Lyn Gallacher: Today's program deals with the role of
religion in a moral community.
Members of Australia's Baha'i community are distressed over the
execution in Iran this week of Mr Ruhulla Rawhani. The Baha'i community
claims that his death was an act of religious intolerance and they fear
for the safety of other Baha'is in Iran.
According to the Australian Baha'i community, 15 Baha'is are currently
in prison in Iran, and three are under the death sentence. News of Mr
Rawhani's fate was received with alarm by the spokesperson for the
Australia Baha'i community, Judy Hassall.
Judy Hassall: Well about ten months ago this Baha'i,
Mr Rawhani, was arrested with the claim that he had converted a woman, a
Muslim, to the Baha'i faith, and this was unbelievable, because the woman
confirmed she had been a Baha'i all her life. So anyway Mr Rawhani was
placed in solitary confinement, he was denied access to his family, lawyers
and the right to appeal. And it was just last week his wife was called to
the prison to come and collect his body.
Lyn Gallacher: And the Australian government has now
joined the international condemnation of Iran over this.
Judy Hassall: Yes, our Foreign Minister, Alexander
Downer, has come out with a very strongly worded statement condemning the
action and has called on the Iranian government to respect freedom of
religion under its obligations in the International Covenant on civil and
political rights. So really the momentum is now gathering world wide at
this horrific case. What came in overnight is even more disturbing, that
the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Court in Teheran has denied the very
existence of Mr Rawhani, and said that there was no execution. So is what
we're trying to deal with. Now the Australian government, let alone the
Baha'i community and other organisations, have known of the existence of Mr
Rawhani and his prison confinement for ten months.
Lyn Gallacher: So it's almost like if you're a Baha'i
you don't exist.
Judy Hassall: Exactly. There are 300,000 Baha'is living
in Iran; they have no legal rights, they are banned; 10,000 have been
dismissed from their jobs, they're banned from universities, the children
in many cases are denied education, and you know, this is continuing to go
Lyn Gallacher: And the only way you can combat this
is by international outrage.
Judy Hassall: People are really concerned about human
rights issues world wide, and it's very encouraging to see that the people
will stand up and say 'Enough is enough'. But we have to find ways to try
and eliminate these atrocities; not only Baha'is are suffering in this
area, but at this particular stage we are concerned about these cases,
that are before us. But the international pressure and concern is extremely
heartening, and this is building a momentum to try and bring some sanity
into this and to eliminate religious fanaticism and religious prejudice.
Lyn Gallacher: All right Judy, thank you very much
for talking to us.
Judy Hassall: Thank you very much.
Lyn Gallacher: Judy Hassall from the Australia Baha'i
community, showing that in Iran, religion and politics are not a pleasant
But what about in Australia? Do religious communities have a useful
contribution to make to politics in this country? Well according to the
Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference who released a statement
yesterday on tax reform, the church has got an important role to play.
They claim that the principles of morality and justice are something that
the church can bring to issues of public policy.
With some of these questions in mind, Sydney's Macquarie University
hosted a forum on politics and Christianity. Mary Louise Campbell
compiled this report.
Parliamentary Prayers: Almighty God, we humbly
beseech thee to vouchsafe thy blessing upon this parliament; direct and
prosper our deliberations to the advancement of thy glory and the true
welfare of the people of Australia.
Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, they kingdom
Tony Abbott: It used to be said
that the Church of England in Britain was the Tory party at prayer. I
think there's a risk that some of the church spokespeople today look like
the Labor party in sociological seminar.
Mary Louise Campbell: Federal Liberal MP, the honourable
Tony Abbott, reflecting on a provocative, if not predictable attitude that
governments have taken to churches and their political involvement on issues
such as Wik and the GST.
In recent months there have been numerous occasions where churches have
entered the political arena to speak out on matters of public and moral
concern. In an article recently published in the Weekend Australian, Tony
Abbott argues the church should primarily stick to what it knows: religion.
Tony Abbott: I'm not saying the churches don't have a
lot to offer public life, I'm not saying that at all, I'm saying they need
to be very careful about taking a position which can easily be described
as a partisan political position. Churches are perfectly entitled, and
indeed obliged, to speak out forcefully on questions of values and ethics.
Where they have problems is when they look like they are just echoing the
political line of one party or another.
Mary Louise Campbell: Can you give me some examples of
where the church has taken a partisan position?
