Ethical Issues

Climate Change and the Human Spirit

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

Environmental problems, such as pollution and global warming, are seen as the greatest threat to the future of the world, according to young people surveyed in Australia, United Kingdom and Thailand. At the popular level, awareness of environmental issues has grown and there is widespread awareness that this threat is the most critical ever faced by human beings. It was also a major topic at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, held in Melbourne in December 2090. It was noted that climate change and environmental pollution have their roots in the human spirit, and will not be solved simply by new technology or by spending a lot of money. The problem must also be addressed by the world’s religions as a spiritual concern.

The Search Institute Survey, run in several countries in 2008, asked young people what were the two greatest threats to the future of the world. While some of these differences reflected local situations, others did not. Near the top of the list of threats to the future for Australians was extreme hunger and poverty. It was also high on the United Kingdom list, but was close to the bottom of the list for Thailand. The gap between rich and poor was high on the United Kingdom list, but close to the bottom for Australia and Thailand. The lack of jobs and economic opportunities was high for young Thais, but the very bottom of the list for young people in Australia and the United Kingdom.

There was close agreement, however, on the major threats. Most commonly seen as the major threat in each of the three countries were environmental problems such as pollution and global warming. The second or third item was religious and ethnic hatred, violence and war.

The problem of global warming, which humanity is currently facing, is a new problem, a problem which has developed in the last 200 years as a result of the Industrial Revolution. It can be conceived as a sudden reversal of millions of years of natural sequestration of carbon. When the major religious traditions were formed, the possibility that human beings could have an impact so great that it threatened the whole planet could scarcely have been imagined.

How do we begin to address the problem? A range of possibilities was suggested at the Parliament. Several people argued that we must recognise pollution as a sin. We must become aware of the ecological burdens involved in what we do: in the foods we eat, the travel we are involved in, and the waste we create. Several people mentioned the contribution that vegetarianism can make to climate change and a sustainable world.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 20, No. 1, Pages 1-5

Attitudes to Issues of Sexuality

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

In revising the materials for the 3rd edition of Australia’s Religious Communities CD-Rom, we discovered some interesting patterns in the changing attitudes to issues of sexuality amongst Australians. As might be expected, Australian adults have become more accepting of pre-material sex and homosexuality. However, in relation to extra-marital sex, Australians have become less accepting. This suggests that while Australians usually move into a de facto relationship before marriage, they take faithfulness in marriage very seriously.

In the last twenty years, community attitudes have changed substantially. Church attenders tend to have different views from non-church attenders, but their attitudes have also changed. Attitudes vary from one denomination to another, not necessarily in line with the positions and debates of their denominations.

It has become common for couples to live together before marriage, and most Australians accept this. In the Australian version of the International Social Survey in 1993, 59 per cent of Australian adults said that pre-marital sex was not wrong at all. In the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (2009), 68 per cent of the sample of the Australian population said that sexual relations before marriage were not wrong at all.

This is an issue in which the attitudes of Christians and especially of those who attend church frequently are quite different from those of others in the population. Of those who attended church monthly or more often, 51 per cent said that pre-marital sex was almost or always wrong. In 2009, that figure had risen slightly to 54 per cent. Attitudes have become more conservative particularly among younger church attenders.

The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (2009) asked about attitudes to sexual relations with someone other than one’s spouse. Less than 1 per cent of Australians thought it was not wrong at all and 91 per cent said it was always or almost always wrong. Six per cent said it was wrong sometimes and just under 3 per cent said they could not choose.

Australians were quite divided about sexual relations between two adults of the same sex. According to the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (2009), 42 per cent of adult Australians considered that it is not wrong at all, while 39 per cent of Australians felt that it was always or almost always wrong. Another 9 per cent of Australians felt that it is sometimes wrong. Eleven per cent did not know what to think.

In 1993, 82 per cent of those who attended church monthly or more often felt that homosexual practices were always or almost always wrong. In 2009, that figure had reduced to 73 per cent of those attending church monthly or more often. While, overall, church attenders have become a little less opposed to homosexuality, there remains a substantial difference between their attitudes and the attitudes of those who rarely or never attend church.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 20, No. 4, Pages 13-16

Attitudes to Abortion and Approaches to Ethical Issues

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

Sixty per cent of Australians believe that abortion is acceptable in most circumstances. Many others say that it is acceptable in some circumstances, such as if there is a serious defect in the baby. Some Australians say that abortion is not acceptable under any circumstances. According to the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (2009), 7.5 per cent of Australians say that abortion is always wrong when there is a defect in the baby, and an additional 7.3 per cent say it is almost always wrong. This article explores Australian attitudes and the different approaches to ethics that underlie these attitudes.

