject it’s possible to feel as if you’re walking on eggshells every time it’s introduced into conversation.
The 2011 national census showed that the Christian-denomination Catholicism remains the most popular religion in Australia, with 25.3 per cent of people identifying it as their faith. An estimated six per cent associate with non-Christian religions, the largest being Buddhism at 2.1 per cent and Islam at 1.7 per cent. Approximately 22.3 per cent of the population don’t identify as religious.
Despite the statistics, Australia has no official state religion. Australian governments acknowledge the various and diverse religions and encourages mutual respect as shown in the 1977 Anti-Discrimination Act, a declaration that prohibits discrimination against people due to their religious beliefs.
Whatever anyone’s religious teachings and practices may involve, it is evident in history that traditional mindsets will almost always have to adapt to new and modern ways.
A strong example of this can be seen in Australia’s journey to become a more multicultural country. The people from various eclectic nations who have come and settled here, have also brought some of their traditional customs – religion being a part of that. Foreign faiths were first rejected by the British colony due to fear of the unknown, however, as time has progressed society today has adapted, and is far more accepting of these beliefs that were once polarised.
In 2015, a topic of heated discussion is the legalisation of same-sex marriage, which brings state and church into direct conflict.
Paul Kelly wrote in the Australian, “The churches know this issue penetrates to the heart of religious freedom”, but also said, “While churches will enjoy an initial exemption from the state’s law, that exemption over time will be attacked as an anomaly.”
In simplistic terms; the religions will eventually have to adjust to what society views as a normality and to continue to exclude certain individuals based on whether they do or don’t line up with certain religious guidelines will be deemed disapproving.
This then begs the question: is it inevitable that religious practices will no longer have a place in modern society?
The Newsroom decided to tackle the topic and spoke to four experts to get their perspective: a Catholic priest, Father Doug Smith of Our Lady of Sacred Heart Church in Randwick; Dharmachari Shantideva of the Triratna Buddhist Order; Ms Elvan, a follower of the Islamic belief; and Ms JJ*, a religious studies teacher whose religious perspective remains neutral.
What makes faith necessary in today’s society?
Father Doug: “Faith is necessary to give your life meaning and purpose. We believe in God, the Trinity and that the Son of God became human. If you catch a bus, you have faith the driver is qualified to drive it – faith is part of life. There was a man named Viktor Frankl who was a German Jew in a concentration camp in WW2, he noticed that some people survived the trauma of the camps better than others, and what he realised is that they were the people that had a meaning and purpose in life which we could also say is what we find in Christianity.”
Dharmachari Shantideva: “We follow the teachings of the Buddha. We live in an extremely materialistic society where there is enormous emphasis placed on material gains that send the message ‘the more you have, the happier you’ll be’. But deep down I think we do know that true happiness comes from within, and that’s when people need something bigger than themselves to give them context because all the riches in the world won’t fill that inner void within. I’d argue faith in say (sic) a God is really not going to do it; it’s still placing the emphasis on something external to yourself. Instead, find your meaning through positive emotions, generosity, kindness, gratitude and passion. Faith that happiness comes from within.”
Ms Elvan: “If people didn’t follow a religion they would be lost because I believe that religion/faith sets guidelines. You’re thrown into a strange world and religion is your map. It sets morals and values, which define the way an individual approaches people and the world itself. I hold barriers against sinful actions, which thus save me from self-harm and harm to others. Without faith, I myself, and I believe many others, would be lost in the world with no true existence.”
Ms JJ*: “Necessity of faith is dependent on the society. In an open society, more ideas are shared and in that sharing of ideas comes new information and different experiences, which the older ideologies and structures are challenged. In a closed society, traditional forms will maintain and there will be no need to modernise to keep encouraging people to keep faithful. However, people who identify with a religion have a strong attachment and belief that provides them with a sense of belonging, connection and purpose.”
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions out there on your religion?
Father Doug: “I believe people think Catholicism has a very strict moral code and are very inflexible, but in fact what Jesus brought was that the focus should be on loving God, ourselves and our neighbour where he sets the good example. People tend to view the ten commandments and think that’s all we’re about, but in context they have come from a certain culture and we’ve grown a lot since then. They’re just guidelines for living and living in accordance to how God intended us to live like.”
Dharmachari Shantideva: “People think Buddhism is some sort of weird and wacky religion that believes in lots of Gods with lots heads and arms. Buddhism, when put into practice, is actually a very radical religion. It’s asking you to look and work on yourself and take responsibility for yourself in meditation and mindfulness. You are responsible for your own mental state, not blaming society, your parents or the government, and people who have very materialistic lifestyles will find self-reflection very confronting. Buddhism is radical, it’s difficult not easy, and more than just being kind to animals.”
Ms Elvan: “Unfortunately the biggest misconception of Islam is the stereotypical label of ‘terrorism’. Many people believe that Islam promotes violence and symbolises terrorism. As a Muslim, I can understand why, as on-going terror attacks have been carried under the name of Islam where the terrorist screams out “Allahu Akbar”. I believe the media plays a major role by choosing what to show and what to hide. But all it takes is a little research to understand the true meaning of Islam. The term “Islam” itself means “peace” and that is what the religion preaches.”
Ms JJ*: “Nations have placed into their political structures many elements from their own country’s most practiced religion. People will always at first prefer what they were raised upon when confronted with another person’s ideologies, because that is what is familiar to them. In saying that, misconception stems from what an individual interprets from what is the strongest representation to them of a certain religion, which often creates great misunderstandings and tension.”
Do you think that being religious is somewhat ‘going out of style’?
Father Doug: “I believe organised religion is going out of style in the sense that less people are going to church, but more people are becoming more spiritual and are responding to an inward thirst, which for us is God. Modernising the religion can be beneficial, but we can’t compromise on the essentials, which is what is in The Bible. It’s an up-hill battle at the present time. There’s a lot of restlessness in our world, and more people are able to get in touch with it and reflect on it with spirituality.”
Dharmachari Shantideva: “Yes and no. Society is becoming more polarised by religion. What I think is happening is that there is so much choice now today about everything compared to any others at this point in time. We buy Foxtel because we want more channel choices. Same with religion, a 100 years ago you would have been born into a religion and that would have been it, but growing up now you can be whatever you like. I think people get so confused, they either become extremists and don’t want to hear anything else, or they think it’s a load of nonsense and are disinterested. Both things are happening, very in style for some and very out by others.”
Ms Elvan: “Although it may seem like individual’s faith is decreasing day by day as society is evolving, I believe that religion will never fade. Generations have changed, but the belief has remained. There will constantly come a time where people question their existence in this world, and there they will find their answer in God.”
Ms JJ*: “Perhaps people are always surprised that it is still here, but it’s hard to ignore when we still have conflicts in the name of religion. We still have many temples, churches, mosques and synagogues and new spiritual buildings of worship. Although we believe that religion is ‘dying out’, it still seems to influence the globe in a significant manner, both in a positive way and negative.” – Xantre Macaraeg
*Name has been withheld at the interviewee’s request.
Top photo by Vishnavi Kulenthirarasa: St Michael’s Anglican Church in Surry Hills, Sydney.