Tony Abbott: Well I think for instance it's perfectly
acceptable for a Catholic Archbishop to say that he thinks the Victorian
government, for instance, is basing too much of its economic strategy on
gambling, because gambling is an ethical question and the church is
perfectly entitled to express an ethical position. Where I think we get
into difficulties is where church people wearing their religious hats start
talking about, for instance, the morality or otherwise of a goods and
services tax, where they start talking about the ethics or otherwise of
the siting of a second Sydney airport at Badgery's Creek. These are
technical questions, they're managerial questions, they're not really
moral or ethical questions in any profound sense at all. And I think this
is where churches need to tread very carefully.
Mary Louise Campbell: This issue was further explored
at a recent conference at Macquarie University. Dermot Dorgan from the
Australian Catholic Social Justice Council takes a view from the community
sector, recognising the church has indeed a wide ranging role in political
Dermot Dorgan: The church should enter the political
arena I think, because the political arena is one of the places where
issues are dealt with that affect matters about which the church believes
it has an area of expertise, and that is, areas that have to do with the
dignity of human individuals.
Mary Louise Campbell: Are there any boundaries to
Dermot Dorgan: I think that there are boundaries. I
think that there are some areas perhaps technical areas, where the church
perhaps would be inappropriate to become involved. But most of the areas
that government deals with really, relate to human beings and their needs
and their aspirations, and I think that the church has every right to be
involved, and has principles and values that need to be respected in those
Mary Louise Campbell: How then should the churches
inject themselves into political debate?
Dermot Dorgan: I think that depends a bit on the
different debates. I think it's obviously important for the church to
remain outside party political debates; I think it's not proper for a
church to endorse a particular political party for instance, and I think
that the church will then use all the ways in which any other community
organisation in a democratic society uses to influence the development of
Mary Louise Campbell: The views of Dermot Dorgan were
surprisingly to many, broadly supported by Federal Liberal MP, Dr Brendan
Nelson, who did not take the same line as his colleague, Tony Abbott.
Brendan Nelson: Well churches remind us of our best
religious traditions which are all about values and moral conscience, and
I think increasingly in contemporary political life, there is a need to
relate decisions that are made by governments to a set of principles that
underwrite those governments and their political parties, but also
principles upon which we want our nation to be based. Churches and their
religious traditions remind us perhaps of where in our best selves who we
need to be, and where we need to go. Whilst we don't want churches to be
party political cheerleaders, we certainly want them to remind us always
that there are principles beneath decisions.
I also think that there is a need for churches to play a role in
developing strategic vision for our country. What sort of nation do we
want to become? What are the principles and values upon which we want it
to be based? And what is the strategic policy framework within which
governments, business, industry, churches and community organisations put
policy together? It's not a question of saying governments should support
a particular policy move or that churches ought to oppose something else,
but continually to see that Australians understand the principles that
lie beneath a policy debate, that the arguments both for and against a
particular policy are put honestly and in a form that is understandable.
And I also think that it's time that governments in Australia had as much
enthusiasm for talking to those such as churches who are involved in ethics,
philosophy and issues of moral conscience as we do people like Mr Bill
Gates and those in industry and all sorts of other parts of the economy
who are important, but I think there's just as important a need to talk
to those who perhaps have an ethical relationship to life.
Mary Louise Campbell: Dr Brendan Nelson.
Dermot Dorgan is often faced with the question on whose behalf do church
leaders speak, because it is commonly raised by those opposed to church
participation in political debate. Recently ministers in the Federal
government have argued bishops speak for themselves as an elite, whilst
alienating their congregations. I asked him what he thought.
Dermot Dorgan: I think that there's always a need in
the church for processes of education to be going on. And I think that if
you find an area where, particularly I'm talking about the areas relating
to social justice, for example. There's always a need for churches and
church organisations to educate their congregations and their membership
on the social dimensions of Christian involvement, if you like, because
that's an area that we're inclined to forget; we often tend to privatise
our religion and say it is a matter between me and God, and it's not,
there's quite clearly a public dimension as well.
Mary Louise Campbell: The division comes down to the
extent to which churches involve themselves in political debate; whether
they should confine themselves to areas that largely impinge on personal
morals and ethics, or take a wider view, that things like ethics must
involve issues such as economics, which affects the whole of society.