While 14.8 per cent of Australians consider that an abortion is always or almost always wrong even if there is a defect in the baby, another 15.5 per cent of Australians consider that it is wrong sometimes, perhaps depending on the seriousness of the defect. Another 60 per cent of Australians say that it is not wrong at all in such circumstances

Attitudes to abortion are related to people’s views of human life. Those who consider that life begins at conception and that it is sacred, or of great worth, irrespective of its quality, will consider the termination of the life of an unborn baby as unacceptable. Such views of the sacredness of human life are most common among people who identify with a religion. Among those who identified themselves with a Christian denomination in the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, 23 per cent said that abortion was always or almost always wrong, even if there was a defect in the baby.

While many Australians have never thought through the specific issues related to abortion, their views are influenced by the ways they think about moral issues in general. Two-thirds of Australians (67%) indicated that they looked for moral guidance primarily in the consequences of actions. However, there were a variety of ways in which they looked at the consequences.

Younger people tend to look more to the consequences of actions than to authorities for ethical guidance. Excluding those who did not respond, 64 per of those over 60 years of age said they looked to the consequences, compared with 79 per cent of those under 30 years of age. Overall, there was no difference between males and females in the extent to which they turned to authority or to the consequences of actions, even though there were some small differences in the details of their ethical approach.

For most Australian adults, ethical guidance is found in looking at the consequences. These consequences are often unclear: hence, the variety of opinions. Nevertheless, in relation to abortion, many people make their decisions according to what they perceive the consequences might be.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 22, No. 1, Pages 17-20

Belief in God: Is the ‘New Atheism’ Influencing Australians?

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

The ‘New Atheists’ was a term coined in 2006 to describe three atheists who were writing popular books promoting atheism: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett (Blackford 2012). Certainly, Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, sold many copies in Australia as well as overseas. Atheists have started mass advertising campaigns to promote their views. But are they having much impact?

The idea of God has certainly become contentious in contemporary Australia. In 1949, there was little disagreement: a Gallup Poll reported that 95 per cent of Australians believed in God. Today, Australians hold a variety of views. The 2009 Survey of Australian Attitudes conducted by the Australian National University among 1718 adult Australians found that just under half the population (47%) believed in God. Among that 47 per cent, there was considerable variation in the levels of confidence. Just 25 per cent of the Australian population said they had no doubts that God exists. The remaining 22 per cent were somewhat tentative in their belief. Some said they had doubts, but generally believed. Others said they believed some of the time but not at others.

For every person who had moved from not believing to believing in God, four Australians had moved in the opposite direction.

There are some significant patterns in belief across the population. As shown in Figure 1, many more older people than younger people believed in God. Among those aged over 80, nearly half believes in God and have no doubts. Among those people in their 60s and 70s, it was close to one-third of the population. Among those aged 31 to 60, it was approximately one-quarter of the population. Among those aged under 30, only 14 per cent said they believed in God without doubts.

There was also considerable difference in the levels of belief in God in different occupational groups (Figure 5). The lowest levels of belief were found among professionals. Low levels of belief were also apparent among technicians and those in trades and machine operators and labourers. Higher levels of belief were found among managers, those involved in community and personal service, sales and clerical and administrative work.

Have the ‘New Atheists’ been a significant part of the story of change in belief in God? There are several reasons to believe they have not had much impact. The first is that there has been a relatively even decline in belief since 1993, well before they began their campaigns. The only piece of evidence which might suggest that the decline has become more rapid in recent years has been the sharp decline in belief in God among young people.

For many people, trust in science has also contributed to the decline in belief in God. Religion and science do not necessarily conflict. Many scientists believe in God. On the other hand, science does paint a rather different picture of the world than does religion. The fact that some people reject the general picture of evolution, for example, in the name of religion contributes to the sense that there is a conflict between religion and science.

A bigger issue for most Australians is whether one needs to believe in God: whether God can make a difference to one’s life.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 22, No. 1, Pages 1-7

Sexual Abuse by Clergy and Other Church Workers

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

In discussion regarding the sexual abuse of children by clergy and other employees of churches, it has been common to refer to the perpetrators as ‘criminals’ who have infiltrated the institutions. The import of this language has been to put the full blame for the abuses on the individuals. It has also encouraged a perspective which sees the solution to removing sexual abuse as better selection of clergy and others who work with children and greater vigilence in reviewing their behaviour. In relation to the sexual abuse of children by clergy and other church workers, it is appropriate to ask whether there are any factors in church systems which have, in some way, contributed to the abuse, allowed it to occur, or contributed to the abuse being covered up.

