Every five years the Australian government hosts a census. One of the important features of this census is that it asks people about their religion. Realistically, this question is not an inquiry into our personal belief system (as if the government actually cares for the nuances of our answers). How often can we even articulate to ourselves what we believe on any given topic? Instead, what this question cares about is the allocation of our country’s funds. The result of these answers affects funding to hospitals, schools, aged-care facilities and other important social institutions.

Every census there are people engaged in vigorous and evangelical campaigns to get people to tick the “no religion” box, targeting especially lapsed or cultural Catholics. The logic usually runs something like this: “most people are only culturally Catholic anyway, so stop lying to yourself and let our country know the truth; that way the Catholic Church will also have less social influence.” There is a tiny nugget of truth here: if people are only culturally religious and don’t hold to those beliefs on a personal level, they should take the time to think deeply about what they want to believe and why. Everyone should engage in an active process of trying to live more authentically (whatever that means).

Here’s the thing, though. This question on the census is not just about us as individuals. The government doesn’t really care what we believe or where we are at in our journey of faith. Not to be too blunt about it, but the only thing it cares about is where to put the money. When answering the question of religion, then, it’s really important to take a wider, more social view of the question in order to answer it well, because more people will be affected than we imagine. An important thing to think about in this regard is the heritage that Christianity has given us and what it might mean, practically, to throw it away.

This is about our heritage

What kind of heritage is the “Western” heritage? Interestingly, this is something the historian Tom Holland changed his mind about. As a young boy, Holland found himself fascinated with the ancient worlds of Rome and Greece and Babylon and Persia, mighty empires that captured the imagination in the same way the dinosaurs did – by being glamorous and larger-than-life and, also, extinct. As he immersed himself in the history of these ancient cultures, however, something shocking occurred to him: his morals did not align at all with the morals of these people. The things they would count as par-for-the-course – things such as the treatment of women, slavery, infanticide, gladiatorial battles, the general brutality of life – Holland found repulsive. In the end, he came to the conclusion that his ethics ‘were not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.’

The result of this realisation was an excellent book called Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (2019). His thesis is simple: Christianity acted somewhat like dynamite in the ancient world, so radically transforming it that many of the moral and ethical values we hold today can be traced back to that original revolution in thought, a revolution that disturbingly proclaimed a crucified Messiah, a God who was the victim of human violence. The fact that today we hold justice to be a central principle of our society, and even have an obsessive concern for the “victim” – when ancient empires routinely created victims and held them up as demonstrations of their own power – is evidence enough that so much of where we are today has come from the Christian revolution. The fact that we care about the poor at all, about the “least of these”, should speak volumes.

We might be tempted to think that Australia is different, that we have a largely secular (or “non-religious”) heritage. People have tried to argue this point – unconvincingly. Historian Stephen Chavura, in a fascinating interview with former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson, spoke about the way in which the term “secular” was understood by eighteenth and nineteenth century Australians. Searching archives throughout Australia and England, with two other fellow historians, Chavura made the incredible discovery that for pretty much everyone in the colonial period, even leading up into the twentieth century, the word “secular” meant basically “Christian”. It wasn’t a matter of keeping religion out of schools and politics, but a “secular education” was thought to include general Christian teachings and even regular readings from the Bible, so long as there was no denominational discrimination. “Secular” essentially referred to a non-divisive, non-sectarian approach to Christianity. This is a far cry from how we tend to understand the word today.

What this means is that Christianity – its teachings and moral principles – have been hugely influential in the formation of Australian society and its institutions. It’s pretty safe to bet that without Christianity, both Australia and the rest of the world would be in a much worse place than it is today. This is an important thing to think about when it comes to the census. The results of the census affect our social institutions. To see the continued rise of the “nones” (no religion) is also to see the gradual erosion of the very institutions that have built this country: religious schools, hospitals, and nowadays aged-care facilities. As they begin to disappear, we will have less opportunity and ability to really give help to those who need it. To preserve Christian institutions is not to preserve something abstract: it is to preserve institutions that are doing more good than any of us can know. It is to preserve institutions that care for the people often overlooked by the rest of society.

Faith is a journey

On a final, more reflective note: it’s important to recognise that faith is a journey. Wherever you are, whatever your thoughts about the Catholic Church as an institution, don’t close the book on it just yet. The Church rarely lives up to the ideals she puts forth. With Joan of Arc and Mary Mackillop as just two examples, it’s plain to see that the Church frequently excommunicates and burns even her own saints. Jesus was crucified by his own people, too. The tension between the Church as an institution and the people desperately trying to live out the faith is very real and sometimes deadly.

But it’s okay not to have everything together. It’s okay to question, to be uncomfortable, to not agree one-hundred per cent with everything the Church teaches right now. There’s no need to throw away your heritage because of these struggles. Struggles are part of the journey. Even God came down to personally wrestle with Jacob, who was then renamed Israel, which means ‘to wrestle with the Lord’ (Genesis 32:22-31). This is the heart of Israelite spirituality: wrestling with God. It’s the heart of ours, too. Sometimes all we can do is wrestle and say, with Jacob: ‘I won’t let you go until you bless me.’ Sometimes all we can do is wrestle and hold on and that’s fine. It doesn’t mean you’re not living authentically; if anything you’re living more honestly than if you refuse to acknowledge the problem.

But faith – and faith institutions – has been such an integral part of our society. The question we really need to consider when answering the question of religion is whether or not we want to see them continue to do the good work they’ve been doing – genuinely helping people – or whether we want to contribute to their decline and eventual erasure. Do we think that the Christian revolution, with its concern for the poor and the sick and the ones who are easily cast aside, has been a net loss or a net gain? And what would we like it to keep being?