Tony Abbott: If we're talking about the efficiency
or the relative efficiency of various taxes, the church has no particular
expertise, and where the church has no particular expertise, it would
probably be best advised not to tread.
Dermot Dorgan: I think you do need an organisation
that's prepared to make decisions that are based on moral principles
rather than on principles that relate to international politics or
international economics or whatever.
Lyn Gallacher: Dermot Dorgan and Tony Abbott reflecting
on the continuing debate of whether churches should become involved in
politics. And that report was by Mary Louise Campbell.
Professor Robin Gill, sociologist and Professor of Modern Theology at
the University of Kent, is researching the relationship between church
attendance and values formation. His study, based on British social
attitudes data, was prompted by the idea that people's attitudes are
formed in moral communities, and that religious communities may have their
own distinctive set of ethics.
Margaret Coffey spoke to Robin Gill during his recent Melbourne visit.
Robin Gill: Well I started this research without
actually knowing whether churchgoers did differ in values and behaviour
from other people. There was a great deal of literature suggesting they
don't, or if they do, that they differ in rather harmful ways, that
they're more prejudiced than other people, they're more anti-Semitic than
other people, and they're more patriarchal than other people. So I wanted
to know whether those things were true or whether there was another story
to be told.
I approached this huge body of data from British Social Attitudes
Service and found really that that is a caricature of churchgoers.
Churchgoers I think are more interesting than I thought they were going
to be. To give you a quick example: there's evidence that somebody who
goes to church every week is some four times more likely to be involved
in voluntary work in the community at large than somebody who says they
never go to church or they've got no religion at all.
Margaret Coffey: Nevertheless it still leaves a
substantial number of people in the community who do voluntary work and
who don't go to church at all, or go perhaps very rarely.
Robin Gill: Yes, these are relative, not absolute
differences. When you actually look at voluntary workers in the community,
about half of them do go to church on a fairly regular basis, but of course
half don't. So it's not to say that it's only churchgoers who are involved
in voluntary work in the community, or that all churchgoers are involved
in voluntary work in the community. None of those things are true, it's
just that many more churchgoers are involved proportionately than non-
Margaret Coffey: What is it about churchgoing that
has this impact upon what obviously is value formation?
Gill: Well I think churchgoing is a sort of culture that in it,
we pray, we have hymns, we have sermons, there is a level of concern for
other people in the stories from the New Testament, the stories about
Jesus, which does seem to, long-term, have an effect upon those who hear
them regularly. I didn't know when I began the analysis whether it would
be true, but it does seem to be true.
Margaret Coffey: You made an interesting point about
Robin Gill: One of the misleading pieces of evidence
we've had for a long time is that churchgoers are said to be more racist,
more anti-Semitic than non-churchgoers. We've become a little bit more
sophisticated with the data now, and what really appears to be the case is
it isn't actually regular churchgoers who are anti-Semitic or racist, or
even religiously prejudiced, it tends to be those people who say they are
Christians, but actually don't go to church, or go to church very seldom.
There's a long-evidence to suggest that this is the case.
Margaret Coffey: A little bit of worship is a
Robin Gill: Well in some cases no worship at all. I
think one of the problems is people who identify themselves with a religion
but almost never go to it, by definition not formed by that worship, and
not formed by any of the changes that take place in that worship.
Margaret Coffey: I was interested also in the point
you made about childhood churchgoing experiences and the longevity of that
impact, even if the child is a grown up, never sets foot in a church ever
Robin Gill: Yes, I'm able to distinguish sometimes, not
very often, but sometimes, between two different groups of non-churchgoers.
People who don't go to church as adults; one group went to church as children,
and the other group didn't. Their beliefs are quite different from each
other. The level of Christian belief among those who went as children but
don't go as adults is about twice as high as that of people who don't go to
church now and never did as children.
Margaret Coffey: Now of course you conducted this survey
in the context of Britain, which has a fairly small churchgoing population
as it is, and a fairly small proportion of people who describe themselves
as believers. What are the implications of your conclusions?
