"Religion and Moral Community"

"Religion and Moral Community"

Radio National Transcripts: The Religion Report
        Wednesday, 29 July, 1998.

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 on.

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 mix.

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 come --

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 debate.

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 its involvement?

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 areas.

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 policy.

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- churchgoers.

Margaret Coffey: What is it about churchgoing that has this impact upon what obviously is value formation?

Robin 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 nominal churchgoers.

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 dangerous thing?

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 again.

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 effects.

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 circumstances.

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 cultures happen?

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 harmonious'.

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 them.

Lyn Gallacher: And this is why laughing is so important?

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 right?

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 smoking smoking?

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.

©Copyright 1998, Australian Broadcasting Corporation
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