One recent book to draw attention to such factors within the Australian Catholic Church is by Geoffrey Robinson, a retired bishop who has been involved in the issues of sexual abuse for a period of 18 years. Bishop Robinson draws attention to a range of factors in the Catholic Church which he believes have contributed to the abuse.

Robinson argues that the most critical factor lies at the very heart of the faith: the understanding of and relationship with God. He says that the structure of the church with a pope who is concerned about conformity means that the angry god is never far away, despite the many beautiful statements about God’s love and the many examples of people who have reflected that in their lives.

Robinson further elaborates what this means for the nature of morality. The moral teaching, says Robinson, has contributed to the distorted moral thinking among many sexual offenders. In particular, the church’s teaching about sexual morality has emphasised sins against God rather than focussing on relationships. Because of that, mortal sins against God have been considered much more seriously than a sin committed against a minor. The consequences for the minor were not taken into account, and sins against minors were easily forgiven. Robinson says that this attitude contributed to the practice of moving offenders from one parish to another in the name of Christian forgiveness.

Robinson’s other major concerns have to do with the maleness of the church, obligatory clerical celibacy, the clericalism which was expressed in developing a mystique of priesthood, and the lack of professionalism among clergy. He argues that the male domination of the church has led to many distortions and has contributed to a church culture which has found interior reflection, relating with intimacy, and humanising tenderness increasingly difficult.

A scholarly attempt to look at institutional factors in the Catholic Church which have contributed to sexual abuse is that of Marie Keenan, Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power and Organizational Culture. The book, published in 2012, focuses on the problem in Ireland.Keenan argues that celibacy itself is not the issue. Rather it is the Catholic sexual ethic and theology of priesthood which ‘problematizes’ the body and erotic sexual desire and emphasises chastity and purity over a relational ethic for living.

Keenan, like Robinson, believes that there needs to be deep reflection on the moral teaching of the church, particularly around sexuality. There also needs to be a re-examination of the male domination of the church’s structures and the understanding of priesthood and celibacy. More research needs to consider the factors that have contributed to abuse in various situations. Simply seeing the problem as the consequence of criminal behaviour of a few individuals will not ensure that abuse will not occur in the future.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 23, No. 3, Pages 9-13

Immigrant Ministers of Religion

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

Among the recent immigrants to Australia are 1,362 classified as ministers of religion. Of these, 1,242 were Christian, 22 were Buddhist, 32 were Hindu, 11 were Muslims, 25 were Jews, 19 were of other religions, and 11 described themselves as having no religion or as not stating their religion (possibly secular celebrants). It has become common in a number of denominations to seek ministers of religion or priests from overseas in order to supplement the dwindling number of clergy available in Australia.

The total number of people whose occupation was described as minister or priest counted by the 2011 Census was 15,700. The 1,362 recent immigrants constitute a significant addition to religious personnel in Australia, constituting 8 per cent of all ministers and priests. On the one hand, these immigrant clergy can bring a richness to these situations from their very different experiences in other places. On the other hand, there are many anecdotal accounts of miscommunication, sometimes due to accent, sometimes due to confusion of culture, and sometimes due to the minister’s lack of familiarity with English.

The Catholic Diocese Maitland-Newcastle has conducted an initial review of its Overseas Priest program. This review involved interviews with a number of priests and a cross-sectional survey of the perceptions and experiences of parishioners. Most of the overseas priests in this Diocese had come from India.

Overseas priests themselves were struck by some of the differences from their home dioceses, particularly the small congregations and the very few young people present. On the other hand, they noted that they had benefited from engaging with priests from a different culture. They had also appreciated the level of professionalism learnt and the trust placed in them by the other priests and the parishioners (Report, p.10).

The team also felt that the whole community, through theological reflection, dialogue and discernment, should be involved in discussing the expected long-term positive and negative consequences of dependence on overseas priests. Such reflection and discussion should address the underlying problems including the shortage of priests and declining Mass attendance (p.23).

