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When the last Census was held nearly five
years ago, respected author and social
researcher Hugh Mackay was astounded
to learn that more than 60 per cent of
Australians identified themselves as
‘Christian’ while in stark contrast less than
one in 10 said they attended weekly church
This discrepancy piqued his interest...
the general view was that religion was
declining in Australian society and yet
so many people considered themselves
Christian. What was the story?
His latest book, Beyond Belief, reveals
many personal accounts of everyday
Australians about their faith and reasons
why they do not actively worship. It also
uncovers a growing trend of people who,
despite ticking the ‘Christian’ box, describe
themselves as SBNR – Spiritual But Not
As Mackay points out, the SBNR
groundswell is not new – a 2010 survey
in the United States found 72 per cent
of Americans aged 18-29 identified as
SBNR – and is something that needs to be
addressed by the Church.
“Those 61 per cent who tick Christian
are saying that they admire or espouse
Christian values, but they are not prepared
to sign up for Christian dogma. They don’t
want to align themselves to a Christian
institution, but they do want to align
themselves with the underlining goodness
of Christian values,” he told The Southern
Cross during a visit to Adelaide as part of
his book tour.
“There is a quiet revolution going on and
the Church would be very foolish to ignore
it, because these are people with spiritual
yearnings who think the last place you
would go to nurture a spiritual life would be
the Church. So there’s a huge opportunity
for the Church to respond to that.
“These people are going to yoga classes,
meditation groups, mindfulness training
or pilgrim walks which are all designed to
heighten their sense of spiritual awareness
and enlightenment. They are coming to
very similar Christian conclusions – that we
are all connected, that living a loving life
is a better way than living a self-centred
life – so there is an enormous amount
of common ground there, it just isn’t
Mr Mackay suggested the Church would
become more attractive to SBNRs if it
invited them to come and share their
spiritual journey through less traditional
In researching his book, the 78-year-old
author said he had received a clear insight
into why people weren’t turning up to
worship in traditional churches.
“There is no mystery about why people are
saying they are Christian and not practising
– the number one reason is the Church
itself has behaved so badly and let people
down. That’s not just the appalling child
sexual abuse and extreme stories of clergy
misbehaving, but the most common thing
that ex-Churchgoers say is that it was
boring or irrelevant to them, or they felt
other people disapproved of them, or they
felt they were being asked to believe stuff
they couldn’t literally believe.
“People have been disappointed.”
Mr Mackay, who was raised in a devout
Protestant family and describes himself as
Christian, said people were sceptical and
even cynical about institutions in general –
not just the Church but the institutions of
banking, media, politics and trade unions.
In addition, those living in Western
societies had been bombarded by
“anti-Christian propaganda” which told
them their material wealth, comforts
and prosperity were the most important
contributors to their personal happiness.
“The Church has an uphill battle in a very
materialistic, competitive, individualistic
society, where the messages of the
Christian faith are kind of the opposite of
However, he believed the Church could
turn it around and welcome people back.
“Absolutely! One thing we know about
religion is that it’s always there at the heart
of every culture throughout history in every
ethnic group – primitive, sophisticated,
ancient, modern – there is always a set
of religious beliefs that have asserted an
enormous influence on those cultures.
“The thing that faith ultimately offers
is what people really do want... an
attachment to an idea that is bigger than
ourselves – not necessarily a supernatural
God but the idea that love is the most
powerful thing in the world or that human
beings are basically good.
“When you go back to the Parables, the
Sermon on the Mount... the distillation of
Christian values is nothing to do with what
you have to believe, it’s all to do with how
you should live.”
Beyond Belief: How we find meaning
with or without religion by Hugh Mackay
is published by Macmillan Australia.
By Lindy McNamara
What would you do without a
roof over your head this winter?
Please give today to provide a warm, safe space
for people like Tessa experiencing homelessness
in Adelaide this winter.
Call 8418 2500 or visit huttstcentre.org.au/donate
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