I’m quite sure she won’t mind my saying so, but for all purposes, I suspect my mother is an atheist. There might be some vague inkling of ‘something more’, at least on some visceral level, but practically she expresses virtually no belief in the supernatural. Until recently, however, she quite enjoyed going to church with my stepfather.
Like many, she enjoyed the social aspects of singing hymns, warm handshakes and sincere platitudes. When it came to the ghost stories and tales of ancient magic, she was comfortable enjoying them as culturally relevant fiction.
There were also aspects of the church gathering she abhorred, such as the bigotry and cliquish coteries of hypocrites. In the end there were more reasons to stay at home than to venture out on a Sunday morning, and today she is one of the many millions of non-church attending Australians who will agonise over whether to tick ‘no religion’ on the upcoming census. Raised with the conjoined twins of virtue – Christian and Australian – it’s difficult to admit to being one and not the other. Not out of a belief in (or fear of) a ruling metaphysical entity, but out of a sense of social belonging. ‘Christian’ identified her familial values.
In time, there’s a good chance we’ll see this relationship change. An increasing number of people continue to hold values of neighbourly respect and an altruistic sense of charity without them being affiliated with a religion. ‘Christian’ is rapidly failing at being shorthand for ‘good’. But for now, there are still many ‘religious’ people in Australia who have little vested interest in the supernatural.
Another influential, highly intelligent woman in my life was cut from the same cloth. No doubt, my mother took many influences from her own maternal role model. In her final years, my grandmother was a Christian agnostic with tendencies to being atheist when discussion dared to dig deep enough. Miracles didn’t matter, nor did the divinity of a human-born saviour.
Now, those on both sides of the theistic divide can argue she wasn’t a ‘true’ Christian. But with the box ticked on a census form, such debates of logic are irrelevant. Statistically, that was what she subscribed to.
Conversely I also know of a good many ‘non-religious’ citizens who are secure in their belief in a supernatural creator. Whether deistic, inchoate, pantheistic or merely ‘spiritual’, an absence of canon and community inclines them to avoid religious labels while still believing in less materialistic systems of universal governance.
I have no data on either of these demographics. However, it’s enough to make me question how to use figures that describe a percentage of Australians as ‘non-religious’. There is currently a campaign being waged by Australian Atheists encouraging people to consider their religious affiliations in depth before ticking the ‘religion’ box. I think it’s a good suggestion, yet have an uneasy feeling that more will be read into any potential increase in ‘non-religious’ numbers than statistics will provide reason for.
Perhaps one day we can hope to have an ‘atheist’ box to tick on the census paper. Until then, I’m not entirely sure what to make of such census figures other than ‘non-religious’ simply means ‘other’.