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 22, No. 4, Pages 8-10

The Impact of Recent Immigration on Religious Groups in Australia

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

Since World War II, immigration has played a huge role in the development of religious faith in Australia. That role has been most evident in the place that many of the world’s religions now have in Australia. Since 1971, the number of Australians associated with a religion other than Christianity has risen from just 0.1 million to 1.5 million. However, many millions of the immigrants have been Christian and some denominations would hardly exist today without the enormous influx of members that immigration has brought. The 2011 Census shows that the story of immigration and its impact on the religious life of Australia is a continuing one.

Analysis shows that the proportion of immigrants in each denomination is closely associated with the rate of growth of the denomination (see Hughes 2012). The religious groups which grew most rapidly over the past 10 years have been those groups with the highest proportion of immigrants. Immigration is the major source of growth in most religious groups, both Christian and others. There is only one exception to this: the growth in the numbers describing themselves as ‘no religion’. Most of the growth in this group is occurring among Australians born of Australian parents.

Most of the remaining growth in the population is the result of more births than deaths occurring in Australia. Hence, it would appear that no Christian denomination is keeping up with normal population growth among the Australian-born population. While recent immigration has made a huge difference to many of the other religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, these other religions have also been growing rapidly through births within Australia. Many immigrant families have children soon after they arrive. Hence, migrants not only boost numbers from overseas but also have an impact on the numbers of children in Australian communities. It is interesting to note that between 2001 and 2011, 23,000 more women than men migrated to Australia.

Between 2001 and 2011, immigrants arrived in Australia from all over the world. The Census counted more than 250 countries as their places of birth. However, just four countries provided 43 per cent of Australia’s migrants between 2001 and 2011: India, England, China, and New Zealand. An additional two countries, South Africa and the Philippines, brought that total to more than 50 per cent of all immigrants. Immigrants from Sri Lanka, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan are highlighted in the media because of the issue of ‘boat people’. Yet these people are a very small part of the flow of recent immigrants. Together they constitute just 5 per cent of the immigrants who came to Australia between 2001 and 2011.

Assumptions are often made about the religion of immigrants based on the major religions in the country of birth. For example, since 85 per cent of all Indians are Hindu, one might expect most Indian immigrants to be Hindu. However, only 54 per cent of Indians who have migrated to Australia recently have been Hindu.

Churches need to ensure that they are equipped and ready to welcome immigrants. As the immigrant patterns change, so there is a need to adjust languages and other facilities to cater for the new groups at both denominational and local level.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 22, No. 4, Pages 1-8

The Persistence of Religion: What the Census Tells Us

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

When the 2011 Australian Census figures were first released on 21st June 2012, the percentage of Australians ticking the ‘no religion’ box made headlines. Newsreporters noted how Australia had become more secular. On talk-back radio, people either celebrated or lamented the increased numbers of atheists in Australia. However, the real story of the Census is somewhat different: it is a story of the persistence of religion. Between 1971 and 2011, the population of Australia has grown from around 13 million to more than 21 million people. At the same time, the number of Christians identifying with a Christian denomination has grown from 11 to 13 million.

The newspapers reported that the proportion of people describing themselves as having ‘no religion’ had increased to its highest level in recent Australian history. As a proportion of the population, between 2006 and 2011, they grew from 18.7 per cent to 22.3 per cent of the population. However, most of that increase was not due to people ‘dropping out’ of the Christian faith. Much of the increase was due to people who had previously not responded to the question ticking the ‘no religion’ box.

Buddhism remains the largest of the other religions in Australia with a total of 529,000 people. Islam is the next largest with 476,000. Hinduism is the third largest other religion in Australia and has been the fastest growing religion over the last decade. In ten years, the numbers of Hindus has increased by almost 200 per cent. With around 276,000 Hindus in Australia, they are now considerably larger than the Pentecostals! Sikhs were quite a small group in the population in 2001, with just 17,000. In 2011, more than 70,000 identified themselves as Sikhs, making them more numerous than those identifying with The Salvation Army.

There are many reasons why people tick the ‘no religion’ box. We can investigate these by looking at other surveys. At the heart of it, people saying they have ‘no religion’ are people who do not wish to identify with a particular religious group or denomination. It does not mean that these people are ‘atheists’ or that they are ‘secular’.