Robin Gill: Well I think if one's analysis is correct
and that churchgoing makes a difference to people's lives, and it's also
correct that the less people go to church then the difference it makes must
be disappearing slowly from British society, and this will have long-term
Let's take the caring point, that again and again what I found is that
people who go to church are more caring in their attitudes and more
concerned about other people and less concerned about themselves. Now, if
long-term churchgoing is actually disappearing in Britain, and it does
seem to be declining, (it's going to take quite a long time to disappear
altogether, but it does seem to be declining,) then what we are likely to
see in the future, unless something else takes its place, is that people
will become less caring, people will be less concerned about other
people and more self-centred.
Margaret Coffey: Another element of course is the
fact that very many people in our society perhaps compared proportionately
to British society, belong to other religions. You haven't canvassed that,
you talk specifically about the formative experience of Christian religious
worship. Here we have Buddhists amongst us, Muslims and so on, who don't
have that same kind of worship experience as part of their communal
experience. How about value formation there?
Robin Gill: We don't have a lot of evidence in Britain
about this. There's only about 5% or 6% of the population after all, and
it's quite difficult to pick that up in national surveys. It does seem that
they have just as much influence. For example, if you compare Muslims in
Britain with black Pentecostals, their beliefs are actually very similar to
each other at the value level.
Lyn Gallacher: Professor Robin Gill, whose research will
be published in November.
Given the cohabitation of conservative politics and conservative religion,
it may be that some of Australia's moral communities have lost touch with
the evolving Christian tradition that they claim to be part of. It's as if
they haven't changed, and the church has.
To speculate on this from an Aboriginal point of view, I'm joined now
by Boori Pryor and Meme McDonald, who've just written a book called 'Maybe
Tomorrow'. It's a book that's basically Boori's life story and it begins
with an account of how four members of his family died in tragic
Boori and Meme, thanks for joining us. Boori, can you start by telling
us about these deaths.
Boori Pryor: Well my brother,
Mitch, who hung himself in 1982; my brother Paul who hung himself in 1988;
my sister about three years ago, hung herself, then a nephew two years ago
was killed in a car chase by police. He was 13. So you know, having talked
about those tragedies, it's not about feeling sorry, it's about explaining
why these events came about I suppose, and I like to look at it as being a
survivor rather than a victim, and I think that that's the most important
thing. It's actually to express these things so that people will have more
understanding and in turn, it's made me understand more about myself too.
Lyn Gallacher: I'll just ask you a question now,
Meme: when you were writing this book, what did you learn about racism?
Did you begin to understand how these terrible misunderstandings between
Meme McDonald: Obviously the whole process of writing
this book with Boori was a huge privilege and huge honour, to see into a
world that there is a lot of misconceptions about. And really one of the
main misconceptions I myself had, was that I thought I would be feeling
terribly sad and depressed by the situation because we do know I think
generally how much suffering or some degree of the suffering of Aboriginal
people. But what really struck me up there was how much I laughed. I spent
a lot of my time with Boori's family, laughing, and this amazing sense of
humour that exists even in the most daunting circumstances. And I think
that's something that we wanted to bring through in the book.
Boori Pryor: Just in the last four months, I've had
something like about 40 or 50 letters, maybe 60 even, maybe more letters
from all over Australia, from people who've read the book.
Meme McDonald: These letters are very much from the
heart. They're people that are really saying, 'This is what we've been
waiting to hear; we've been waiting to hear something positive and something
that we can do to make the relations between our people in this country more
Lyn Gallacher: And do you think that part of that is
because of the current political climate?
Boori Pryor: Yes, I think so.
Meme McDonald: As we see the rise of sort of the old
racist stereotypes in parliament and so on.
Lyn Gallacher: Are you a bit of an antidote?
Boori Pryor: I think so. I think that my approach is
not to deal with anger by being angry, because all you actually do then
is become a black version of the thing you don't like, and you wouldn't
like to be like. And because they are not happy within themselves, they
don't like to see you happy. So they want you to be on the same level as
Lyn Gallacher: And this is why laughing is so
Boori Pryor: Yes. There's one teacher who said
there's lots of laughter in learning. That's the way it works, and it's
much better for you too, because then the pressure isn't always on you,
because you can relax and be yourself a bit more.
Lyn Gallacher: And you can defuse all that anger,
and all that terrible sadness.
Boori Pryor: Yes.
Meme McDonald: I think that's one of the great strengths of
Boori's approach to life, and it seems very common amongst his family and
his people, and maybe that is the strength of this culture that has
survived so long.
Lyn Gallacher: The laughter.
