Wednesday, June 27, 2007


Gary Bouma, Australian Soul: Religion and Spirituality in the Twenty-first Century (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Professor Gary Bouma, an ordained Anglican priest, is head of the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University. He’s one of Australia’s leading sociologists of religion, and excellently equipped to survey the Australian religious scene.

Australians are more reserved about their expression of religious commitment, writes Bouma, but religion and spiritual life in Australia are not in decline. His firm opinion is that ‘the secularity of the twenty-first century is not anti-religious or irreligious, as it was in the twentieth century.’ ‘While to many educated in the 1960s and 1970s “Australian religion” was a contradiction in terms or at best an embarrassing legacy of a forgettable past, that is not so now’. A 2005 survey found that 35% of Australians in their twenties said ‘religion was important in their lives’ compared with 21% in 1978. And while ‘in the twentieth century religion and spirituality often provided an identity and meaning for people, in the twenty-first century the core is the production and maintenance of hope.’ Another summary-statement: ‘The needs addressed by religion and spirituality are core to humanity: hope, and meaning grounded in a connection with that which is more than passing, partial and broken’ (p. 205).

The references to theoretical and research sources are authoritative, and in my view are worth the value of the book. The suggested reading, references and index at the back of the book are second-to-none. It’s all the work of a careful scholar, who is as familiar as anyone with the main sources of religious knowledge about Australians (the censuses, Christian Research Association, NCLS surveys etc.). And he’s an irenic commentator – even when describing what others might call ‘religious crazies’. (Which means – you guessed it – that he’s on the liberal end of the theological spectrum. He recommends the works of Karen Armstrong, for example).

I’d recommend that all clergy, in particular, read this book right through – even those in mainline churches who are having a hard time attracting new parishioners. (‘The formerly mainstream Protestant groups find themselves on the margins of a world they do not understand’ p. 171). Although a substantial majority of Australians continue to identify with a religious group, religious and spiritual life is becoming more diverse, and less tied to formal organizations. This book is strong on analysis, diagnosis, trends, surveys, aetiology, rather than prescription. The parish clergy I work with want to know ‘How can we in the churches harvest this growing interest in religion/ spirituality, without sacrificing our intelligence to fundamentalism, or our traditions to the latest cultural trends (eg. in music)?’ Bouma’s book doesn’t answer these questions directly, but if read carefully, my dear Watson, there are clues everywhere!

Now, some interesting facts/opinions in the ‘Did you know?’ or ‘Want to argue with this?’ categories:

‘There are now more Australian Buddhists than Baptists, more Muslims than Lutherans, more Hindus than Jews and more than twice as many Sikhs as Quakers’ (pp. 55-6)

‘In the 2001 census [there was] a dramatic rise in the number of Australians who wrote something down that related more to spirituality than to particular organized religious groups’ (p. 61)… ‘Only otiose religion is an opiate; the rest is dynamite’ (p. 197)

Between 1996 and 2001 the following Christian groups were among those suffering from numerical decline (Source: ABS census data): Brethren (down 12.28%), Churches of Christ (- 18.25%), Presbyterian/Reformed (- 5.57%), Salvation Army (- 3.67%), Uniting Church (- 6.46%). Baptists grew by 4.75%, Catholics 4.22%, Pentecostals 11.37%, ‘Other Christian’ 27.95%. [Why have the Baptists roughly kept pace with population growth but their sister denomination the Churches of Christ declined? My opinion: factor in the growth in the greater number of Baptist megachurches and ethnic congregations].

The Christian groups emanating from Britain in the 1800s – Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists etc. – ‘are moving from asking “Will our children have faith?” to “Will our faith have children? …They have effectively lost two generations and are in the process of losing a third’ (p. 67)

‘It is not acceptable to express unhappiness in a Pentecostal assembly. Sadness, grief and guilt are but momentary transitional feelings on the way to ecstasy and praise. Pentecostal forms of Christianity do not demand orthopraxy or orthodoxy so much as orthopassy’ (p. 94)

‘The primary aim of the evangelical movement is to gather people out of society and into the church, not to engage the world or to engage in attempts to shape the world from which they seek to draw people’ (p. 134)

Since the Age of Reason began ‘God was seen as the lawgiver, the source of reason… This era saw the rise of Calvinism and the Jesuits, who quintessentially expressed Christianity via reason. [Hence] the phrase “Think right thoughts and be saved; think wrong thoughts and be damned”. All of this is reflected in creeds, confessions and statements of union, which essentially demand that the believer “Toe the creedal line and you will be all right”’ (p. 166)

Disclosure: I studied with Gary Bouma towards a PhD in the early 1990s – and enjoyed the stimulation of being in academia again - but decided there were too many other competing demands for my time, and ‘demitted’.

Rowland Croucher
June 2007

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