There is a growing proportion of Australians who describe themselves as having ‘no religion’, who within the next five years are likely to make up about one-quarter of the population.However, the numbers of people describing themselves as having ‘no religion’ does not draw a picture of atheism or secularity, but rather the rejection of religious identification and, in many cases, arises out of rejection of religious institutions.Other religions continue to grow, largely because of immigration and because many recent immigrants are now having their families here.The imminent demise of religion has been very much exaggerated.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 22, No. 3, Pages 1-5


Global Trends in the Changing Context of Mission: Reflections on the 6th Lausanne Researchers Conference, Sao Paulo

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Early in April 2011 about 40 church and mission researchers met in the 6th Lausanne Researchers Conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Among those who joined us were ten Brazilian church leaders and researchers. As with previous conferences, it was a good opportunity to share our own research and to find out what others were doing in various parts of the globe.

As the ‘Global South’ becomes the centre of the Christian faith, the economic power supported by huge populations in China, India and Brazil, increasingly drives the global economy. The political situation is in flux in many parts of the world, most vividly in North Africa and the Middle East. There are also changes in the basic assumptions people are making about life, community, and faith, particularly in the Western world. In many ways, the mission patterns of the past have become irrelevant.

Most of the world’s large cities are now highly multicultural. This was evident in Sao Paulo itself where approximately 6 million people are of Italian descent, 3 million of Portuguese descent, 1.7 million of African descent and 1 million of Arabic background. Sao Paulo is also said to be the largest Japanese city outside of Japan with 665,000 people of Japanese descent.

Benita Hewitt (2011) of Christian Research (UK) spoke of the diversity among Evangelical Christians in the United Kingdom, a group often treated by the media as highly homogeneous. The study involved surveys of 17,000 people who attended Christian festivals throughout the United Kingdom. The survey confirmed some expectations: that evangelicals prayed more frequently, had stronger views on right and wrong, and placed more emphasis on evangelism and on the authority of the Bible than non-evangelicals. However, the survey also found that there were many areas in which there was not a strong consensus, such as on the issues of abortion, assisted suicide and homosexuality. It also found that there were widely differing views among evangelicals of women in leadership and the compatibility of evolution and the Christian faith. There was a lot of uncertainty about hell. The study noted that the African evangelicals who have become a significant sector of evangelicalism in the UK were significantly different in some respects from other evangelicals.

In some countries, the decline in religion is partially offset by an increase in spirituality. Many young people see themselves as spiritual, rather than religious. In 19 out of the 40 countries surveyed in the ISSP, more young people than older people saw themselves as spiritual. In the other 21 countries, more older people than younger people saw themselves as spiritual (fig.2 ) It seems likely that ‘spirituality’ means different things in different countries.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 21, No. 2, Pages 1-5

Postmodern Forms of Religion in Asian Islam

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Over the past 50 years, Western forms of religiosity and spirituality have changed markedly. The individualism and consumerism of the post-traditional age have had great influence on the way that religion is expressed. As illustrated in the article on megachurches in this edition of
Pointers, Pentecostal and charismatic megachurch growth has arisen in an age of ‘free market’ religion in which individuals have sought for that expression of faith which best suits their needs, rather than being attached to a denomination that is part of their heritage and a church which serves the local area. This has encouraged many churches to become ‘seeker sensitive’ in the ways they present their services. While the focus of research on change has occurred in Western countries, and in relation to Christianity, there have been some similar movements in Asia. At the International Society for the Sociology of Religion conference held in Turku, Finland in June 2013, the University of Western Sydney researcher, Prof Julia Howell pointed to growing new expressions of Islam in Indonesia.

In the last ten years, two new expressions of Islam have grown in influence in Indonesia: mass prayer rallies and television presentations of Islam. Both of these are led by charismatic leaders, appealing to mass audiences, and while they are focussed on strengthening commitment to Islam they attempt to be somewhat ‘seeker-sensitive’ in their approach. In strengthening commitment, Prof Howell argues that both seek to create intense personal experiences of faith, often using music and prayer, in a way which is reminiscent of Pentecostal revival meetings. Prof Howell suggests that, while they increase awareness of and levels of commitment to the worldwide fellowship of Muslims, they ‘problematise’ religious belonging, forcing people to make choices about their levels of involvement.

However, in post-modernity, the experience of being close to God has become much more important than the law and the exact form of belief.
Such experiences are mediated by prayers and singing which have become very important in both these forms of Islamic revivalism as well as in the Pentecostal and charismatic forms of the Christian faith. The people who are best able to mediate such experiences are not scholars and religious experts.

While there are parallels, there are also differences which arise out of a very different context. The Islamic preacher can safely assume all his listeners are Muslims, and therefore the focus can be on enhancing commitment to Islam. In the West, the popular preacher must grapple with a pluralistic environment in which many have little commitment to any religious faith.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 23, No. 4, Pages 15-16