How we find meaning, with or without religion
Hugh Mackay, Pan Macmillan, 2016
According to the 2012 census 61 percent of Australians identified themselves as ‘Christian’. However, in practice only 15 percent attend church once a month or more (p. 7). Hugh Mackay’s book Beyond Belief is written for that missing 46 percent. That is, almost half the Australian population who relate to the Christian faith in some way, yet are “doubters, sceptics, heretics, agnostics and religious fringe dwellers.” (p. 2) The goal of Beyond Belief is to provide spiritual encouragement and direction for those who no longer wish to receive such instruction from the church.
This conflicted and rapidly changing attitude to spirituality is a fascinating aspect of Australia society that deserves greater attention and research.
Unfortunately, Mackay’s book is undermined by a lack of detail, pop-culture theology and a fundamentally flawed process.
I consistently found myself frustrated at the lack of data on display throughout Beyond Belief. What proportion of these ‘Christian agnostics’ come from Protestant backgrounds? What proportion from Catholic families? How does commitment to the tenets of faith vary between country towns and the inner-city; the old and the young? And what of those who remain committed to exclusive truth claims if, as claimed, they stretch credulity to breaking point.
For instance, Mackay acknowledges the growth in Pentecostal churches but writes it off as being as much about the ‘bandwagon’ effect of their communities as specific beliefs (p. 7). Really? Could it not be that explicit Pentecostal doctrine is driving their growth and thereby creating vibrant communities?
Mackay frequently quotes from respondents to his research, which helps make a human connection to those who identify as SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious). However, he does not give any space to laying out his research methods or extent, so the end result is the book feels anecdotal and partial.
Mackay admits upfront that his book is unlikely to appeal to either committed Christians or atheists and he certainly makes good on that promise. His analysis of Jesus’ teaching manages to present him as a secular humanist whose goal was to dismantle the stuffy institutional religion of his day. His reading of the Sermon on the Mount is particularly galling. I don’t mind him creating a secular spirituality based on pop-psychology but would he mind not using Jesus to endorse it?
He clearly esteems Christian ethics, especially Jesus’ ‘Golden Rule’ but wants to provide a spiritual option for those who find the Christian worldview unreasonable when it accommodates miracles a resurrection and a virgin birth. He therefore discards the Bible’s truth claims in favour of myth as a means for reinterpreting the Christian faith in a way that is acceptable to modern sensibilities.
However, even though Mackay acknowledges it, he ignores the fact that abandoning the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection for a mythical interpretation undercuts the ethical framework of Christianity entirely. (p. 216) After chopping down the apple tree Mackay’s conclusion is to tell us to go on making cider, because it’s delicious and refreshing and he likes it a lot and other people like it too.
Beyond Belief is also undone by its fundamentally flawed process. Mackay surveys the opinions of the non-churchgoing ‘believers’ and attempts to combine them with teachings of spiritual gurus (such as Jesus) into a quasi religion-for-all based on faith in something (anything) and communal compassion.
But how will people have faith in something greater than themselves if the basis of this movement is their own experiences and preferences. And how will anyone adopt a genuinely selfless attitude if it is driven by the recognition that my welfare is bound up in yours and we are all one?
I fear that the conclusion that love is enough will prove to be empty or unattainable for those who adopt Mackay’s way forward.
Nevertheless, Mackay’s research is important. He gives a voice to people who have abandoned organized religion but still experience deep yearning for spiritual fulfilment.
The chapter ‘Anyone for church?’ cuts close to the bone as Mackay articulates the reasons for Australians lack of church-going. Institutional abuses, the treatment of women and a judgmental and exclusionary church culture are all highlighted as prima-facie reasons why we must explore a new spiritual path. Churches must come to grips with this new cultural landscape and Mackay’s book presents these attitudes in a clear and compelling way.
In a roundabout way, Beyond Belief reminded me again of the brilliance of God’s grace. For the Christian, genuine humility and the freedom to love others are built upon the free forgiveness offered in the historical death and resurrection of Jesus. Without such foundations they necessarily fall. Mackay offers nothing as powerful or transformative as the doctrines he discards.