Meme McDonald: The laughter, but also really allowing other
people to arrive at their own conclusions. I mean it seems to me that no-
one tells you not to climb Uluru, even though it's quite general knowledge
that the Aboriginal people of that area find that not the appropriate thing
to do. But perhaps if it was our culture we'd be having signs up everywhere
'Do Not Climb This Rock', whereas I think generally, Aboriginal culture is
a lot more generous in allowing people to arrive at their conclusions, and
if they don't get there, then they miss it, if you know what I mean.
Lyn Gallacher: Probably white culture has missed a lot
in terms of particularly Aboriginal spirituality.
Boori Pryor: Yes, it's up to you as who you are, to
leave yourself open you see. You can't sit there and wait for things to
come to you, you have to let yourself be generous to yourself and let
yourself be open, then things will come. And as I say in the book, you
always only ever get what you need, very rarely you get what you want.
That's how I've been brought up, and I think that that's what everybody
has to deal with, just to be gentle with themselves and leave themselves
open, and lots of things will come their way. And that's what I found through
the letters I've been getting, as people have been saying that now they're
able to actually relax and let themselves open and cry and that's what I
think has been the problem: that we've all been in pain and we've been shut
away so we can't see each other hurting, and I think that that's what I
suppose generates in the book. A lot of that is, you know you're able to
feel sad, you're able to feel happy, you're able to feel angry, and that
means that you can deal with all those emotions. And being shoved away and
hidden behind, 'It's not our fault, we didn't do it, and it was a long time
ago', you know all those things, then those other things are going to say.
So unless you deal with those things, then you're not going to go forward.
Lyn Gallacher: Interestingly enough, historically, one
of the institutions that hasn't helped us deal with our feelings is the
church. But you do have an interesting relationship to the church. You
said that your mother says it both destroyed and protected you, is that
Boori Pryor: Yes. My Mum and Dad are the people that
work within the structure of the church. As I say in the book, I'm not a
churchy kind of person, but I respect whatever anybody has, and I try my
best to understand by respecting, and that helps me do that. And it's done
a lot of good from what I've seen in the '70s I suppose, because we've had
lots of great people work with us from the church, and I think that's been
a turnaround, that in the community they're not preaching to us, they're
working with us.
Meme McDonald: I found that really interesting, that
issue, and I asked Mrs Pryor because I found it very confusing, how she
and her husband could be so strong in their Aboriginal traditions and
also very strong in the church. Boori's father as he said, being a Deacon.
And she found it then to be no confusion, as we've quoted in the book,
she said Aboriginal people are very spiritual people and they will find
that spirituality wherever it is expressed. And in her words, 'if that
happens to be within the Christian church in this land, then so be it.'
But it's the spirituality that they are seeking out rather than a
definition of one religion as opposed to another. And I think that is the
exciting thing in their area at the moment, where the church is taking in
a lot of the Aboriginal traditions of smoking and the ways of burial and
various traditions are coming together.
Lyn Gallacher: Just define smoking, you don't mean
Boori Pryor: No, smoking to clear the air of bad
spirits, you know, like if something bad has happened or someone has
died the old people come in and smoke the place, and sing their songs,
and then that will clear the air for other good things to come in.
Meme McDonald: The first time I saw this happen was at a
funeral of one of Boori's aunties, and it was such an amazing experience
to see elders doing traditional dance, and this smoking ceremony within
the Catholic church.
Lyn Gallacher: And that's a good thing that the
Catholic church is embracing more Aboriginal - you don't feel that that's
an abuse? They're not appropriating?
Boori Pryor: I think I look at it more that I see
them embracing each other rather than one side doing and the other one
watching. I think that we're finally working together.
Lyn Gallacher: And if the church can do it, so can
the rest of society?
Boori Pryor: I think so, yes.
Lyn Gallacher: Boori and Meme, thank you very much
for coming in.
Boori Pryor: Thank you, thank you very much. Bye bye.
Lyn Gallacher: Boori Pryor and Meme McDonald, whose
book is called "Maybe Tomorrow" (Penguin, 1998).
And that's all we've got time for today. Thanks to John Diamond for
Technical Production. I'm Lyn Gallacher and John Cleary will be back in
the chair next week.
The Religion Report is broadcast every Wednesday at
8.30am and 8.30pm on Radio National, the Australian Broadcasting
Corporation's national radio network of ideas.